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An Environmentalist Reality Check in the Age of the Millennial

Millennials are hesitant to embrace the environmentalist label, but are they embracing its values anyway?

CREDIT: Pexels

The Millennial generation, an age group roughly defined as those born between 1982 and 2000, is the most recent generation to be scrutinized under society’s microscope. Studied and stereotyped extensively, they have been characterized as narcissistic and lazy, but also idealistic and tech-savvy. They’re entitled, yet innovative. Generalizations aside, it has been shown that they tend to champion traditionally progressive issues like LGBTQ equality, economic equality, and environmental preservation. One report shows that Millennials rank action on climate change as one of their top priorities at the voting booth. This extends to their belief in the need for the United States to transition to an economy powered by renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. A study by the Pew Research Center shows that 82 percent of Millennials support increased federal support for developing wind, solar, and hydrogen technology, compared to 74 percent for Baby Boomers. Additionally, it found that 52 percent of Millennials oppose allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters, while only 29 percent of Baby Boomers said the same. Yet, another generational study by Pew shows that only 32 percent of Millennials identify as environmentalists, as compared to 42 to 44 percent of those from every other generation.

Environmentalism_GraphThis seems like a clear contradiction. Millennials strongly believe that protecting the environment is important, but why are they so hesitant to label themselves as environmentalists? In order to examine this discrepancy, I interviewed some experts to gain more of an understanding as to what this says about Millennials and their relationship with environmental values. I’ve concluded that there are three overarching factors at play that influence how Millennials identify themselves in the context of environmentalism and how this affects their feelings of responsibility to be environmentally conscious.

Millennials Tend to Reject All Labels

First and foremost, Millennials tend to reject using labels to identify themselves, especially when those labels carry negative undertones. In fact, Pew found that only 40 percent of Millennials refer to themselves as a member of their own generation, as compared to 58 percent of Gen Xers and 79 percent of Baby Boomers. Lauren Stiller Rikleen, an expert on Millennials in the workplace, tells Generation Progress that some of this general aversion to labels may have manifested as a backlash against the numerous stereotypes frequently attributed to the Millennial generation, like laziness and entitlement. This may help explain why Millennials are so hesitant to identify with heavily stigmatized social movements, like feminism and environmentalism.

In fact, a psychology study done at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo indicates that resistance to social change may in part stem from negative stereotyping of activists and not necessarily resistance to the movement itself. In one part of the study, 288 participants were tasked with ascribing traits to what they perceived to be a ‘typical’ environmentalist. Among the top traits were tree-hugger (151 responses), hippie (124), unhygienic (91), and militant (89). While there were some positive traits associated with typical environmentalists, the majority of characteristics cited were overwhelmingly negative.

However, environmentalists weren’t always viewed this way. “The 1960s and 70s was a time when the U.S. broadly supported environmental protection,” Philip Deloria, a professor at the University of Michigan specializing in environmental history, tells Generation Progress. He goes on to explain that while the few radical organizations that engaged in eco-terrorism emerged during the same time, it wasn’t until the 1980s and Reagan’s presidency that environmentalism was rebranded as a dirty word. As Deloria explains, “in the 80s and 90s, those fringe organizations were held up as being the paragon of the mainstream [by the political right]. Environmentalism had been framed as being super radical… when it wasn’t.” In other words, even though only three or four environmental organizations were involved in eco-terrorism, they wielded disproportionate influence over public perception. Unfortunately, the 1980s and 1990s were also the decades in which Millennials were born and raised. So even though decades have passed since Reagan left office, the resulting cultural and political shifts from his presidency are still being felt today.

Today, even Millennials who identify with the environmental movement are hesitant to proudly showcase this publicly. Alison Renna, an undergraduate student at Franklin and Marshall College, cares deeply about environmental issues and the impact she is having on the planet. Yet, coming from a conservative background, she doesn’t always see eye to eye with those around her. In her experience, environmentalism is often conflated with crazy. “People will label you as fanatic so they don’t have to listen to you,” she says. “Environmentalism has been so politicized that it’s easy for [environmentalists] to be completely written off. It’s not the actions that make you a fanatic, but the label.” It’s easy to see why Millennials, who are one of the most stereotyped groups of our time, don’t want to be affiliated with a movement that is ridiculed and branded as being radical.

Millennials Don’t View the World in Black and White

The second factor that may explain this discrepancy is the lens through which Millennials view the world. Realizing the importance of nuance, they are capable of holding different perspectives and integrate these into their beliefs and identities. They are able to recognize that the world isn’t just black and white and adopt their beliefs accordingly. One example is the steep decline in political affiliation with the two major U.S. political parties among Millennials. Another Pew study found that half of Millennials identified politically as Independents in 2014, up from only 38 percent in 2004. Steven Olikara, president of the bipartisan organization Millennial Action Project, explains it this way to Generation Progress: “Millennials don’t fit into the normal ideological boxes. This generation is more unorthodox and many people do not hold political views that immediately fit either [political] party.” He goes on to explain that, since Millennials have come of age during economic paradigm shifts like the rise of crowdfunding and ride sharing, they look to integrate innovative solutions when solving complex problems. In terms of the environment, this means not only looking for political and governmental solutions, but also incorporating entrepreneurial solutions and cooperation through public-private partnerships.

