State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Environmentalism Isn’t Partisan — At Least It Shouldn’t Be

After a gathering at my apartment, a friend was helping me clean up my small New York City kitchen. As I did the dishes, she started putting away things in the refrigerator. When she opened up my freezer she found it stuffed with a large bag of food scraps, leaving little space for much else.

“Oh sorry,” I said. “That’s my compost — I still haven’t dropped it off at the farmers market this week. Just see what else you can squeeze in there.”

green compost bin
Photo: Blaine Fulmer

“Wow,” she said. “That’s not very Republican of you.”

It was the type of comment I hear often. Among my New York friends, I am considered the “conservative one.” I grew up between both Los Angeles and the Idaho Panhandle on a small cattle ranch. In my 20s I worked in Republican politics in Texas. I have a strong cultural affiliation with both red and blue states, and I am as comfortable on a horse as I am in an Upper West Side cafe.

While these comments have a slight tinge of sarcasm, they have always bothered me. Not on a personal level, but rather what they signify on the broader cultural and political landscape.

When did practicing environmentally conscious habits become a cultural tug of war? And, more importantly, what does it mean for the progress of American environmentalism?

As a political moderate and now registered independent, I’ve always felt conservative in blue states and liberal in red states, and I’ve seen environmentalism used too often as a weapon of identity politics.

I have too many liberal friends who carry the “environmentalist” card by simply identifying as liberal, even though they have never taken any initiatives to change their personal habits regarding the environment. Alternatively, I’ve seen conservatives bristle at the idea of anything “green.” After pestering my college roommates in Dallas to use the recycling bin, one replied, “I don’t do that. I’m not a liberal.”

The conservative homesteaders I saw in Idaho know more about composting than most of the Whole Foods patrons I see on any given night. But the convergence of “conservative” “composting” and “recycling” do not follow the cultural parameters we have set up to identify liberals and conservatives.

For those who say that environmentalism is the bastion of the left, looking at the post-1970s Republican party, they are correct, at least in the public sector. But it wasn’t always like this. Teddy Roosevelt helped conserve more than 150 million acres of forest. Richard Nixon was responsible for establishing the Environmental Protection Agency and signing the Endangered Species Act, among other important environmental legislation. These actions have made lasting impacts on the

American environmentalist movement. But I don’t like defining a movement as the sole entity of one political party. And frankly, who cares who “owns” a movement?

As with any issue, there will be disagreements as to how to utilize both private and public sectors to effect change. But subverting environmentalism within this arbitrary political binary is neither effective nor accurate. With the proliferation of sustainability reporting, corporate sustainability teams, and the burgeoning industries of eco-friendly goods and services, there is clearly a public demand for greener products, services, and alternatives to the current status quo.

To treat a Republican environmentalist as an anomaly turns a passionate environmental advocate into a political apostate whose environmentalism is a caveat to their conservatism rather than what it really is: an essential part of their world view and a means to serve as an ally to a great and global cause.

Despite these admonitions of partisanship, our current reality is decidedly polarized and partisan. So, if we must, we can define environmentalism differently through liberal and conservative lenses:

For liberals, environmentalism can be broadly viewed as utilizing government as a means of preserving environmental resources for the greater good. Environmentalism for conservatives can be seen as an opportunity to spur innovation and new industries in the private sector as a means of utilizing resources at their maximum potential.

These two schools of thought are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they speak more to the common ground that both parties share — namely that environmentalism is universal and there are many ways to summit the mountain of issues that we face.

Let’s not allow this important and universal cause to fall victim to partisanship. Both sides have value to bring to the table, and yes, you can be conservative and a composter.

Blaine Fulmer is a student in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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