The tragedy of “environment” as a political word

In cultural battles, as most of us can attest, things get emotional. Small things can set people off. Complex issues get simplified down to bite-size kernels that mainly serve to separate Us from Them. There are trigger words, pregnant with meaning— often pregnant with twins. Which meaning is the is evil, mustachioed one depends on who you ask. Sometimes the triggers are invented for the battle, but other times innocent, important words get pulled into the fray. And that can be a tragedy.

One such tragedy besets the word “environment”, and confusion about the definition hasn’t helped. The environment, of course, is everything on this planet we call Earth. It’s everything around us. It’s the air we breathe in town and the air we breathe in the country. It’s the water that comes out of our taps; it’s the waters we photograph on vacation. It’s the squirrels on our birdfeeder and it’s the predators we listen to David Attenborough describe on TV. But to many, it’s just something “out there”. National parks. National forests. Antarctica. The Amazon.

Taken that way, “save the environment” gets parsed as “help some trees somewhere at the expense of people”. Those naive tree-huggers, ya know? That framing underlies a great many environmental debates, whether that’s the restoration of wolf populations or the maintenance of water flows to sustain fish populations.

And that’s the railroad switch that sends even the word “environment” down different tracks. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t appreciate the beauty of wild places. It’s even harder to find someone who doesn’t want healthy surroundings. And yet, it’s now nearly a cultural fact that “environment” is a word for far left-wing liberals. Being a conservative— or maybe even a moderate— means disregarding this “environmental agenda” for far too many people. Get too close to something “environmental” and you could lose your cultural credibility. That makes it even harder to get people to see that the environment is not separate from the world in which they live, and that, in fact, their life and prosperity depends entirely upon it.

We can’t have serious discussions about how to protect the things we all enjoy and depend on because our words straddle cultural lines in the sand. That toxicity even prevents us from using other words to connect on common ground, because we are quick to retreat to the same old, tedious, fighting. It’s ignorant science-deniers vs. ignorant bleeding-heart hippies. Land punches. Score points. You already know there’s no talking with these people.

“Environmentalist” shouldn’t be a contentious description any more than “pro-children” or “anti-house-fire”— and we shouldn’t really need any of them. Unfortunately, groups like ConservAmerica still have their work cut out for them, as do we all.

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