March 28, 2012
Island Living: The trouble with the term ‘environmentalist’


So the other day I was piddling around on Facebook while I was supposed to be doing something productive when I came across a very feisty comment about the polarizing beach access issue that we’ve all been obsessed and worried about.

I’m not going to share the post verbatim, because it was incredibly long and the writer kept using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS to make the POINT. This is SOMETHING I HATE because when you’re reading it, in your head, IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU’RE SHOUTING. DON’T DO THAT. EVER. ARGGGGHHHHHHHHH.

Anyways, this poster, who had apparently vacationed on Hatteras Island before, was VERY VOCAL about the fact that, as a naturalist and an environmentalist, he/she believed the powers that be are doing the right thing by closing the beaches and protecting the birds and basically that the situation was a win for environmentalists and nature lovers everywhere.

Now, I respect everyone’s right to his or her own opinion, so long as I can tell them what it is. Just ask my fiancé.

But, seriously, at this stage in the game, it would be hard for me or anyone to sway one’s very emphatic view on beach access one way or the other.

It’s that sort of an issue where the two sides don’t cross over, and it’s okay if I can’t convince this, or any other Facebooker, Tweeter, or forum poster that his or her way of thinking is wrong.

But you know what I do have a huge problem with? It is the rampant misuse of the term “environmentalist.”

Anyone who has been forced to read “1984” in ninth-grade English will tell you that your word choice carries a lot of weight. And there was probably a very smart public relations person along the way on the beach closure side who grabbed hold of the term “environmentalists” to attract more people to that position. Hey, if I had limited knowledge of the issue and only vacationed here once in a blue moon, I’d want to be on the “naturalist” and “environmentalist” side for sure.

The problem is that when one group proclaims itself to be the Protectors of the Environment, it makes the rest of us look like beer-swilling rednecks with gun racks and antlers on our gas-guzzling pickups, doing doughnuts in the sand around endangered turtle nests.

So let’s clear this up right now.

The beach access issue doesn’t boil down to a battle between “The Locals” and “The Environmentalists” because I don’t recall when myself, or anyone I know for that matter, ever declared that they weren’t an environmentalist.

My neighbor, who has been driving on the beach since the 1970s, most likely in the same Jeep Wagoneer that is currently serving as his yard décor, is one of the most environmentally friendly people I know. Everything he eats comes out of his garden. He religiously composts and fertilizes naturally, which smells horrible when I’m upwind, and a couple of years ago, after a hurricane, I helped him make a frantic effort to rescue a crab that had gotten stuck in his yard in flooding with a laundry basket. (My fiancé, who is a professional fishmonger and steams hundreds of crabs a day, thought this was quite hysterical, and after an hour or so, quite stupid.)

In fact, if I was to describe my neighbor in one word, it would be “environmentalist.”  (If I were to describe him in six words, it would be “guy with the awesome smelly garden.”) And, yet, as noted above, he loves to drive on the beach and supports beach access.

And personally, I’m a vegetarian and a staunch supporter of PETA, NAVS (National Anti-Vivisection Society), and, of course, the absolutely amazing local group, Friends of Felines, which protects but also helps control our local feral cat population. I recycle as much as possible, participate in beach cleanups, love planting trees -- so basically, yeah, I’d consider myself a naturalist and an environmentalist.

And the truth is that we all are.

Everyone I know follows the informal “carry two bags to the beach” rule – one for shells and one for trash. These folks leave their sandy area as clean as they found it, call our local wildlife rehabilitator if they spot an injured bird or other beach critter, and overall pay our natural home the respect and deference it deserves.

Locals live on the national seashore year-round, after all, so of course they want to protect it. But to hear some people talk, we’re all reckless folks who care more about our businesses and making money than about the environment.

So somebody show me the pro-access local who is in favor of more development and shopping centers,  multi-million dollar condos being raised throughout the island, high-rise hotels on the oceanfront, and four-lane highways being planted in the center of the seashore in the interest of making more money.

If you can prove this person exists, I will buy you a beer. Heck, I’ll buy you an entire bar.

We don’t want more pollution, more noise, and more people. We’re environmentalists, and we just want to get back to the way things used to be.

And frankly, as an environmentalist, I am appalled at the mass trapping and euthanization of foxes, feral cats, geese, and all the other animals who MIGHT have an impact on a dozen birds. Seriously, somebody has to explain to me how forcing a “natural balance” (I wish someone would invent a sarcasm emoticon) by eliminating hundreds of wild animals so a few different wild animals can survive is in any way good for the environment and is the act of a naturalist. Because it seems to me, you’re not really letting nature take its course here.

But this is just my own opinion, and my own little rant -- minus the RAGING USE OF CAPITAL LETTERS -- and honestly I’m not trying to sway anyone to come on over and join our side.

But I would like every local out there to remember that he or she is not fighting against the environmentalists – they’re fighting against groups that want, for reasons they do believe are admirable, to restrict access, euthanize threatening species, and provide more human involvement with the survival of a few other different species.

Don’t forget that as an island resident, you’re inherently an environmentalist and a naturalist, and I encourage everyone out there to keep this in mind in your upcoming debates, whether it’s on Facebook, over coffee, in an editorial, in a group crab-rescue, or in any other medium.

You love our natural island and you want to protect it. So go ahead and state your point of view with the opening clause of “As an environmentalist,” or “As a naturalist, I believe…” and know that you are using the term correctly.

Just do me a favor, and don’t use all caps to do so. THANK YOU.

(Joy Crist is an environmentalist who lives in Avon.)


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