What Is An Environmental Activist?

Based on the definition of “environmental activism” that appears on TheFreeDictionary.com, one can define an environmental activist as a person who advocates for, or works towards, protecting the natural environment from destruction or pollution. But really, an environmental activist is not more than a responsible person with a conscience.

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Today, Earth is the only home we have. Humans, animals and plants —all of us— are bound to dwell on this planet for as long as it will have us. And that time might very well end soon.

Human activities have damaged Earth so deeply that the planet might be inhospitable by the turn of next century. It is more disturbing yet that harm is still being done, despite numerous hints at what is to come. April 2016 was the seventh month in a record-breaking streak of the hottest months ever documented. All over the world, lakes and other water sources are drying up, maiming the water and food supply for countless people —while in other parts, precipitations have put entire cities under water. Places like the Death Valley in Arizona are inhospitable after a certain time of the day and China is importing fresh air from Canada as its own air becomes unbreathable. Yet, climate change deniers are having a field-day with allegations that this issue has actually slowed down, China is fueling its coal-energy plants and carbon emissions worldwide reached and surpassed 400 ppm.

An environmental activist is a person who is aware of the impact human actions have had —and still have— on the planet and its inhabitants, and advocates for the implementation of sustainable, environmentally sound methods towards the development of mankind. Normally, the need to become an environmentalist, whether it be a private or educational environmentalist, or an environmental activist, is a “response to some type of threat to a person’s environment, their family or an area or place that they love” (Chase, 1999).

It is not uncommon to witness diverse ideas of what an environmental activist does. Different people will think in different ways and they will tackle the issues that are dearest to their hearts or they believe to be more pressing. As such, an environmental activist can be found covering issues related to water, air, waste reduction and recycling, as well as biodiversity. Moreover, they can do things as varied as lobbying for environmental laws, enforcing the pre-existing ones or protesting and publicly opposing harmful projects. A case for environmental and social activism can be found a couple of posts back, on this entry about the March Against Monsanto movement.



As mentioned above, an environmental activist can be any person: from the protester holding a banner to the lawyer or congressman trying to pass a law that protects the environment. However, if you are seeking to become an environmental activist yourself, it is worth noting that there are essentially three approaches to environmentalism:

  • Solution driven activism: Encompasses finding a solution to a specific problem and demanding steps be taken in order to implement said solution.
  • Change focused activism: Essentially the same as solution driven activism but in a bigger scale. The environmental activist who engages in this type of activism aims for the establishment of an alternative system that is implemented alongside the pre-existent, flawed one. An example of this is the slow but steady move from coal energy plants to clean and renewable forms of energy sought by the global community.
  • Revolutionary activism: This type of activism seeks immediate, significant change and usually encompasses direct action. This type of activism is accurately portrayed by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which is a marine conservation organization. Sea Shepherd employs direct actions in their advocacy against whaling and other actions that threaten marine life.


Schoenfeld (2005), points out the existence of narratives within the environmental movement, successfully illustrating the diversity in it. These narratives present accounts of the “extent, causes and possible responses to the ecological crisis that environmentalists commonly speak about”, in short, environmental narratives pretend to clarify the relationship of mankind with the environment. It is clear that there are as many environmental narratives as there are environmental activists and people with an opinion on the topic. However, this section focuses solely on the three types Schoenfeld describes:

  • Romantic environmental narratives: They present environmental issues as “part of a larger crisis of community, values and human hubris in modern rationalized, technocratic society”. The romantic narrative originated in parallel to the urban-industrial revolution, which it deemed destructive of traditional, more organic ways of living. Moreover, it criticized the loss of community - and the contamination of air and water which took place in early industrial cities. This narrative can be seen in what is known as “deep ecology”, which has a special concern for bio-diversity and the protection of wilderness areas. Romantic environmental narratives can also be observed in people who create a community off the grid.
  • Environmental management narratives: Also called managerial environmentalism, this narrative perceives environmental issues as essentially technical ones subject to technical solutions (Schoenfeld, 2005). This type of environmentalism includes conservation, urban planning, public health and sustainable development; all of which are notoriously pursued by the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Managerial environmentalisms seeks to optimize the use of resources so the needs of those currently alive can be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. This narrative has led way to those of environmental and human security as the demand for finite resources grows.
  • Environmental justice narratives: As described by Schoenfeld, environmental justice narratives “perceive environmental issues as part of a larger crisis of systemic injustice in contemporary society”. These narratives place environmental degradation as a result of power imbalances, which were especially marked in the South of the United States, where this environmental narrative originated. Environmental justice narratives criticize the colonial past and the neo-liberal globalization of the present, offering a unified front against the externally-driven environmentally destructive exploitation of national resources. An example of this narrative can be seen in the conflict between indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest and the loggers and miners that are currently responsible for all the pollution and deforestation plaguing the area.

Different combinations of these narratives exist in varying degrees, with diverse contributions to the field of environmentalism. Schoenfeld cites the wilderness movement –a mixture of romantic and managerial environmentalism- and civil environmentalism –which takes from both managerial environmentalism and environmental justice- as example of this.

Schoenfeld also notes that distinguishing the different narratives an environmental activist may identify with is helpful for understanding the differences between environmental activist groups and individuals. These differences, in turn, help map out the environmental crisis in terms of its origins, current state and future and to reach common ground where tactic alliances among environmental activist groups do not fall apart due to internal friction.

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