The Motivations of Environmentalism

As an environmental analysis major
on a Society and the Environment track, I find myself wishing that society
and the environment didn’t seem to exist in contradiction. I often ponder the
environmental movement, its discourse, and discussion through the connotations
of the concept of the environment. By using the
term environmentalist, we inherently imply that there are those of us who are invested in the environment and those of us who don’t. It creates a circle of belonging, which is
great for fostering the camaraderie and community that makes any movement
successful. But the existence of such a
circle also means that there are those outside the circle, those who don’t
identify the environment as a large concern and those who don’t call themselves
activists in this area. And this
division leads the group members to feel threatened and opposed by the
so-called outsiders, and vice versa, as if environmentalists and the rest of society were

I sometimes
feel that the environmental movement carries a risky sense of
righteousness. It puts forth the idea
that, out of the goodness of our Earth-loving hearts, we must save the world we
live in for the world’s sake, as if we are perfectly selfless inhabitants. But the reality is that we, as human beings,
are a species just like any other, interested in survival and self-preservation. Darwin taught us this long ago. And that has two crucial implications: one,
that as an environmentalist I’m really not so selfless, and two, that every
human being, whether inside or outside of that environmentalist circle, has a
personal interest in the environment. Aside from my personal love of the outdoors and appreciation for natural
beauty and phenomena, I want to protect the earth out of the simple, selfish
motives of my personal well-being and that of my species. By nature, all human beings have this
interest, just as we all still maintain our survival instincts. 

Our 21st-century test
will not be to fight or run from lions, tigers, and bears but rather will be a
battle against ourselves. Our task is to
turn our survival instincts from traditional manifestations toward our true
threat: the climate change that we have created. And this is a much more difficult battle
because we are smart, we are organized, we are political, we are monetarily
motivated, we are accustomed to many environmentally detrimental comforts, and
we have not registered this as an instinctual threat. This last obstacle is perhaps the
greatest. However, the very difficulties
of this battle are also our strengths. Our intelligence, creativity, and organization are also what will allow
us to identify the problems and create solutions.

My selfish call to action may not
be as idealistic or polite as an ode to the wonders of the natural world, but I
hope that it appeals to a wider audience. In fact, I hope it appeals to all
human beings. Environmentalism, or environmental analysis, is not only for
hippies, nature lovers, hikers, biologists, and the politically liberal. This
is a movement for any human being who enjoys life on Earth, as simple
as that sounds. We need to unite the
goals of environmentalists with the goals of all human beings, because
ultimately they are the same. My journey
through environmental studies and an environmental career is really just a
journey through being a human being and preserving the life that I love, for
myself, and the seven billion of my kind.

Johanna Rayl PO ’16 is an Environmental Analysis major from Seattle, Washington.

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