What Kind of Environmentalist Are You?

Posted on February 21, 2011 by Courtney

Please welcome today’s guest poster, Jamison.

On the surface this may seem like a silly question, but the motivations that leads a person to environmentalism can be extremely different. My wife and I are perfect examples of this. Being a Greenist, she comes to environmentalism from an extremely different approach.

Environmentalism is a natural outgrowth of her genuine concern for human beings and animal life on the planet. She works on the problem with the same sorts of motherly instincts I’ve seen her apply to my daughter as she’s teaching her. Calm and understanding, always willing to lend a hand to the cause while at the same time always looking for a way to help others along to the path to a better life. While I deeply respect the work she does and the approach she takes, I have to say most of the time it leaves me dumbfounded.

I spent years getting a degree in Sociology and studying how people work as a society. Those years of reducing human beings to nice warm fuzzy numbers sort of left me more than a tiny bit cynical about human nature and human potential. Which makes my approach to environmentalism completely different. I don’t spend too much time worrying about the fates of the cute fluffy animals of the world. I worry more about the genetic diversity required to sustain human life and evolutionary potential. I don’t lose sleep over how to feed the geometrically growing human population, but instead focus on how to stop the geometric growth part of the equation. I’m a strong believer that environmentalism is critical for protecting the nation as a whole. It has slowly become woven into my own form of hyper-patriotism. I’m an environmentalist because at the core of my DNA, I believe that humanity must survive into the future and environmentalism is the only way I can see that occurring. For me it’s just an equation and formula that needs to be executed to save the species and I want to make sure that happens. 

As we debated what “real” environmentalism is this morning, I started thinking about the breakdowns between the types of environmentalists that I’m aware of and was curious if any of you knew of any more.

  1. The True Treehugger – People who have found a true oneness with nature. Your Emerson or Thoreau Types that truly live on Waldon Pond. The Transcendentalists that, amusingly, influenced me down the path I’m on from my high school days.
  2. The Regular Treehugger – These are the true believers that still live their lives with us mortals, but manage to somehow make time and have the energy to try to save the world from itself.
  3. The Militant Treehugger – These are your eco-terrorist types at worst, tending to get focused on a single aspect of environmentalism and taking the response to that perceived threat to the extreme. Or are willing to ignore other greater environmental advantages for the sake of their singular focus.
  4. The Environmentalist – These people apply their knowledge and skills to the problems of the day and work to educate people on the right things to do. They apply these changes usually with great efficiency to their own lives.
  5. The Practical Environmentalist – These people tend not to focus on environmentalism, but instead focus on a limited number of ways they can take steps to make the world a better place. They recycle, conserve and reuse where practical.
  6. The Half-Hearted Environmentalist – This is where most people live, environmentalism is an afterthought in their lives. They recycle because they’ll be fined if they don’t and they conserve because the return is high enough to make it profitable.
  7. Anti-Environmentalist – Usually this is a result of conflicting interests (jobs, investments, politics, etc) or a genuine lack of knowledge about the issues at hand or both. These are the people that organize efforts to make environmentalism less appetizing to the rest of the population.
  8. The World Haters – This is an extremely tiny division, but there are certain people that just hate the planet and everything on it. Anything that suggests saving it just offends them completely.

Those are the ones that are right on the tip of my brain when I think about the breakdowns between each type of environmentalist I’ve come across in my years of experience. So do you think there are more divisions in the Environmentalist family tree? What kind of environmentalist are you?


  1. I would place myself as the daughter of The Regular and The Environmentalist as I have aspects of both.

    Walden Pond, for those not in the know, is situated right off of Rt 2 a major roadway connecting Boston to the west of the city. Thus Walden is not as pristine as most considered. Oh, and developers are always trying to cut down the few trees that remain to build uppity condos or other luxury homes. It is, after all, in Concord. Concordians don’t care too much about the environment, rather they care about wealth and how to spend/show it with fancy cars, McMansions, and private schools.

    February 21st, 2011 at 11:10 am
    Comment by Howling Hill
  2. Um, Howling Hill- I don’t think they had McMansions and fancy cars in Thoreau’s day. His experience and reflections should not be tainted by the landscape that came to be 150 years later. And Walden Pond today has not a single building on its shores, save the lifeguard stand at the swim beach (and I think maybe there’s a bathroom there as well.) You see a bastardized place near busy Rt 2, with fancy homes on all sides; I see a place that we’ve managed to set aside, a large pond for the enjoyment of swimmers, hikers and non-motorized boats. Just how did one passing reference to Thoreau get you ranting on modern Concordians? Sheesh.

    So what does this rant-response rant make me? Actually, I’d say I’m a bit of everything, depending on my mood. Good post again, Jamison.

    February 21st, 2011 at 12:42 pm
    Comment by mickey
  3. I think I’m mostly a combo of The Regular Treehugger and The Environmentalist, though I probably have qualities that pull from many different types. There’s a small part of me that hates the world sometimes, but that part is usually squashed by the bigger part of me that wants to do good things.

    In the end, I think it doesn’t matter what your motivations are so long as you’re doing something good. If people want to go green solely for the financial benefits and not out of a desire to save the planet, then who cares? They’re doing something good for the planet, and that’s all that matters.

    February 21st, 2011 at 1:02 pm
    Comment by Courtney
  4. Jamison, this is such a great post!

    And I think that the Walden Pond reference was more about a state of mind than the actual place. Although, I do think, no matter what has cropped up around it, Walden is still a special and inspiring setting. I remember visiting as a kid, and a few years ago read an article about a swimmer who did laps at Walden. I think the people who care about Walden still care passionately. While I know I fall short of having a true oneness with nature, I think reading Thoreau at a young age was a very formative thing.

