In Praise of Environmentalism

By Keith Kloor | July 23, 2012 10:12 am

Environmentalism, as a social movement, has atrophied. At the national level in the United States, it’s become reflexively oppositional, a marginal political force, and subject (with good reason) to caricature. This is because it remains wedded to an outdated paradigm, as I’ve previously discussed here.

Despite its long history of anti-pollution advocacy, which has helped lead to cleaner air and water, environmentalism is a nature-centric movement. It is popularly associated with polar bears, old growth forests, ecology. Thus the impression, in many minds, that tree-hugging environmentalists put the concerns of wildlife and nature above those of humans. That is one of the biggest reasons why the movement’s constituency remains narrow.

So for environmentalism to really capture the hearts and minds of people, and to expand its demographic, what will it take?

More stories like this:

Park by park a patchwork of green spaces has been taking shape, the consequence of decades of grinding, grass-roots, community-driven efforts. For the environmentalists, educators, politicians, architects and landscape designers involved, the idea has not just been to revitalize a befouled waterway and create new public spaces. It has been to invest Bronx residents, for generations alienated from the water, in the beauty and upkeep of their local river.

Also, coalitions that bring disparate interests together, such as this one, will perhaps demonstrate that conservation and development need not be mutually exclusive. For the sake of the planet and the future of environmentalism, I hope so.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: environmentalism
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  • Joshua

    Keith –

    Environmentalism, as a social movement, has atrophied. At the national
    level in the United States, it’s become reflexively oppositional, a
    marginal political force, and subject (with good reason) to caricature.

    Perhaps you could provide some links that quantify that statement? Is it possible that you’re characterizing a diverse movement by virtue of selectively culling specific examples?

    This is because it remains wedded to an outdated paradigm, as I’ve previously discussed here.

    Similarly — here you’re describing a cause and effect relationship and I would appreciate it if you could provide some links to quantify that relationship.

    Thus the impression, in many minds, that tree-hugging environmentalists
    put the concerns of wildlife and nature above those of humans.

    Can you flesh out the “many” in that statement? Consider the Kahne study – which describes what I think is a pretty well established phenomenon. People inclined to view environmentalists in a certain way, either pro or con, will filter through new information to reinforce their starting viewpoints. You are describing here a trend that you seem to be saying lies beyond such an explanation, to describe some broad-scale change over time, attributed to specific stances (mistaken, antiquated, unrealistic) by environmentalists. Even looking beyond the possibility that such a change may not be the product of what environmentalists actually do or don’t do, but how what they do is politicized by those in opposition (think of the healthcare mandate which turned into socialism from fiscal conservatism as soon as Obama started to support it), how do you establish that reaction to environmentalism isn’t merely what we could have predicted based on preexisting social, political, and personal identifications?I remember traveling in the Northwest some 25 years ago and reading a sign that said “Save a logger, eat an owl.” I think there are forces at play here that require a more comprehensive analysis than what you’ve provided.

  • Keith Kloor


    Lucky you, I have a post coming up tomorrow or mid-week that may answer your questions. For now, you’ll have to live with my sophistry and generalizing. :)

  • Tom Fuller

    Gee Joshua, that’s Dial-a-Story! You should patent the concept. Mr. Journalist, here’s what I’d like you to write and research… for free… so I can nitpick… Here’s a thought, Joshua: Start a blog.I personally think that environmentalist groups got too big and impersonal, the way institutions do when they succeed. Fragmentation and reassembly at the community levels might revive it all.

  • Joshua

    And Keith:

    Also, coalitions that bring disparate interests together, such as this one, will perhaps demonstrate that conservation and development need not be mutually exclusive.

    Many environmentalists have been talking for a long time about collaborative environmental planning. Certainly, not all environmentalists are open to collaboration, but resistance to such initiatives certainly doesn’t come exclusively from environmentalists, and the failure to advance collaborative public planning processes (not only w/r/t environmental issues) is not a failing only on the part of environmentalists.

  • Joshua

    So……this is interesting:

    “¢ Surveys in the 1980s and 1990s found that as many as three-quarters of
    Americans considered themselves to be either active environmentalists
    or sympathetic to environmental concerns. But an ABC News polling series
    shows significant diminution in public self-identification with
    environmentalists in recent years, suggesting declining enthusiasm for
    environmentalism. On the question, “Do you consider yourself an
    environmentalist, or not?” the “nots” have overtaken the “yes”
    respondents over the last few years,

    As is this related graph: is this:

    “¢ One of the more notable findings of the annual Gallup survey is the
    large shift in opinion about whether environmental protections should
    take precedence over economic growth. As Figure 5 shows, the public has
    chosen the environment over the economy by as much as three to one over
    the last 25 years, a margin that narrowed only slightly in previous
    recessions. Over the last two years, the positions have reversed. Some
    of this shift is probably due to the severity of the current economic
    downturn, although the swing in opinion is much larger than has been
    observed in previous recessions.

