January 20, 2014 — For me, one of the more interesting parts of this talk on environmentalism by Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, was the discussion of results from focus group conversations with inner city youths. The image of a typical environmentalist that emerged is a nice but preachy female who wears green clothes and recycles. Then came the part that really made an impression on me: The youths said they wouldn’t invite the environmentalist to a party!
But I really like parties, I thought. Why wouldn’t they invite me? And then it hit me: Those kids are right! We environmentalists at times are about as much fun as an endangered heron choking on an endangered frog. “Stop doing that,” we admonish. “Don’t drive that.” “Use a tote bag.” We say “you shouldn’t” with such regularity you’d think it was our tribe-specific call, analogous to the “who cooks for you” call of the barred owl.
How did we environmentalists become so darn uptight? Or, more importantly, how can we start getting invited to parties?
I jest a little. Of course there are good reasons to encourage sustainable behavior, and we certainly can be fun. Nevertheless, it might be possible that a great need of the environmental movement is a whale-size dose of otter-like joy and playfulness. Here’s why: People often join clubs and movements because they gain something from them. What the environmental movement currently offers its supporters, unfortunately, does not have universal appeal.
But what if the environmental movement offered joy? And it could, because joy is ultimately what the environmental movement is all about. No one became an environmentalist because they were looking for something to worry about. On the contrary, people tend to “go green” because they have been delighted by something in nature (wild plums!). People go green when they recognize that a healthy planet is an uplifting experience.
Environmentalism at its best is like life at its best — it is a celebration. And there’s so much to celebrate. Swimming holes! The nighthawk migration! A desert in bloom! Nature makes our minds sharper, our bodies healthier, and our lives more meaningful. Now that’s worth celebrating.
So, what would it take to make environmentalism fun?
A sense of humor is a good place to start. During my investigation of a human-wildlife conflict involving turkey vultures and farmers, just about every farmer I talked to made a joke about shooting turkey vultures. “Hey Brandon,” they would say, “I left the gun out on the porch, just pop off a couple of those vultures when you get a chance.” How would the farmers have reacted if I just seized up? A little otter-like playfulness goes a long way toward building the trust that can lead to open communication.
Second, we can remember that environmentalism is a coin with two sides. On one side is the thing worth celebrating, such as a dawn chorus of red-winged blackbirds at the marsh. On the other side is the fear and sadness and anger associated with the loss of the thing worth celebrating. Let’s do our best, when possible, to keep the coin blackbird-side up.
The future will be a reflection of what people care about. A more joyful environmentalism, which attracts people to lighthearted, zany, exhilarating, productive, inclusive, green activities that build communities, beautify surroundings, and foster human-human and human-nature relationships, will undoubtedly shape the future.
A version of this piece originally appeared as an online exclusive of Momentum, Ensia’s predecessor.