With Earth Day approaching, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the history of environmentalism. The movement has grown up a lot since the ‘60s and ‘70s, when it first came into major public view.
But when people think of environmentalists, they still recall the image that emerged from that time. They think of communes, peace signs and not taking showers. One word comes to mind to describe the community: hippies.
I have been faced with this preconceived notion throughout my college career as an environmental science major. I know that when I tell people my major, it does not matter what my personality or specific environmental views are. People will still consider me a hippie. This past year alone, I have been gifted with tie-dyed clothes on two separate occasions by two different people.
Equating environmentalists with hippies has changed the way both environmentalists and non-environmentalists alike view sustainability. It has limited what we believe sustainability can be.
One of the effects this view of environmentalism has caused is that wide-spread environmental efforts are based on emotion, not practicality.
Whether it is because they saw “Blackfish,” “Wall-E” or the video of the sea turtle with the plastic straw up its nose, people tend to join environmentalism from an emotional place. While this is good for getting people on board with the general idea of environmentalism, it leads to a lot of problems.
One of those problems is follow through. Most of us have at some point in our lives made a commitment to be more environmentally considerate. But it usually falls to the wayside, along with commitments to go to the gym or eat healthily.
This does not happen because people are lazy. People just overestimate their dedication to doing good when they get emotional about it. I try to make my environmentalism come from a logical place, as it is easier to be honest with the price and struggle that comes from it.
Hippie culture has also led to people valuing nature based on its spiritual aspects. If anyone has a spiritual connection to nature, I do not want to take that away from them, but it is important to recognize that not everyone has that connection.
Maybe nature has intrinsic value or emotional value, but that is not a good basis for trying to promote sustainability. From the view of society, those values do not compare to the value of human lives and economic security. I particularly dislike utilizing the emotional and rejuvenating value of nature because that value can only be obtained if you have the money and time to go into nature.
It is unnecessary to base the argument for sustainability this way. I do not have to get people to believe in the inherent value of nature because there are quantifiable, economic benefits to nature. It is difficult to quantify the value of ecosystem services, such as water purification and pollination, but most estimates of the global dollar amount put it in the trillions.
Apparently, I have to be a flower child to want those trillions of dollars to be accounted for in economic analyses.
I am tired of environmentalism being considered counterculture and extreme. A belief that persists today is that environmentalism requires radical changes socially and individually. Believing that has more often than not led people to just give up. A much healthier attitude is that sustainability requires incremental changes to account for costs that have previously been ignored.
Being an environmentalist does not mean I want to join a commune. This is mostly because it is probably not helpful. The hippies failed — it is time to move on.