“Who would like to receive diamonds in their lifetime?” Professor CindyAnn Rose-Redwood was lecturing about the European colonization of Africa and the resulting social and environmental exploitation. Conflict diamonds are still problematic in post-colonial Africa, particularly in Côte d’Ivoire, where employee rights are ignored and meagre wages persist. The industry is tied to civil conflict, illegal gun trade, poverty, and black markets.
Untamed brows furrowed and heads cocked. My hand shot up into the air as if Oprah might appear and start doling out swag. The mosaic of students in the Geopolitics class showed no mercy. Sociologists with entrenched crows’ feet, environmentalists inked with nature-inspired tattoos, and geographers carrying GOERT stickers on their Nalgene’s all sighed, sneered, and snickered. Silence. My pores flushed as beady eyes narrowed in. “Has she even seen Blood Diamond . . .?” Breathless whispers between students echoed for all to hear. Those in the front row may have experienced whiplash at my expense.
As a self-admitted sore thumb in the Environmental Studies department, I bleach my hair, casually wear heels to lecture, and more often than not overuse eyeliner. I expect diamonds throughout my lifetime—big ones at that. Now that you know the truth about me, please try to hear me out on the harms of stereotyping environmentalists, and reinforcing these myths among our own.
Hemp bracelets, ‘Vegenaise,’ and Birkenstocks. I have been able to mediate socially constructed conflict between the environmentally conscious and unconscious by not fitting with most of my Environmental Studies peers. Simultaneously not identifying with the proverbial “other” has reinforced this capability. Excluding those who may not appear to be environmentalists creates an “us versus them” mentality. Some folks have even begun to see environmentalism as a religion that narrows diversity and increases animosity. William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison calls environmentalism a new religion because it has “a complex series of moral imperatives for ethical action, and judges human conduct accordingly.”
Environmental Studies boasts an interdisciplinary approach. In theory, it includes many fields of study and multiple perspectives. Stereotyping has acted as a major barrier to the success of environmentalism. Memes are designated colours used to describe the values and tendencies of certain individuals. For example, the blue meme represents conservative individuals who favour authority, routine, and precautionary economic principles. An individual’s worldview is a meme within the study of integral systems theory. Annie Leonard of the Story of Stuff project explained that communicating environmentalism to different cultural memes has been one of our greatest weaknesses.
If you have ever been greeted by your conservative uncle at Thanksgiving with a huff and an eye roll, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Those who self-identify in the environmentally unconscious camp can write us off for the sole reason that we are somehow pitted “against them.” Long-standing tensions exist between environmentalists and corporations, centralized governments, hunters and fishers, religious institutions, and even First Nations. When environmentalists are placed in a box, our capacity to turn the “movement” into what should be a default livelihood is limited. Stereotypes limit our capacity to catalyze mass social, economic, and environmental change.
Have you ever been treated poorly after revealing your field of study? To the contrary, I have found that the environmentally unconscious agree that we, the environmentally conscious, haven’t always been the most gracious of hosts. At times we have stereotyped others as much as we think they have stereotyped us. Consensus between these groups must be met; learning to work together is critical. Environmentalists cannot solve global environmental issues without help. Because we are often considered a special interest group, we lack the political clout or economic authority to go at this alone. It is imperative that we take our message and translate it into a language that the audience understands and relates to. When discussing sustainability with that old uncle of yours, stress conservative values and economic efficiency. You could even throw in a bit about being a steward of the earth from a biblical perspective.
What does all of this mean for environmentalists? First, and maybe most importantly, let’s keep preaching to the choir. It is my hope that we as an environmental community can be more inclusive of others. Being judged for wanting a diamond was an annoyance in my day. The sideways glances and audible distaste for my materialistic desire made me realize that turning on each other might be the worst mistake of all. It speaks to the overarching good-evil dualism that persists in environmental studies. No one bothered to question the kind of diamond I dreamed of. In my most secret fantasies, the monstrosity found on my ring finger will be conflict-free, from a Canadian mine, and set in recycled gold from my own grandmother’s engagement.