From Trout to Polar Bears: How the Environmental Movement Lost America

By shifting control to the cities and prizing proposals like the Green New Deal, their focus shifted outside the mainstream.

Have you ever thought about why the polar bear is the mascot of choice for the climate movement?

Once upon a time, our conception of environmental protection was quite different from what it is today. During President Teddy Roosevelt’s time in the early 1900s, for example, hunters were widely regarded as upstanding individuals who cared for the land and animals they were among so often. Ranchers and farmers had their place in environmental conversations because, after all, they spent their entire lives tending to nature. Environmentalism was an issue advocated by those who spent the majority of their time in, well, the environment. Ducks, trout, and white-tailed deer—not polar bears.

In the 1970s, however, a line was drawn. America’s hunters, farmers, ranchers, and anglers, in many ways the original conservationists, became separated from the environmental movement. Groups like Greenpeace and PETA wouldn’t tolerate associating with those who interacted with—and, in their view, ruined—land and wildlife. To them, it didn’t matter that sportsmanship and ranching were the original acts of conservation by managing populations and funding ecosystem protection.

On a macro level, this change signified a larger shift within the environmental movement toward a more emotional and political message. Rather than the salt-of-the-earth image of country folks as environmentalists, the modern movement came to be dominated by mostly metropolitan voices that valued idealistic notions of “natural” preservation over pragmatic conservation. The image of the polar bear surfaced, conveying Rousseauian notions of fuzzy natural beauty untainted by humans, as opposed to those meddlesome farmers and sportsmen.

Today, this idealism is best embodied by a radical movement of eco-extremists. Progressive environmentalists have abandoned reality and common sense by turning to alarmism. One in five young children in the United Kingdom now has nightmares about climate change, which probably has something to do with popular politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying “the world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.” Some groups are urging couples to not have children in order to avoid committing “climate genocide.” Given that Extinction Rebellion stickers surfaced at the height of the pandemic, stating that “Corona is the cure, humans are the disease.” it’s no wonder people took them at face value, though they eventually turned out to be fake.

A cynic might say these modern climate activists are creating a secular religion to fill an existential crisis in their lives. Indeed, global warming is often painted as some kind of cosmological battle of existential proportions, inhabited by devils and angels, sin and redemption. Fossil fuel executives, rural communities, and conservatives are the antagonists in the story. Vegans, intersectional climate activists, and virtue-signaling progressives are the protagonists. Economic growth and capitalism are the mortal sins, degrowth and eco-socialism the only redemption. What could be more righteous and holy than returning to a pre-industrial idealized society of nature-worship and spending carbon-free days singing kumbaya?

Yet this moralization of climate change works as a psychological trick only for those searching for a moral framework that can substitute meaning in their secular lives. For most people, environmentalism is not a convincing religion. It vilifies things that people typically enjoy, such as progress and prosperity, growth and innovation. It places unreasonable commandments on its followers (thou shalt not fly, thou shalt not eat meat), and launches disproportionate witch hunts against those who blaspheme against the coerced narrative. This is one of the reasons that sportsmen and rural communities are so often skeptical of the climate movement. They recognize that it is about ideology and emotion, not the practical effects and implications of the environmental issues they experience on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, with a motivation as galvanizing as a secular higher power, progressive environmentalists will always justify prioritizing ideology over action. Just last week, in fact, more than 300 progressive environmental groups attempted to block a bipartisan energy package because it didn’t go as far as they wanted. The groups even claimed that the legislation contained “dirty handouts.” It didn’t matter that it was the result of countless bipartisan discussions or that it funded the development of technologies (such as nuclear energy and carbon capture) that would mean millions of tons of less carbon in the atmosphere.

This is why many remain wary of the modern environmental movement. It’s not because most of the country doesn’t believe in climate change. It’s because for those on the ground who see environmental challenges each and every day, the progressive environmental agenda rings hollow. When the Green New Deal, the holy scripture of choice for the climate movement, encompasses everything from racial justice to health care to jobs guarantees, it becomes painfully clear just how far removed the debate is from empirical reality. We need specific, targeted solutions, not one-size-fits-all, top-down plans that make climate change intangible to the average American. In fact, in his book Enlightenment Now, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes that people are less likely to accept the reality of climate change and decide to act on it when they are told that only widespread social revolution can solve the apocalypse, or else. However, they feel much more inclined to proactively tackle the problem if they are told that innovative, targeted solutions can and do exist.

It’s obvious, then, that the modern environmental movement would be far better off had we not been so acrimoniously divided nearly 50 years ago. To address an issue as big as climate change, we need varying perspectives and ideologies, including those of sportsmen and farmers on the front lines of a changing climate. We will get nowhere if we continue to allow the environmental movement to prioritize pseudo-religious activism over palpable action.

Christopher Barnard is the national policy director at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC).

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