so here’s a conversation I end up having pretty often:
“Are you an environmentalist?”
“Um,” I say, “no, not really.”
“Are you an anti-environmentalist?”
“Um, no, not really that either.”
“Environmentalism is literally just the belief that the environment matters and destroying ecosystems is bad. Don’t you believe that?”
“Well, then you’re an environmentalist.”
I never quite know what to say here, but it feels like those people are doing something unfair to me. I am glad that environmentalists exist. They are working on an important problem, and they’re passionate and dedicated. Lots of the problems I care about are really closely adjacent to environmentalism - I care about global poverty and starvation, for instance, and climate change makes those worse. I care about animal cruelty on factory farms, and environmentalists also care about that.
But I’ve decided that the label really doesn’t fit me. It doesn’t reflect my priorities: saving the environment isn’t a problem I work on, except indirectly as it relates to the problems that I know more about and care more about. I also disagree with a lot of commonly espoused environmentalist beliefs, and at times environmentalists have hurt me and people I care about, or opposed things that I think are really important. And there’s a history of people pointing out that mainstream environmentalism is racist and classist, and I definitely wouldn’t want to identify with the label unless I was more confident that the current movement is avoiding those pitfalls, and I’m not really the most qualified person to evaluate that.
Environmentalism isn’t a unified movement, and I’m sure I could find a bunch of environmentalists who I agree with on every single relevant issue, but that doesn’t change that the label doesn’t reflect my beliefs or my priorities. I want to keep working on the things I care about, alongside the environmentalists whenever we have common goals. I am happy to reassure people about the specific content of my beliefs, if they need that to feel comfortable.
But a lot of people aren’t okay with that. Some people have said they won’t be my friend if I’m not an environmentalist, that since they’re environmentalists and I’m not they don’t feel safe around me, that I have to be either an environmentalist or an anti-environmentalist, that if I don’t identify as an environmentalist it’s because I secretly think that the environment doesn’t matter and killing all the ecosystems in the world is totally okay. I know a girl who said she wasn’t an environmentalist and a hundred thousand environmentalists passed around a picture of her on tumblr, to mock her and tell her she was ugly and disgusting and the sight of her face made them want to vomit, because they couldn’t imagine how any decent person wouldn’t be an environmentalist.
Okay, you caught me, I’m lying. All of the above conversations did happen, but about the word “feminist”, not “environmentalist”. I’ve found that sometimes if I change the topic to one that’s slightly less heated, it’s easier to communicate. If I say “and this is why I’m not a feminist”, half the world stops listening. But if I say “this is why I’m not an environmentalist”, people will at least give me the chance to finish my sentence.