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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Who’s an Environmentalist?

Air Date: Week of

These days environmentalists come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Timothy Profeta of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, about new, and unlikely, recruits to today's green movement.


GELLERMAN: Who’s an environmentalist anyway? These days it’s sort of a forest/tree question. The closer you look, the harder it is to tell the difference between granola-eating tree huggers from the corporate suits selling the virtues of going green. Then there’s the religious right warning about global warming, and typically conservative hunters taking up the cause of preserving habitats.

To help sort out the distinctions and political implications of the changing environmental landscape we turn to Timothy Profeta, director of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Thanks for joining me.

PROFETA: It’s my pleasure, thank you for having me.

GELLERMAN: You recently conducted a poll on environmental issues. What did you find that surprised you?

PROFETA: Well, first we found, which has been found in many polls, that the vast majority of Americans support the protection of our environment; the number’s at 80 to 85 percent when asked in the abstract. But when you ask them where they would vote on the issue, it has low voter resonance. And that was confirmatory; we did the poll and we confirmed that result. What we really wanted to get after, though, is why? What explains that disconnect?

And what we found was that people could easily say that they support environmental protection, but they looked at these issues through many different lenses. They looked at it through the economic effects, through the moral obligations to the future generations, to the health effects, etc. And you had to appeal to their interests through all those lenses through which they looked to really get their support. That was really the next layer that we had tried to get after in this poll.

GELLERMAN: So, are we talking about a new environmentalism, do you think?

PROFETA: I wouldn’t say that. I would say that we are now dealing with environmental issues that are of such scope that they’re more than environmental issues. So we’re talking about environmentalism, but we’re also talking about national security concerns, and we’re talking about economic concerns. So we’re talking about issues that span the scope of all those issues.

GELLERMAN: This term “environmentalist” is a broad term. It’s a difficult label. Is there any such thing as an environmentalist these days? That we can just say, “you’re an environmentalist?”

PROFETA: Well, I think you pointed out a very key question, Bruce. I think the word means different things to different people, and trying to find one person who fits the moniker is not easy. It also has a little bit of a stigma attached to it at some point. We did one focus group in Ohio where there was a lot of support for environmental concerns, but a lot of resistance to being called an environmentalist.

GELLERMAN: Who would that be? I’m thinking a hunter in one of those so-called “red states” thinking, “I like to hunt, and I like the environment, but don’t call me an environmentalist.”

PROFETA: I think that you probably could find somebody rather easily that fits that description. I remember back to a focus group we did this fall in Ohio where a woman commented, “You know, I don’t like littering or pollution any more than the rest of us, but don’t call me an environmentalist.” There was a stigma attached to that term for her.

GELLERMAN: What about the Christian Right? I would think that they’ve become kind of absorbed into this environmental issue. They’ve got a lot of interest in global warming.

PROFETA: I think it’s really because it’s a bigger issue than just a small acute environmental problem. It’s a question of the stewardship of the Earth. And the teaching of Christian thought teaches us we have to steward God’s creation, and that issue is really coming home to them.

GELLERMAN: But it kind of puts them at odds, in some ways, with the Bush administration, which kind of lumps them in another part of the continuum, political continuum.

PROFETA: I think it does have the effect, I think it’s a positive effect, of reframing this issue outside of the political context. In our political system there are very few voices that speak for long term interests and future generations. But our religious groups are one of those entities, and their ability to bring their voices to take it away from today’s political debate, the Bush administration versus the Democrats, and into the larger context, is invaluable to help us make progress on this issue.

GELLERMAN: Could there be a rising new coalition around these larger environmental movement then? That is, something that takes the Christian Right, and the hunter, and the liberal, and brings them together around these larger issues of the environment?

PROFETA: I would say it’s too early to say there is a rising coalition. There are the seeds of such a coalition. There are a lot of trust issues between those various political groups that need to be addressed. There are a lot of stakeholders in the debate that don’t hold those same opinions, and so, it’s very early. But you can see the seeds of such a thing.

GELLERMAN: So do you think, Mr. Profeta, the time is right for somebody, some charismatic politician, to step in and unite blue states, red states, conservatives, environmentalists, under one rubric?

PROFETA: We have a disparate set of stakeholders interested in action, they have disparate interests, and we need some unifying force. And there has been no means to unify all these various voices. I think the situation is ripe for that voice to emerge, and I think once it does, action will happen.

GELLERMAN: Timothy Profeta is director of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Mr. Profeta, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

PROFETA: Thank you very much. I enjoyed my time here.



Duke University Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions


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