A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Environmentalist Is a Four-Letter Word

(. . . but how I became one anyway)

By Lori Wark

It was the height of the Cold War, the first Earth Day had just been celebrated, and my sister and I were locked in a fierce debate about how the world would end. My sister predicted a nuclear holocaust. (She had been practicing diving under desks at school.) I, on the other hand, thought it would be much more dramatic if the earth showed how pissed off she (I grew up during the nascent feminist movement) was just before the big mushroom cloud exploded.

A pudgy, but very powerful, finger begins its descent to the red button. At the last possible second before finger meets button, huge tsunamis arch over New York City skyscrapers, animals die on cue in one great mass extinction, and piles of litter cover mountains and the surfaces of oceans. (It was the time of the crying Indian TV commercial, so I had litter on the brain.)

I threw every movie and TV cliché I could into my fantasy. I’d like to say that on that day in a 1960s-era paneled dining room, my prescient imagination inspired me to declare myself an environmentalist. Such a moment would give this blog a dramatic plot point. Unfortunately for my story arc, my journey to take on the mantle of environmentalist never materialized, although I did proudly considered myself a litter cop and enthusiastically scoffed at people who threw their Dentine gum wrappers on the ground without a thought.

The problem was, and continues to be, I hate that word — “environmentalist.” Let’s be honest: the word can at best be synonymous with sentimental, cute, unrealistic and naïve, and at worst raving lunatic. In the beginning, environmentalists were treehuggers (I tried this once, but felt ridiculous), wore long skirts with peasant blouses, and ran barefoot while eating bean sprouts. (I tried this too, but that’s a topic for another blog.)

At the other end of the spectrum were the eco-warriors who battled on the frontlines — sailing small boats into international waters, making sure whale killers had a bad day, and chaining themselves to trees, which, I guess, is a form of treehugging. Anything that smacked of environmental protection became cult-like, anti-social, and worst of all, anti-capitalist. This last one seems to have hung on. How will our economy function without the buying of all that stuff?

Recently, loving the planet has become a little cooler, with newer descriptors such as green and eco-friendly, but this still hasn’t inspired me to shout, “Ich bin ein environmentalist.” If anything, the coolness factor has made “environmentalist” a word without heart, without soul. It’s become easy to toss around without having the inconvenience of substance.

Over the years I’ve given up my car (which means I’ve had a 30-year love affair with my feet, bike and public transportation), I’m vegetarian, I try to eat locally, and I’m thinking about composting if I can get over the yuck factor. All of this makes me sound like an environmentalist poster child — minus the sailing out into oceans to confront large ships with explosively propelled spears. But I haven’t changed my mind since that day in the 1960s-era panel dining room.

I remain unlabeled. I like it that way.
Lori Wark is the editor of the environmental (dare we use that word?) blog Adventures in Climate Change.