What does it take to be an environmentalist today?

Credit: Katy Dalton

What makes an environmentalist? Awareness? Recycling? Voting? As the environmental movement has evolved and become popularized over the past decades the boundaries have blurred, making it increasingly difficult to define what or who is and is not considered a part of the movement.

There are countless ways now to engage and to exercise your claim as a champion of the environment: going vegan or vegetarian, traveling less, refusing a bag, shopping at thrift stores, taking the bus or biking instead of driving, and so on. Legislation and private industry has also reflected the growing momentum of environmentalists: plastic bag bans in cities, Starbucks doing away with straws, Legos made from recycled material, tax incentives to buy electric vehicles, ocean plastic collecting technology, etc.

But is it enough?

A Nissan leaf electric car charging. Credit: evgonetwork, Wikimedia Commons

At the international level, the IPCC reported that there are 12 years for the world to clean up its act in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Change of the magnitude required to meet this goal will require extensive global coordination and commitments to reducing fossil fuel emissions. The U.S. — one of the highest emitters of CO2 per capita — backed out of the Paris Agreement and has not taken federal action against climate change despite being one of the main contributors to the scientific understanding of why climate is changing.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news for the environment. Energy markets are slowly transitioning towards renewable energy as it becomes cheaper and more accessible. Earlier this year, a landmark bill four years in the making that expands protections for public lands across the nation passed through both houses and was signed by the president. Though, this omnibus legislation has its pain points; for example, the Yakima Project in WA would subsidize irrigated agriculture by constructing new dams. Overall, however, powerful pro-environmental and sustainability messages are becoming more mainstream and harder to avoid.

For example, Netflix recently debuted their new documentary series, Our Planet, which follows the formula of other nature documentaries before it, but with one significant change. Whereas before, people watched nature shows to “ooh” and “ahh” at the biological wonders of the world, now David Attenborough has opened the floodgates of climate change rhetoric in nearly every scene. The show even has a website that’s promoted at the end of each episode where you can learn more and find ways to combat negative anthropogenic impacts on the environment.

Walrus hauled out in their natural habitat: a sea ice floe in the Arctic. Credit: Brad Benter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Wikimedia Commons).

One particular scene in the episode “Frozen Worlds” provoked outcry on social media and a slew of news coverage over the violent and graphic footage of walrus. In it, the creatures plummet to their deaths from cliffs they never would have been on if not for climate change and the loss of their sea ice habitat. Netflix even issued a warning about the series regarding graphic content to those people sensitive to animal trauma, and listed the episodes and sections you might want to skip. The makers of the documentary urged viewers to use their emotion and put it to action: do something about global warming as the cause of those walrus deaths. The filmmakers want you to confront the uncomfortable truth of humanity’s role in the demise of the planet’s delicate ecological balance.

In this way, the show shouldered the burden of communicating climate change and connecting people with the natural world they might never otherwise experience. But, can the shock factor truly inspire action? Recent polls have shown record numbers of people indicating that climate change will affect them personally. Around the world thousands marched to show their support for science and climate action in 2017. However, the willingness of the American people to pay to remedy climate change has not increased with the recognition of the threat. Stated differently, millions may have watched the walrus scene and felt sad or moved, but as with so many other issues, the reality of the situation fades as you close your browser.

Credit: Ben Mierement, NOAA via Creative Commons

We still have a long way to go. Even policies that seem progressive can backfire on the environment. For example, plastic bag bans have actually resulted in an increase in purchasing plastic bags that we would have otherwise gotten from the grocery store and then reused. This does not mean that banning plastic bags with public policy is a bad decision, simply that there are often factors that impact the outcomes in unforeseen ways. Sustainability messaging and marketing often tricks us into thinking that we need to buy certain products in order to be environmentally friendly, when instead using and reusing what we already have leaves the smallest footprint.

The bottom line? Change takes time. Awareness is up, but the definition of an environmentalist has become increasingly unclear. This may seem frustrating, but it does reflect progress. Change happens through the aggregation of small, incremental shifts in behavior influenced by societal norms. Our situation is dire, but it’s imperative to stay optimistic. Yes, the walrus scene is hard to watch, but it ultimately ends with a call to action: you have the ability to change this.

Being a part of the environmental movement in 2019 means confronting harsh realities, taking responsibility, thinking critically, and then doing something to effect change.


Every Thursday through April and May, Currents is covering the past, present, and future of the conservation movement in the U.S. and beyond. This is the fifth article in the series, read the first article here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.