Blog When did ‘eco-friendly’ become political?

When did ‘eco-friendly’ become political?

Are humans already colonizing Mars? 

Because there are a lot of people who seem opposed to the idea of saving the Earth. 

Like many issues in the U.S., environmentalism is hotly debated, and your views on the topic might hinge on which of two political parties you lean toward.

While it’s a divisive topic today, that wasn’t always the case. Let’s take a look.

What’s the deal

You’d think something as existential to humanity as the viability of Earth would be a unifying force. 

But as we’ve seen over the last few decades, sustainability and environmentalism are as politically polarizing as any issue in the United States. 

In a study published in 2020 by Pew Research, climate change and the environment were the two most politically polarizing issues in the U.S. when polling registered Democrats and Republicans. That’s shifted a bit, but it’s still hardly a subject on which the Rs and the Ds agree.

Today, nearly 78% of Democrats describe climate change as a major threat to the country’s well-being, up from about 58% a decade ago. By contrast, about 23% of Republicans consider climate change a major threat, a share that’s almost identical to 10 years ago.

A look back

In the late 60s and early 70s, there was broad, bipartisan support for environmental policies.

Congress passed landmark legislation to control pollution, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. And in 1970, more than 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day celebration. 
Fast forward to the early 80s, though, and you see a stagnating economy, growing inflation, and calls for deregulation. Environmental historian Naomi Oreskes puts it this way:

“[In the late 70s] there’s a lot of anxiety, both in the United States and Europe, about what is happening economically. … This creates an opening for the private sector to say, ‘Well, the thing you’ve done wrong is to overregulate the private sector. You’ve passed all these laws that handcuffed us and now look what the price of that is: inflation and unemployment — that’s not supposed to happen. There’s something wrong with this picture and the problem is regulation.’”

And thus the seeds of environmental polarization were sowed. Proponents of deregulation used environmental policies as examples of how government overreach stifled America and painted environmental activists as tree-hugging loons.

Helplessness and distrust

Of course, it’s more complex than saying “the 1980s” is why environmentalism is political today.

For one, there are major divides in the way partisans interpret scientific discussion and research on climate change. You also have vastly differing levels of trust in information from scientists and a primary conduit of their research: news media.

For example: ​​70% of liberal Democrats trust climate scientists a lot to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change, compared with just 15% of conservative Republicans.

On top of that, many people report a general sense of helplessness with regard to how they can help change anything. Some climate experts fear that climate apathy is a greater risk than climate change denial.

What can we agree on? We’re tired

Ironically, the one unifying aspect of environmentalism that Americans can agree on is that we’re frustrated with political disagreement on it.

Bloomberg reports that “political frustration unifies Americans more than any other reaction to climate change,” as nearly 80% of respondents in a Pew Research poll said the political disagreement bothers them.

Tips for conversation

If you’re trying to have a constructive conversation on climate change or the value of environmentalism, try these tips from the #TalkingClimate Handbook, from the UK-based organization Climate Outreach.

  • Respect your conversational partner and find common ground: Seek common ground and shared values. Focus on building trust, not on having an argument.

  • Enjoy the conversation: Avoid trying to fit in every point. Ask questions rather than lecture and seek to understand experiences that led to beliefs. Try to end on a positive note.

  • Ask questions: Find out what climate change means to them. Give space for reflection.

  • Listen and show you’ve heard: Genuinely listen and verify that you’ve correctly understood.

  • Tell your story: How you became engaged and why you are concerned are some of the most powerful tools you have. Share your perspectives and experiences and where you are struggling or what challenges you have faced.
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