It was 8 o’clock on a Thursday morning when I heard a knock at my front door. The sky was blue, the birds were chirping, and…nobody I knew would be knocking on my door right now.
I opened the door to find my landlord, Carolyn, bright eyed and ready to make the world a greener place – starting with us.
“Carolyn! Do you want to…come in?”
That was the first moment I ever hated environmentalism. In one hand, my landlord had a recycling quiz she had made for my housemates and me. In the other was a bag of seven non-recyclable items she had found while periodically combing through our recycling bin over the last two weeks. The fifty minutes that followed brought an in-person quiz on the beer bottles we should have been reusing and plastic bags we should have been refusing. Portion sizes we should have controlled judging by that mound of lasagna left out to mold.
As an environmentalist myself, I should have been a fan of this. Education combats ignorance, right? But something felt distinctly annoying. As she modeled her canvas tote bag and passionately denounced an evil sheet of Styrofoam, it occurred to me:
Could we, as environmentalists, be turning people off to environmentalism?
My first clue that the answer was a resounding “yes” was the gradient of reactions my friends and family had to this story. Their reactions generally corresponded with whether or not they were already environmentalists.
"Well, I guess it’s good that you’re more aware now," a table of my enviro-friends seemed to conclude, not quite picking up on the ridiculous punchline of a grown woman burrowing through my trash can while I was in class. Meanwhile, my aunt and uncle, very mild conservatives and environmentally impartial, couldn’t escape their anger for long enough to laugh the story off as an amusing incident.
Anger? Anger had never occurred to me. I asked my uncle to expand.
“You aren’t their houseguests.” He paused, twirling a forkful of spaghetti. In a gust of inspiration he jabbed it at me: “If you lease a car from Ford, you don’t expect the CEO to show up for a ride-along and tell you what music you should be listening to while you drive.”
To him, the idea of a recycling intervention threatens a deeply held value: autonomy. He thought he was mad about recycling, but he wasn’t. He was mad that my landlord short-circuited my personal freedom for the sake of recycling.
"Yes, that’s unfortunate, but this is too important!" I hear chambers of fellow activists exclaiming. "This is the future of humanity! If we don’t intervene, they won’t change." Isn’t this how we go about environmentalism in general? More regulation and oversight to limit bad behavior? When you really think about it, the EPA is a glorified Carolyn-the-landlord, and I couldn’t agree with their mission more!
In theory, the ends should justify the means of saving the planet.
But then again, in theory, everyone in this country should be eagerly embracing environmentalism. Yet they aren’t.
I think we need to ask ourselves why.
We intervene because we think we have active opponents, but maybe we have so many active opponents because of the way we intervene. Instead of dragging them through the streets for the sake of our cause, perhaps we should inspire them to follow us willingly.
Alexa Beyer is an undergraduate student at Middlebury College.