This may also help explain why Millennials aren’t keen on adopting labels they view to be too simplistic or carry too much baggage. As Millennial expert Lauren Stiller Rikleen says, “Millennials see life as more nuanced than boiling down their worldview into one word. This is the generation of adaptability and flexibility.” She explains that Millennials tend to prioritize work-life integration in their careers and “are in search of opportunities to give back and find meaningful work through community engagement.” Thus, it would make sense that Millennials use these same tools when trying to solve complex problems of our day like climate change. Instead of boxing themselves in, they are willing to widen the realm of possible solutions to engage various stakeholders. This contributes to Rikleen’s opinion that the label ‘environmentalist’ itself has no importance. She feels that focusing on the label and its meaning detracts from fruitful dialogue about what actually needs to get done to solve these issues.

The ‘Environmentalist’ Label Does Not Reflect Millennial Values

The last contributing factor that has potentially led to a decrease in Millennials affiliation with environmentalists is the perception that the label is outdated and no longer reflects what Millennials value. Historically, early environmental movements were rooted in predominantly white and male privilege. One example is the wilderness preservation movement in the 1900s, which coalesced around the protection of pristine landscapes. As Deloria, the professor from the University of Michigan, explains: “Wilderness politics was about white, elite, mostly male recreation… you don’t have to look very hard at the wilderness preservation movement to see that it had racist, classist, and gender biases.” While modern environmentalism has come a long way since then, we still find discrepancies between the number of whites and other minorities who engage with nature and the outdoors. A survey conducted by the National Park Service in 2008-2009 found that, although minorities constitute about 37 percent of the U.S. population, only 22 percent of those that visited a national park service area were minorities. African Americans were especially underrepresented—only 7 percent of visitors to national parks were African American. So while diversity is increasingly becoming a cornerstone of Millennial discourse, environmentalism is still working to reconcile its discriminatory roots.

Another perception that some Millennials have is that attaining the title of environmentalist is difficult and requires strict adherence to environmentalist, and often minimalist, principles. Professor Deloria notes that his students feel that calling oneself an environmentalist means giving up a comfortable lifestyle. “Saying [you’re] an environmentalist requires a sort of behavioral purity, like ‘I can’t have a car, I have to be a vegan, I can’t get a disposable cup from Starbucks,’” Deloria says of his students’ attitudes towards adopting environmentalism. Alison Renna, the college student from Franklin and Marshall, echoes this sentiment, expressing the need to earn the title ‘environmentalist’ before being able to identify as one. She says that although she regards herself as ecologically conscious, she would not label herself as an environmentalist. “Personally, I would identify an environmentalist as someone whose primary work is protecting the environment or supporting initiatives like that. They are just people who are way more dedicated than me,” she says.

Becoming an environmentalist given this perception is hard enough, but add on political apathy and cynicism and the picture gets even more dismal. Deloria explains that back in the 60s and 70s, individuals felt that their actions played an important role in shifting the social and political discourse of the time, but this is not necessarily true today. “People actually had a sense that you could change stuff [in the 60s]. Now, I look at my kids and they ask, “’what could I possibly do to change anything?’” True enough, Millennials have been shown to be less trusting of the government and are more skeptical of traditional American values. In July 2016, Harvard’s Institute of Politics revealed that the majority of Millennials in the U.S. do not support capitalism, almost half believe the American Dream is dead, and only a quarter trust the federal government to do the right thing. A third even feel that America needs to find a “reset button and start again.” Given their extreme distaste towards the U.S.’s political institutions and values, it makes sense that Millennials would turn to forms of civic engagement other than traditional channels like voting in elections in order to achieve their political goals. Because the term environmentalist has become politicized and marginalized, it often clashes with new forms of activism like political/ethical consumerism. This may also explain why the label is being left behind by younger generations.

What Does this Mean for the Future of Environmentalism?

If fewer Millennials are calling themselves environmentalists, does this mean that they don’t care about preserving the environment as much as older generations? Not necessarily. While Millennials aren’t as likely as their parents were at their age to say that it’s personally important to be involved in programs that clean up the environment, they are more likely to pay for products they deem to be more eco-friendly. They also prioritize sustainable and socially responsible companies when applying for jobs. In this way, Millennials have flipped what it means to do what you believe in. By exerting their influence using nontraditional avenues like consumer power and volunteerism, they are changing the way through which social change is manifested. As we’ve seen with the large Millennial turnout at recent political protests and rallies such as the Women’s March on Washington, young people tend to emphasize political and social change through collective action and inclusionary dialogue.

So what about the future of the label? Given that the term ‘environmentalist’ carries decades of baggage and stereotypes, it may be time to adopt another word to describe eco-consciousness. Or maybe the word can be reclaimed and adapt to Millennial values, such as inclusivity and intersectionality. Or eventually, there may not even be a need for this label. In an ideal world, everyone would care about their impact on the planet and the label would be useless. As Alison Renna puts it, “In the future, there would ideally be no such thing as an environmentalist because we would all be one.”

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