Don’t call them environmentalists!

It amuses me when I see environmental groups identifying themselves in the media as ‘conservationists’ rather than what they really are. I was reminded of this again in an article reporting on the BC government’s recent Mountain caribou recovery initiative.

The announcement is good news for conservationists, but it is just a first step, said Candace Batycki, a director with Forest Ethics.

I suspect that this attempt to redefine themselves dates back to a 1997 document prepared by BC Wild for (their words) members of the BC Environmental Movement.

BC Wild conducted a number of focus groups in various locations around BC “to learn how average BC residents feel about their province, what they see as the key issues BC will face in the future, and how in particular they relate to environmental and conservation issues”.

The insight into the public’s perception of ‘environmentalists’ is interesting. At one point the report says that:

“Negative perceptions of environmentalists exist everywhere in BC, but they grow in intensity and scope the farther you get from Vancouver and as you move from women to men. While BC residents credit environmentalists with raising awareness and playing a watchdog role, our image with the public is primarily negative. At best we are perceived as well-meaning watchdogs. At worst people see us as part of the problem – ideologues that promote and thrive on conflict – rather than part of the solution – responsible actors seeking balance.”

The report goes on to note:

Conservationists are perceived much more positively than environmentalists. People generally think of conservationists as more educated, more steeped in facts and science, more specific in their goals, more low key, less radical, more positive, older, wiser and more like them.

Then in a section called, “How To Talk About Environmental and Conservation Issues with BC Residents”, it compares “Good words to use” to “Bad words to use”.

Good word to use: Conservationist.
Bad word to use: Environmentalist.

Since that time I have noted that many environmental groups, when talking to the media have repositioned themselves as conservationists.

What is the difference between a conservationist and an environmentalist, you ask? Here is a series of definitions that I like.

Conservationism began in the early 1900s, based on the concepts that humankind is a part of nature, that far more plants and animals are reproduced each year than can survive, and that these excess plants and animals are resources to be harvested. People, however, must do everything possible and economically feasible to reduce human impact on nature.

Environmentalist ideology, synthesized between the mid-1960s and early 1980s, is based on the doctrine that modern industrial mankind, as distinct from the indigenous cultures, is not part of nature, does not have the right to exploit or manipulate wild plants and animals, and must reduce his exploitation of nature to a level of minimum survival requirements.

Preservationism took root about 1985 by combining two powerful philosophies of environmentalism and socialism with a new interpretation: “Mankind does not belong in nature and if something bad befalls you, like an attack by a wild animal, it’s your fault.

You can call a dog an eagle, but it still won’t fly.

That report was done a decade ago. It would be interesting to see if perceptions have changed since that time.


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