No, we’re not “environmentalists.” It’s more complicated than that

By Samantha Larson
7 Mar 2014 7:55 PM

Source: Grist

Image by Maria Popova

Image by Maria Popova

We’ve been called out: Millennials are not environmentalists. A new Pew Research Center report says that only 32 percent of people born after 1980 identify themselves as such — versus 42 percent of people born between 1965 and 1980, or even 44 percent of those born after 1945. But, as someone born in 1988, I find it hard to believe any of those numbers actually matter.

The old guard loves to harp on us for being an apathetic, unmotivated, and lazy bunch (old guards tend to make a habit of this, regardless of the era). OK, as a generation, we might not be storming the streets, or the seas, a lá Greenpeace — but judging by the host of things still going badly for planet Earth, while that kind of activism may be admirable, it seems clear it’s not the silver bullet. Growing up with a universe of information constantly at our fingertips means we know every issue is complicated and loaded with unintended consequence. We know solutions that rely on preachiness or dogmatism won’t last. So think of us as hipsters who embrace the complicated (though I would never call a unique individual such as myself a hipster. Ahem).

And look at what’s actually happening. Millennials are far less likely to own a car, or to even make that a priority. Instead, we tend to opt for public transit, biking, orcar sharing. While millennials don’t identify as vegetarians, either, we actuallytrend towards eating less meat – and we value the eating experience, which means that, though we tend to make less for our work (or sometimes nothing at all), a lot of us are still willing to spend a little more to go organic and local. Heck, even the fact that so many of us still live at home, or choose to live in shared houses or dorms rather than getting a place of our own, translates to a more efficient use of household water, electricity, and gas.

Which isn’t to say that millennials are making these choices exactly for the purpose of being green. We do it because it makes sense: Green living is more affordable,more enjoyable, and thus perhaps makes us more able to deal with the messes we’ve been left with. But, as long as things are starting to change, does it really matter what the motivation is? And can’t there be more than one motivation? Millennials seem more likely to recognize that the environment doesn’t exist in a glass bubble, that it’s tied in with businesstechnology, and what’s on your plate. Protecting the environment is not something out there and far away, but something right here that needs to be intelligently incorporated into our day-to-day.

Not that I’m not trying to give my generation a gold star for having it all figured out. We can, and hopefully will, do a lot more. But the fact we don’t identify as environmentalists doesn’t mean that we pour motor oil into the ocean for kicks. Just like, according to the same Pew report, while only 27 percent of us actively identify as Democrats, 60 percent of us voted for Obama in 2012. In fact, only half of millennials choose to identify with a political party at all — but that doesn’t mean we vote any less. Life is complicated, and there are multiple sides to most big dilemmas. Rejecting a label isn’t necessarily rejecting the cause. It means choosing to take a little more ownership over what “caring about the environment” actually means.

So go ahead, call us “environmentalists.” If we don’t answer, it’s because we’re too busy trying to make things better.


Millenials are as they argue not really “environmentalists“. Pollution is only part of the problem for them. They see much of what we call progress as the real problem. And the archetype for them is the automobile. Remove the presence of the automobile and everything becomes more “natural“. In the presence of an automobile-free world you experience quietude and serenity. What better place to visit than a car-free street where everyone is strolling in a manner not unlike the 1890s where widespread automobile ownership and use was not a reality and life was simpler.

These folks are in fact “Simpletons“. We are not talking about their intelligent quotients but rather their wish to return to a “simpler” time. They want to not just slow down the pace of transportation but limit it to something which is in essence “human powered“. The problem with all of this will be whether or not such a world view is consistent with the aging process.

If you have smaller families and older citizens who are fit but still weakened by the process of aging you are suddenly faced with the issues of how to move large quantities of things from their point of manufacture or origin (i.e. growth) to places where they can be sold. Now in the minds of many of these “simpletons” local farming and distribution is enough.

I imagine however that they are still assuming that the internet and high speed communications are going to continue as they have despite the fact that the installation and service vehicles that support this vast global network will all be human powered? And how on earth do we deal with the launching of the replacement satellites to continue our use of GPS and telecommunications networks which remove the obstacles of terrain and climate?

I suppose that the “simpletons” haven’t gotten that far in their thinking. They’re still wallowing in their newfound love affair with bakfiets. It will take a generation or two more before the pendulum swings back towards a more progressive view of the world. And it will be their grandchildren who are “leading the charge“.

What we need are folks less fearful of change and more assertive about finding ways to manage the inexorable movement towards a more modern world. We have made some mistakes but they can be overcome with a high degree of intelligence. Trying to toss a wet blanket on things and applying the technological brakes will not succeed in moving humanity forward.