Myths of Environmentalism

treehugger.jpgEditor’s note: You may take a look at Justin’s bio and think “Oh, no! Not another English Ph.D.!” Yep, we definitely found ourselves with a lot in common when he applied to write for Green Options Media. But I invited Justin to join us not because of his sterling academic credentials (though they are impressive); rather, I really enjoyed the essay-style pieces he submitted as samples (which were written for radio). Please welcome Justin on board!

You often hear that the first step to overcoming an addiction is to admit you have a problem. Well, I admit to being…an environmentalist. I admit that just one glimpse of the bluetiful Blue Ridge Mountains, just one note of the Rivanna River’s murmured melody, turns my blood from red to blue and green. I hug trees. I go cuckoo for birds. I recycle. I drive a hybrid. So yes: I am an environmentalist.

But I understand that not everyone else suffers from my addiction or even sympathizes with my condition. This resistance to environmentalism was brought home to me recently during one of the composition courses I teach. After asking my students to write on the topic of “Humanity’s responsibility for the Earth,” one of them first commented quite extensively on how humans impact the environment. And then: “But I’m still not buying a Prius.”

I recognized underneath my student’s comment the belief that in order to do something good for the planet, she had to spend lots of money she did not have or want to spend, lots of time she did not have or want to spend, lots of energy she did not have or want to spend, or lots of thought she…well, you get my point. This myth that being environmentally responsible is just downright too costly and complicated in numerous ways is perhaps the most pervasive.

But, in truth, we need not forsake modernity or take out another mortgage in order to afford new ultra-efficient gadgets. Little things can have big impacts, too: tossing that can or bottle in a recycling bin rather than a trashcan, replacing an incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent, bringing your own bag to the grocery store.

A second myth is that environmentalism is like reading the obituary page unto eternity: nothing but gloom, doom, disaster, and death. We see images of mountaintops and glaciers simply erased. We see forests felled and rivers drained dry. We see polar bears paddling in an endless Arctic Ocean. These sorts of things can shatter both your heart and your ability to hope for our future. Even worse, such hopelessness easily leads to the “What can I do?” syndrome in which any changes, small or large, seem futile.

But, in truth, environmentalism is mostly about the amazing power and glory of nature. Indeed, environmentalism means luxuriating in the abundance of beauty lying just beyond your door. It is like a life lived within a Proust novel: every thing, every moment, is just dripping with sensuality.

One other myth is that environmentalism is some sort of contagious disease whose main symptom is a smug clique mentality, with side effects ranging from mildly annoying uppity behavior to slinging red paint, destroying property, and even homicide.

But, in truth, this smugly antagonistic environmentalism is by far the worst pollution: the spewing out of toxic deeds, words, thoughts, and energy that raise the temperature of our warming planet ever higher. I believe that environmentalism is about loving kindness—for the Earth and its inhabitants, one and all and all as one…living community, that is. I believe that the real green movement, the greenness that can lower our global thermostat, is a green with heart.

We have so many myths today. We can explode the myths of environmentalism—these myths of costliness, gloominess, and smugness—much as we did the one of the monster under the bed: with self-education and a few mature actions. Yes, the changes on our planet may leave us wanting to hide under the covers. But sometimes we have to grow up. Sometimes we have to drop the myths and be the change.

What other myths of environmentalism are out there nowadays? How do they inhibit change and the embrace of an environmental consciousness? How can we overcome them?

  1. Kelli Best-Oliver

    I totally agree. Well said.

    This weekend, I heard Frances Moore Lappe speak, and she talked about how pessimists say that humans are inherently self-serving and greedy, so any collective actions that involve giving up creature comforts will never happen. She disagrees. She agrees that people are greedy and have negative traits that influence our behaviors, but we are complex beings, and also desire kindness, compassion, and cooperation. We have to learn how to bring those traits out, instead of the bad, to work for positive change. I couldn’t agree more. It’s much like Adam Smith (yes, that Adam Smith) says–we should create laws to channel people’s greed for good.

  2. Justin Van Kleeck


    Thank you for your great comment! Adam Smith is definitely an interesting fellow. Everyone who knows him (the few there are) thinks of his Wealth of Nations, but his first work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is equally worthwhile. His emphasis on sympathy and interpersonal connections is really striking when you think about how we are all part of one greater living community.

    Anyway, please stay tuned–I am going to say more about the last myth in this posting next week. ^_^

    Be well.

  3. Mark Powell

    Great stuff, Justin! But why do you start with an apology–your admission of an addiction to nature? You’ve got a great message, and I encourage you to start with a celebration.

    You talk about exploding the myths of environmentalism, but your recipe seems a bit off to me, the call for maturity and thinking.

    I think there’s a better solution, and it resides in your “living community” that’s “green with a heart.”

    Rather than telling people to “grow up,” we should invite them to feel connected live their lives with a consciousness of the connections between people and nature. I think that’s a better way to explode the myth that environmentalism is costly, gloomy, and smug.

  4. Justin Van Kleeck


    I know how you feel, my friend. First, though, thank you for your kind words about the post and for using my material on your blog. We are DEFINITELY on the same vibe.

    I agree with you that the “living community” is the foundation upon which any and all environmental activism (and even appreciation) must base itself. But in order for CHANGE to actually happen, that inner sense of connectivity must then be turned into practical action. So that is what I ended upon in my post…how to turn that foundational community sense into progress–personal and planetary.

    I am going to be posting in a little bit a 2-part essay on the “Green with Heart” idea. I think this is absolutely essential….

    As for Proust, I may return to him in the future, too. I think his experience with the madeleine dipped in tea is an exact representation of how we can be taken back to a certain “sacred place” by a particular sound, sight, or other experience in nature. So I hope you keep an eye out.

  5. Flu-Bird

    Global warming is a big fat lie and these eco-extremists are their own worse enemy if they realy wanted to protect something then why dont they go build a birdhouse or feeder or plant a tree imstead of running around waving their stupid signs in the air these pathetic fool have lost their way and are riding their bicycles one way down the highway with a 18 wheeler heading right for them

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