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Saturday, July 21, 2012

What, Exactly, Is an “Environmentalist?”

If you ask 10 different people to define “environmentalist,” you’ll probably get 15 different definitions.  So let’s first find what might be considered a neutral, baseline definition of environmentalist by looking up the word on Merriam-Webster’s website (www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary).
Of course, the first definition was the rather obvious: “An advocate of environmentalism.”  The second definition was more helpful:  “One concerned about environmental quality especially of the human environment with respect to the control of pollution.”  By the way, the definition of environmentalism, according to Merriam-Webster, is: “advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment; especially: the movement to control pollution.”
On the surface, at least, I’d say these definitions for environmentalist and environmentalism sound reasonable and maybe even cast environmentalists in a noble light.  But does the average person, one who is not immersed in environmental politics, get a sense of that noble intent when they read or hear about environmentalists?
Jumping over to www.urbandictionary.com, we find 23 different definitions for environmentalist.  Now, if you are not familiar with Urban Dictionary, this is a website that lets users add their own definitions for any (and I mean ANY) word for phrase.  You’ll find a common word like environmentalist, or something on the cruder side like dirty sanchez, or a double entendre like clam bake.  While Urban Dictionary can be a good resource for finding the meaning of slang phrases that teens might try using amongst themselves in the presence of parents or teachers like an inside joke, there really is a lot of duplication of essentially the same alternate definitions of words and phrases.  Most likely, the redundancy inherent in the Urban Dictionary model is the result of baked college kids trying to out-do each other in posting their personalized definitions of stoner phrases or sexual positions that they themselves have never witnessed and probably never will.  But, you get the point.  The point here is that, in reading through the 23 definitions for environmentalist, only three of them are not unflattering, derogatory, or outright hostile toward the environmentalists who they are trying to define.
So, am I, personally, an environmentalist?  If it is referring to science-based environmental work that people do professionally, I think it’s best to be specific about the professionals’ specialties.  For example, I am a hydrogeologist (geologist specializing in groundwater).  Someone else might be a limnologist (someone who specializes in the ecology of lakes).  Or an ornithologist (birds).  Or an entomologist (insects).  Or an ichthyologist (fish).  Or a freshwater invertebrate biologist.  Or a wetland scientist.  In other words, when so many people in the general public have various feelings, ranging from neutral to loathsome, of “environmentalists,” why not be specific about those professionals’ qualifications to comment on a particular environmental or conservation topic?  To refer to scientist as an environmentalist gives those opposed to environmental causes the opportunity to imply or allege that a scientist's work is something other than objective, solid science – that their research was guided by an agenda rather than solid scientific method.
And what about the lay people – those folks without professional credentials but with strong feelings in favor of protecting the environment and who advocate for the environment in their spare time?  Or who have opinions about environmental issues outside of their area of vocational specialty?  And what about people who work full-time or part-time in some non-scientific capacity advocating for the environment?  In other words, what about the majority of the folks on the front lines in environmental battles?
The option that I'm tossing up for consideration is to start substituting the phrase environmental advocates in place of environmentalists.  Advocate is one of those cool words that works as both a noun and a verb.  There is not necessarily any activity implied in the word environmentalist.  The phrase environmental advocate, however, conveys the sense of active advocacy for the environment.
Some folks might be pleased to earn a profit at the expense of clean water and clean air and would use the term environmentalist as a pejorative for folks who seek a balance between economic growth and protecting natural resources.  Don’t let them put you on the defensive because of your feelings about conserving natural resources.  Being an environmental advocate conveys the noble intentions implied in Merriam Webster’s definition of environmentalist while also conveying the sense of actively advancing a particular environmental cause.  And that seems like a win for both “environmentalists” and the environment while leaving the haters apoplectically ranting about some vague bogie man lurking in green-tinted shadows.

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