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Students support environment but avoid ‘environmentalist’ label

April 29, 2015

April 22 marked the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, but congruent with a report from the Pew Research Center released last March, few UWRF students consider themselves “environmentalists.”

Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day in 1970. After a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969, and inspired by the huge student led anti-Vietnam War movement, Nelson brought the idea to the U.S. Congress and formed a committee with a conservative congressman, prompting over 20 million Americans to take to the streets on the first observed Earth Day. This, along with the Clean Water Act, is largely seen as the founding of the modern environmental movement.

David Furniss, a longtime English professor at UWRF, was working towards his bachelor’s degree at Yale University during the beginnings of the environmental movement, which the Earth Day proclamation was certainly a part of. He admitted that the anti-Vietnam movement took precedence over almost everything else at the time, in terms of student activism, but recalled that some people were indeed starting to become ecologically conscious.

Since climate change was not really a tangible environmental concern yet, people were focused on simply keeping the Earth clean and the ability to provide fresh, wholesome food and water for all of Earth’s citizens. Furniss recalled a demonstration by “exponential growth” activists on his campus (which made the cover of Life magazine), the signing of the Clean Water act, and the formation of the first real “hippie commune,” The Hog Farm, which made its public debut at Woodstock in New York.

“This all [sustainable living] came to the forefront of people’s consciousness at Woodstock, when the Hog Farm, which was really the first real hippie commune, which is still going,” he said. “I actually met that guy, Wavy Gravy, they came to my campus and did this demonstration, and that was at about the same time, about 1971, when all that was happening.”

The Pew Research Center surveyed people from the four largest generations: millennials (age 18-33); Generation X (age 34-49); boomers (age 50-68); and the silent generation (age 68+), asking if they identify with the label “environmentalist.” While 42-44 percent of Generation X, boomers, and the Silent Generation would describe themselves as so, only 32 percent of millennials would.

The research center found that millennials do actually care greatly about the environment and issues such as climate change, but choose not to associate with the label due to its negative connotation.

“I think people shy away from the actual term because it has been demonized and become outdated,” said Keeley Barrientos, a UWRF senior majoring in international studies. “I think it compares well to a term such as feminist. I do believe many millennials consider themselves environmentalists but in a different context since our platforms for social movements have changed.”

Another UWRF student, Alyssa Ross, said that she does care about the environment, but doesn’t feel that she is qualified enough to call herself an environmentalist.

“I would call myself environmentally friendly but not an environmentalist,” Ross said. “To me, that implies someone who has more intensive studying in it than I do.”

There is indeed a lot of stigma around the label environmentalist, perhaps due to the radical, almost terrorist-like actions taken by activists in the late 1980s. In addition to this, UWRF Professor Ryan Fischer, who teaches environmental history, said that societal attitudes about the Earth in general have shifted drastically, too.

“One big thing that happened is it became a much more partisan issue in the 1970s,” he said. “It became a political identification, rather than people grappling with the real issues. Now it’s ‘I’m an environmentalist because I’m a Democrat, or I’m anti-environmentalist because I’m a Republican.'”

Fischer also conceded that the environmentalists of the 1970s did accomplish much of what they set out to do. Perhaps young people don’t call themselves environmentalists because there are so few visible needs for the movement. The air generally looks clean and we don’t have to worry about clean drinking water, thanks to the efforts by this pioneering group of people.

The hesitation to label oneself isn’t exclusive to environmentalists among millennials. They also believe fiercely in gender equality, but don’t call themselves feminists, and have very strong political ideologies, but 52 percent label themselves “independent,” rather than Republican or Democrat, both of which the Pew Research Center also reported on in 2014.

Despite these statistics, there is a minority of students who readily embrace the term. The UWRF Environmental Corps of Sustainability (ECOS) has 15 active members who would call themselves environmentalists and hope to revive the movement on campus. This organization hosted many events for Earth Day, including a campus cleanup, a potluck with the Resource Management Club, and screened documentaries about environmental issues afterwards.