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Know the West

Being "green" doesn't make you a radical


I’m far from the first to notice the increasing popularity of the phrase “radical environmentalist” and its close cousin “environmental extremist” in political discourse lately, but I’m getting darn sick of it. Rick Santorum’s “phony theology” dust-up in February was a prominent national example; as I’m sure you remember, he accused President Obama of adhering to “dark green” religious principles, which he oversimplified thus: “that man is here to serve the earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth.” For many of Santorum’s followers, the tautological absurdity of this explanation is immaterial; simply invoking “radical environmentalists” is enough to express condemnation. Linking it to exotic-sounding theology is simply icing on the cake.

Evidence of the spread of this terminology can be found frequently in local venues too, such as newspaper letters to the editor and public forums. One recent letter writer to the San Juan Record in San Juan CountyUtah, warned that if “radical environmentalists” are drawn to the area they will destroy its “rural, family oriented, agricultural” character with such evils as “political power” and “high-end shops.”

As these examples illustrate, for many “radical” or “extreme” environmentalism is a very large tent containing all manner of ills. The disturbing thing is how widely it resonates; as with the “red scare” of the 1950s, the “green scare” has everyone from federal officials to your Uncle Jim seeing George Hayduke lurking in every meadow.

But is he? No. Radical organizations like the ELF do exist, but their influence is greatly exaggerated. Unfortunately, they are too-convenient bogeymen for those who want to paint all environmentalists with one brush. If you disagree with an individual or organization, simply pin on them the “radical” label. The success of this cynical rhetorical fad has been so absolute it even infects environmentalists themselves; witness the unpleasant dispute between Ted Williams and the Center for Biological Diversity’s Kieran Suckling that took place in the pages of HCN last year. 

Despite this unfortunate trend in name-calling, I am not ashamed to self-identify as an environmentalist. But I am not a radical and I’m pretty sure you’re not either. I don’t own a monkey wrench and I still believe rational discussions between people of good will are the best way to fix problems and sustain environmental health where it exists. Hopefully like all fads, this one will fade away into the sunset.

 Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Image of a high-end shop courtesy Flickr user Johnny VII; image of Monkey Wrench Collective logo courtesy Monkey Wrench Collective.