Who gets be called an Environmentalist?

Photo: Joe Brusky/ CC BY-NC 2.0

When you hear the term “environmentalist” what type of person do you automatically picture? For many Americans, the image that’s conjured is one of a well-educated, middle-class white person, according to a new study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Not only do minority groups underestimate their own concern for the environment but the study makes it evident that all Americans underestimate the contributions of people of color to the environmental movement. 

The level of concern reported by minority and poor groups are generally much higher than the public perception. (Pearson et al., PNAS)

As City Lab explained, “when researchers asked participants in the study to rate their own environmental concern on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “extremely concerned,” minority and poorer groups rated themselves on average above a 3 (moderately concerned). Latinos reported the highest level of concern, about 3.5. The averages for white and wealthy groups, meanwhile, hovered just around 3.

And when researchers asked whether they considered themselves environmentalists, roughly two-thirds of Latino and Asian respondents responded positively, compared to only half of white respondents. (Only a third of black respondents associated themselves with that term.) Yet when asked to rate other groups, participants strongly underestimated the level of concern of all demographics except whites, women, and young Americans.” The study noted that its findings point to false beliefs about the environmental concerns of vulnerable populations as a potential impediment to addressing environmental inequities and broadening public participation in environmental decision making.

Why This Matters: Stereotypes that minorities don’t care about the environment lead to serious misrepresentation in environmental groups and also can lead to lapses in policymaking when the concerns of minority communities are overlooked. When fewer people of color are invited to the table to make environmental decisions, our public policy suffers. We recently featured Grist’s interview with Dr. Dorceta Taylor, who published “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” which comprehensively highlighted the lack of diversity in green groups and she explained that “The perception that people of color don’t care about the environment has existed for a long time, and has been debunked for just as long.” Minority communities have made immense contributions to the fight for our planet and it’s critical that they are made a central part of the environmental movement especially since these same groups are disproportionately affected by pollution and climate change.


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