    February 21st, 2011 at 10:09 pm
    Comment by Allie
  5. I’m terribly amused by the fact that a single off hand reference to a story I read as a high schooler has spawned so much interest. :) I guess the call of the Transcendentalists is stronger than I thought. I agree Walden pond is a metaphor for a more idealized way of living in sync with nature. The deeper part of the metaphor, was the debate between Thoreau and Emerson, on the topic. Thoreau cut himself off from the world to live in peace with nature. Emerson argued that it was more important that everyone learn to live in peace with nature. Which brings me towards the thinking about the topic.

    When I wrote this post, I was more in the heat of the moment about the approaches people take to environmentalism. Dianne, for example, takes the same approach that you guys do, calm and reasoned. I tend to be a lot more willing to be punitive about it. I think at the time I wrote this we were discussing the Gulf Coast Oil Spill. And they were making outlandish claims that everything was OK, now months later when someone actually takes a look at the situation, it was just a bad as we thought it was going to be. I’m not going to lie, I’m something between a practical to half-hearted environmentalist most days. But I don’t think that’s a good state of being. I think that environmentalist goals should be built into more things and that my bad behavior should be punished, whether I like it or not. If I want to eat a steak, it should pay the premium for the fact that it takes 6 pounds of plant materials to get my 1 pound of beef. But the reality in our society today the reverse is true. Sometimes Dianne’s organic veggies regularly cost more per pound than my steak. I don’t have the ability to reconcile this inconsistency.

    All of that got me to thinking about the labels we put on things. One of the major disagreements I have with the more kind and considerate approach is that it disperses responsibility, because everyone is “trying”. In Psychology (one of my minors, I have a lot of them), there is an approach called behavioralism. Basically instead of asking people what their motivations are, you just look at their behaviors and you see what they are thinking instead. Once again, years of studying people leads you quickly to conclude people lie a lot about their motivations, or are completely unaware of them. You can almost bank on it, we spend a lot of times trying word things to slip them up so they actually end up telling the truth about their motivations. But the point to all this rambling is that in the end, having people do their “best” is not going to yield positive results for the environment no matter how you do the math. The human brain just doesn’t work that way, the further a danger is away from today, the harder it is for us to assign a priority to it to move ourselves to action. I think the frustration in the comments about the way things work, indicate that even among some of the most well meaning of you, that in your heart of hearts you know the same things that I know to be true.

    So now finally after so much weaving back to the point of the post. It’s important to acknowledge I think, that people are taking actions everyday in the world that are in direct and purposeful opposition to the worldview of environmentalists. Not everyone is even bothering to pretend to be trying. And at some point there needs to be some acknowledgement the half hearted steps that most of us are taking are no way offsetting the damage we are doing at the same time. The arbitrary labels aren’t really the issue so much as, as we drift between the labels will it be enough to save the species in the end? Or do we need to invent a new kind of environmentalism that not only does our part to save the planet, but goes a step further and actually accounts for human nature and finds a way to bridge the gap between our own enlightened self-interest and the reality of the world we live in today. In the end, I don’t have any answers just a whole lot of questions that keep me up at night.

    February 22nd, 2011 at 8:48 am
    Comment by Jamison
  6. Oh, man. I vote (not that this is a democracy) that we make Jamison a full-time Greenist, if he can be convinced.

    Jamison- You should have kept this follow-up in your pocket for another post because it continues to provoke just the kinds of questions that all of us (or shoot- anyone trying to effect change in any way across a broad spectrum of humanity) should be asking: Why are people motivated to change their behavior or, more importantly, does motivation even matter?

    Good stuff, but I won’t even try to get into it here myself because it could run on for pages and pages. Keep making us think, man.

    February 22nd, 2011 at 10:49 am
    Comment by mickey
  7. I wrote up what I thought was going to be a quick response to everyone else’s points from yesterday and then I realized it was longer than the original post! The dangers of giving a venue to someone that loves the sound of their own voice. ;p I don’t consider myself qualified to be a Greenist because I’m not a strong enough environmentalist. But I can pretend to be one from time to time.

    And I can’t resist the motivation notion you bring up. To take it to a logical extreme, if you choose not to go on a shooting spree because you are good person, or if you are afraid of the police. Does it matter, for as long as the greater good of you not going crazy is maintained? If I recycle because I’ll get a hundred dollar fine next month, does it yield different results than if I do it out of genuine concern for the planet and the future? Outcomes are infinitely more important than motivations. Except when punitive pain caused to yield an outcome is so great that people take actions to avoid it.

    February 22nd, 2011 at 11:10 am
    Comment by Jamison
  8. This is such a compelling post to me! I am writing about it on tinychoices for tomorrow. I think there’s one group you’ve left out – the people who honestly don’t know there is a greener way. I think it’s a surprisingly big part of the country, too -

    thanks for the riff post!

    February 22nd, 2011 at 9:23 pm
    Comment by Karina (Tiny Choices)
  9. Interesting thought Karina. I’ve always lumped them in with the half-hearted environmentalists or the anti-Environmentalists. Depending on how I viewed their reasons for being unaware. People that are too busy surviving to spend the time on it in the first category and those too apathetic to consider the alternatives in the second. I’ll pop over tomorrow and see what you come up with.

    February 22nd, 2011 at 10:33 pm
    Comment by Jamison
  10. I’d say I’m a practical Environmentalist. I do what I can and get the word out whenever possible.

    February 23rd, 2011 at 9:18 pm
    Comment by tmc

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