Environment -- What's in a Word?

By S. Mattingly

Last year the well-known social scientist, Gary Brewer, spoke at Yale about a malaise afflicting contemporary environmentalists. Green Interests, he observed, are drifting from issue to issue, stumbling to define a core concern. The environmentalists of the 90s -- despite having better training, skills and more resources than their predecessors, are stuck in old ways. They are confrontational like the old generation, but the days are past when the best strategy was to scale the corporate tower and unfurl a bloody banner. Green Citizens have lost touch with the people in the streets. Mr. Smith is told by environmentalists that just about everything from spring water to spotted owls is poisoned or imperiled. But Mr. Smith is not sure which problems are serious nor certain that any really concern him. The enviromessage is messy and complicated, especially when compared to the stentorian simplicity of the conservative call-to-arms -- the 10-point Contract With America. The Contract text fits neatly on a matchbook cover, but the message is razor sharp, reaching right into the restless American soul, satisfying that angry assembly line worker or frustrated receptionist who hears, "government" or "tax" and sees red.

We have heard a few propositions about how to resuscitate environmental spirit in America. Simplify the message. Focus on key issues. Use the same tactics that the yahoos use to excite the masses. Some would argue that the Republican Party is elevating environmental concerns even while it tries to stamp-out environmentalism. The GOP unintentionally accomplishes this feat by eviscerating core environmental statutes, and by carving out enough space at the committee table to seat every big business interest, cigar-chewing miner, fattened rancher, and limousine lumberjack who demands "environmental policy reform."

Indeed, since Brewer's Yale presentation in 1994, environmentalism is actually on the upswing in America: people fear that the freshmen class of bombthrowers in Congress and their fearless leader are "Newtering" the environment. But the fact is, environmentalism will always wax and wane as long as citizens are confused about the message and turned-off by all of the loaded expressions, labels, and idioms that begin with the otherwise righteous word, "environment." I am willing to bet that if we take a random sample of citizens and ask them to describe "environmental" or "environmentalism" we will find a range of responses that, while not necessarily negative by themselves, are pieces of an overall scornful image of the Environmental Movement. Environmentalism will be associated with obstruction, disobedience, the regulatory tangle, liberalism, radicalism. But if we ask people about specific environmental issues and the slackening of environmental rules, but in posing our questions, minimize (or forbid) the use of words with the root, "environment" -- we will find a very different array of responses. People will offer images of citizens becoming sick from dirty water, children choking on filthy air, beloved beasts disappearing from the wild, etc.

To break the see-saw character of the public's environmental attention span, (to elevate the environment to a permanent position in the American policy psyche) we must go right to the moment of creation and reconsider what we mean by "environment." I am not suggesting that we abandon the word "environment" and all of its derivatives. But it is critical to link environment to core public values and frankly, public trepidations about the long-term health of nature and humanity. This is no easy task. Deconstructing "environment," for example, could be very counterproductive. The temptation is great to use, "environment," because, in its best conception, it captures the essence of the wholeness of the natural/human complex. Furthermore, there is a well-intentioned and absolutely necessary legal-policy movement away from piecemeal concepts like "clean water" and "clean air" towards, for better or worse, "the environment." But I am afraid "environment" has been spoiled by images of radicalism, regulatoryism, and take-away-ism. These images were partly generated by the movement itself, and partly the consequence of a long war of attrition waged by the anti-environmentalists.

So what is the answer? I am not certain. "Environment" is here to stay, I think. And that's not necessarily bad. But like "liberalism" and increasingly, "government" -- "environment" is in need of major surgery. Mr. Gore is reinventing "government." I think we need to reinvent the environment.

S. Mattingly is an assistant professor of environmental policy at Indiana University.

Copyright 1995 S. Mattingly