    As is the related graph:’s more interesting stuff at the link; – there really isn’t much there about attribution to hang your hat on

  • Keith Kloor


    A quick point.

    I’m pretty sure that not all priests prey on young children. But does that keep us from making certain observations about the Catholic Church and its culpability?

    Please, nobody misunderstand: I’m not equating the Church’s rot with the failings of environmentalism. 

    The point being: There is terrific work being done by individual environmentalists (and environmental groups) around the world. That doesn’t change the fact that on a philosophical/fundamental level, environmentalism is rhetorically and institutionally beholden to some very flawed tenets.

    I’ve laid those out in numerous posts. Perhaps my expansion of this in the upcoming post will provide the level of substance you seek.

  • Joshua

    Keith –

    I am not saying that rhetorical and/or institutional association with flawed tenants should remain unexamined. Not at all. As someone generally supportive of environmentalism, I think that sort of examination is needed.

    But what I am saying is that it’s important to substantiate broad-scale characterizations and cause-and-effect attributions. Without substantiation, the examination loses value and starts to look like noise of a different flavor (than the usual climate debate noise). I’ll look forward to the upcoming post.

  • Keith Kloor


    I’m not writing a paper for an academic publication. I’m writing a breezy blog post with representative citations. That’s what journalists do when they quote sources in such debates. They quote people that represent points of view or lines of argument or evidence. 

  • Gaythia Weis

    I’m mostly with Joshua here.  But I’ll wait and see what comes next, and whether or not it continues to fall into the mindset of setting up a target to attack in a simplistic fashion.In the meantime, I note from having just read the article regarding the sand dune lizard, linked to above, that it is a presumably small New Mexico group, the “Wild Earth Guardians” that proposed endangered species designation.  Based on that action and their name, I’d hypothesize that this group fits into the mindset that Keith is criticizing.  And on the other hand, it is a large environmental group, that I am familiar with, that came up with the statement below.  Wouldn’t this better fuel a flip side argument that large environmental groups aren’t “tree huggers” anymore?  You could drive this to the extreme for impact and declare that they have lost sight of their roots and turned into corporatist lackeys! “Farmers, ranchers, and landowners are
    essential allies in the effort to ensure that as our nation grows, we
    still have abundant wildlife populations to enjoy,” said David Festa,
    vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund.”Give
    them the tools and incentives, like candidate conservation agreements,
    and they will provide a well-managed habitat at the scale which is
    needed today.”

  • Tom Fuller

    We see that unions can get captured by corporate interests, regulatory bodies can get captured by corporate interests–is there a reason why we would expect the cultural dynamics to be radically different for environmental groups?

  • MarkB

    First – when four out of nine comments are from the same person, you know you’re dealing with either a classic troll or an obsessive, errrr… person. Second: ” conservation and development need not be mutually exclusive…”  The story here is about conservation – or rather remediation. I see nothing about development. They’re trying to bring back a river that runs through an industrial district – that’s existing, or at least past development. Where does new development come from? How about gentrification? When you prettify the ‘environment,’ you attract the bike-riding, kayak using yuppies. And then you’ll have your ‘development.

  • Keith Kloor

    MarkB (11)

    The development/conservation remark was related to the second story I linked to at end.

    Also, I don’t agree that a burst of consecutive comments constitutes trolling.

    Gaythia (9)

    I’m pretty familiar with the environmental groups out West. Forest Guardians is a cross between Earth First and the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity (the latter of which, has played a big role in shaping environmental politics the last dozen or so years in the Southwest). 

  • Jeffn

    #9 and 10,
    If the desert lizard were “threatened” by a large solar plant, no doubt built by a corporation, would that affect the environmental movement response?

    I think after years of this sort of battle people are accustomed to reading stories about the lizard this way: a group of anti-oil activists picked a cute creature in hopes of misusing the endangered species act to attack an industry. After wasting millions of dollars, the adults prevail.
    Did you catch that the claim is the lizard was “endangered” by vibrations from trucks? Vibration pollution. Well that would be one way to close the highway system.
    And markb, you are correct

  • Jeffn

    Sorry, inadvertently cut off the end. MarkB is correct- the Bronx is said to be gentrifying.

  • Jeffn

    Sorry, inadvertently cut off the end. MarkB is correct- the Bronx is said to be gentrifying.

  • Joshua

    Well, look at that. Three successive posts from Jeffn. Welcome to trollhood, my brother!

    NiV – is MarkB one of the “we” of which you spoke?

  • Norm

    “…environmentalism is a nature-centric movement.”Too often, environmental NGOs have focused on ‘saving’ a piece of land and forgetting the people relying on that land for their survival.”In 2009, the investigative journalist Mark Dowie, now professor of journalism at University of California, Berkeley, published Conservation Refugees, which estimated, ‘About half the land selected for protection by the global conservation establishment over the past century was either occupied or regularly used by indigenous peoples. In the Americas that number is over 80 percent.’ Estimates vary from five million people displaced over the last century by conservation to tens of millions, with one Cornell University professor estimating that 14 million individuals have been displaced by conservation in Africa alone.” – Conservation in the Anthropocene

  • Fred

    Keith is dead on in his analysis of the environmental movement. While most here will disagree, I believe that its support of global warming has been a scientific and public relations dead end. It cost it credibility among the scientifically skeptical and support from those concerned about economic growth.
    The money squandered on global warming research and remediation has taken resources away from worthwhile environmental efforts.

