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The Environmental Movement Needs Attention, Advocacy, and Action
On September 20th, 2019, thousands of students across New York City marched out of their classrooms and into Foley Square, City Hall, and Battery Park. Standing in solidarity with the environmentalist movement, 60,000 students filled the streets of Lower Manhattan in mass protest– calling out the inaction of the government in addressing the global climate crisis. Public figureheads like Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish environmental advocate internationally renowned for her efforts to combat climate change, stood at the face of these protests: urging the crowd to stand up.
“This is an emergency. Our house is on fire,” Thunberg chanted. “Everywhere I have been the situation is more or less the same. The people in power, their beautiful words are the same… The number of politicians and celebrities who want to take selfies with us is the same. The empty promises are the same. The lies are the same, and the inaction is the same” (Time).
The words of 17-year-old Greta Thunberg ring true today, but sufficient action has yet to be taken, and weighted promises have yet to be fulfilled. The 2019 Climate Strike was just one of many demonstrations calling attention to the global climate crisis, but as our Earth continues to reap the consequences of human activity, the environmental movement needs support now more than ever.
Action begins not with the government, but with the individual inhabitants of this planet. It means seeking to replace unnecessary car rides with trains, buses, and your own two feet. It means abandoning fast fashion retail brands with those that are more environmentally sustainable. It means grabbing a water thermos in place of your morning plastic coffee cup. Small acts of intention build to large tangible changes– all in the name of our rapidly deteriorating planet.
Even when the global climate crisis is not making daily news billboards, widespread inaction in addressing it will lead to dire consequences. Carrying the words of Greta Thunberg on our shoulders, every human has a responsibility to partake in the environmental movement: before it is too late.
The History of the Environmental Movement
The root of the environmental movement dates back to the 19th century, as concerns about nature conservation, societal corruption, and rising fossil fuels began to captivate the public audience.
In 1835, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Nature, an essay put forth to advocate for the ideals of Transcendentalism. He believed that all of humanity was inherently good, but it was being corrupted by the institutions built by human society. Emerson advocated for Transcendentalism as a philosophical movement– believing it would restore the good in humanity by emphasizing the protection of the undisturbed natural world.
Almost twenty years later, Henry David Thoreau built upon the ideas of Nature in his own Transcendentalist book, Walden, in which he explored his ideas of philosophy, self-reflection, and spirituality. Thoreau was a 27-year-old Harvard graduate who moved to Walden Pond in an effort to experiment: “Could he survive, possibly even thrive, by stripping away all superfluous luxuries, living a plain, simple life in radically reduced conditions?” Thoreau ultimately went on to publish his masterwork– seeking to better understand society through his undisturbed connection to the wilderness.
At this period in history, more individuals started paying attention to the environmental movements emerging, which were evidently rooted in spiritual and religious ties to nature.
Slowly, more activists continued to advocate for the protection of the wilderness, with John Muir’s founding of the Sierra Club in 1892, Alice Hamilton’s 1925 campaign against General Motors’ leaded gasoline, and finally the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. With countless other examples, the environmental movement evidently spans across centuries of American history and continues to infuse itself in society today.
Even though weighted issues like climate change continue to remain the subject of intense public controversy (even when proven by empirical evidence), it is imperative that we look to our history as the source of environmentalism and examine how we can continue building the movement into our present day.
Stigma Behind Environmentalism
As the environmental movement has slowly come to the public limelight over the past decade, its associated stigma has prevented many individuals from partaking in the cause.
Similar to many other social movements that advocate for behavior shifts, such as feminism or veganism, avid environmental activists are oftentimes labeled as radicals who trade away all modern conveniences for the sake of planetary health. In the society we live in– built off of a system that forgoes environmental protection in exchange for economic profit– many individuals are strongly opposed to the growing environmental movement that challenges their own financial comfortability.
“When you label yourself as an environmentalist in a community that flourishes from practices that damage the environment, it is impossible to escape a certain degree of judgment,” says Jenny in the Green Medium. “When I tell someone I’m an environmentalist, most people don’t take me seriously. Perhaps this has something to do with the stereotype that environmentalists are either vegan hipsters who read literature in locally-owned coffee shops or wealthy philanthropists, and I don’t really fit those stereotypes.”
Being an activist for the environmental movement has nothing to do with the flashy lifestyle choices one makes, but more so with sustained advocacy for environmental issues and the understanding that “economic stability and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive.”
Similarly, environmentalism is not confined by the bounds of race or socioeconomic class. A common stereotype associated with the environmental movement, which was recently uncovered by a PNAS study, is that environmentalists are primarily white, upper-class individuals who have a college education. This stereotype, however, overlooks the perspectives of all other racial minority groups that are substantially more impacted by the rising levels of air pollution and climate change.
In the same PNAS study that surveyed a diverse array of demographic groups, more than half of Latinos reported that they were “very” or “extremely” concerned about the environment, with African Americans trailing behind at 39 percent and Asians at 37 percent. While not a substantial drop, White individuals nevertheless demonstrated the lowest level of concern with just 32 percent of the surveyed population.
Clearly, the belief paradox that minority groups are somehow less concerned with environmental advocacy is rooted in false media portrayals and long-outdated stereotypes. As explained by the Environmental Defense Fund, “the lack of visible diversity in the mainstream movement helped shape and perpetuate the image of the typical American environmentalist as a white, well-educated, middle-class person – because it reflected the people inside these organizations.”
To continue growing the environmental movement, we have to break down the stigma that is associated with being an environmentalist, continue raising public engagement with advocacy and outreach, and diversify the image of environmentalism to elevate the voices of ALL Americans– regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic backgrounds.
Broadening the Message of the Environmental Movement
Without sustained advocacy towards the environmental movement, inaction threatens to destroy the habitability of our very own planet.
Small actions build to lasting changes; thus, each person has the ability to support the climate movement and abandon old habits that are inherently harmful. Whether it be the fast-fashion clothing stores one shops at, the plastic bags they use to carry their groceries, or the trash piles they accumulate that have yet to be recycled, each individual can support the Earth by making proactive choices to reduce their carbon footprint.
In the meantime, we must continue diversifying the message of the environmental movement; we must hold government officials accountable for their inaction; we must ensure promises to protect our planet no longer go unfulfilled.