  • Tom Scharf

    “what will it take?”

    For one, stop limiting yourself to only one side of the aisle and stop treating the other side like immoral criminals.  Useless non-productive animosity is the only by product here.  You would be amazed how many people over there religiously recycle and have bird feeders in their backyard.  

    A few sacred cows are going to need to be sent to the slaughterhouse.  Nuclear power would be a good start.

    The anti-corporate agenda (I hope we don’t need to debate this item) is a path to marginalization in America.  You don’t need to love capitalism, but you sure need to work with it if you want to be effective in your job.

    My question is, do a lot of environmentalists really care if they are effective?  Or are they in it for a perceived moral superiority / self righteous eco-gasm noble quest?   And who do the eco leaders consistently pander to?  The moderates or the extremists?  Are there moderates in the eco movement that are popular?

    And for God’s sake, stop talking about climate psychology.   

  • Matt B

    Hey KK,

    Nice story, but not everyone is happy with NYC’s brand of”environmentalism”….

    What happens upstate, stays upstate…..

  • Tom Scharf

    It should not be overlooked that environmentalism has had a lot of success, and I and everyone should congratulate it for the effective work it has accomplished with regards to air and water pollution over the last 50 years.

    You only have to take a tour of China, like I did last summer, to realize what large scale run-away rampant corrupt industrialization looks like.  It ain’t pretty.  The world as a whole would be much better off if we exported our environmental movement to China for a few decades. It is a target rich environment. They might have a bit of problem getting visas I think…

     This is really part of the problem.  The USA no longer has a lot of low hanging fruit to go fix anymore.  A victim of their own success.  Symptoms of this are selling us that CO2 is “dangerous” air pollution and lizards and beetles constitute something we should really be worrying about instead of keeping our job.  What, no furry owls left to save?

    Also in it’s heyday, environmentalism was the rebel force, fighting as an underdog against the evil empire of polluting industry.  Nowadays environmentalism has in many ways become the evil empire in many consumer minds,  big and powerful and  constantly blocking progress with nuisance lawsuits, etc.   

  • harrywr2

    #10 Tom,

    get captured by corporate interests”“is there a reason why we would
    expect the cultural dynamics to be radically different for environmental

    A friend on mine used to work for Fish and Wildlife in Washington State…the ‘Forest Products’ interests outspent State and Local Governments by a factor of 10 on ‘Fish and Wildlife’ projects.His job was counting fish…he would notice fish counts in ‘stream X’ that ran across the land of ‘Forest Products Interest’s were ‘anemic’ and ‘Forests Products Interests’  would just fix it.

    Getting a City or County Government to clean out a culvert that was blocking ‘fish flows’ took years. The issue would get noted and submitted for budgetary spending authority and then ‘not quite’ make the list for funding year after year.

    The environmental compliance officer at the ‘Forest Products Interests’ used to tease him when he would bring in his ‘fish flow’ plans because the experts at the ‘Forest Products Interests’ would look and say…’If you really wanted to fix this you need to get city X to spend $5,000 fixing culvert ‘Y’. Of course the environmental compliance officer at ‘Forest Products Interests’ had a budgetary authority in the 10’s of millions.

    It’s the same old story…robbers rob banks because that is where the money is…environmentalists that care about the environment get in bed with ‘corporate interests’ because that is where the money is.

    Environmental Groups like Environmental Defense Fund know that ‘Corporate Interests’ will actually spend more money doing ‘good things’ in an effort to avoid regulation then the direct costs of submitting to regulation…regulation doesn’t have the ‘flexibility’ that corporations prefer…I.E. avoiding killing a few fish in a Forest Products harvest might cost X …killing a few fish in a forest products harvest then enhancing the stream to support 10 times as many fish might be cheaper

  • Joshua


    “…flawed tenants…”


  • Dean

    Being a genuine movement, environmentalism is not monolithic. There are many tensions within. Between large national groups and local grassroots groups. Between groups who want to work with companies and those who don’t. Between field workers and lobbyists. Between litigators and activists. So if you throw a dart, it’s likely to hit something. But I think that it is also true that public perceptions are affected by opponents’ campaigns to identify them negatively. Some environmentalists may be their own worst enemy. But they also have plenty of genuine enemies who color the pubvlic perception for them.

  • James Evans

    “Environmentalism, as a social movement, has atrophied. At the national level in the United States, it’s become reflexively oppositional, a marginal political force, and subject (with good reason) to caricature.”Meanwhile, in the UK, it has become unopposed government policy. And quite soon the lights will start going out as a result. Which is better?


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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