Millennials: We Help The Earth But Don't Call Us Environmentalists | KERA News

Millennials: We Help The Earth But Don't Call Us Environmentalists

Oct 11, 2014
Originally published on October 14, 2014 7:10 pm

This story is part of the New Boom series on millennials in America.

Young people have been the life blood of the environmental movement for decades. There could be trouble on the horizon though, and it all comes down to semantics.

To explain, it's helpful to use the example of Lisa Curtis, a 26-year-old from Oakland, California.

Curtis comes from a long line of environmentally-conscious Americans. Her grandmother, Sis Curtis was an avid hiker and at 84 remains a Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund member. Lisa's 55-year-old mother, Barb Curtis drives a hybrid car, roofed her house with solar panels, and avoids using plastic except as a last resort.

Although they aren't the types to flaunt it, both women would call themselves environmentalists.

However, it's Lisa Curtis, the youngest of the three, who truly sets the bar for sustainability in this family. She started her high school's recycling club, she traveled to Copenhagen in 2009 to observe international climate talks and she nearly experiences physical pain when she's forced to throw away food scraps in a regular trash can rather than a compost bin.

"It just feels wrong," she says.

But unlike the Curtises before her, Lisa refuses to call herself an environmentalist.

"I think the term has been sort of corrupted... politicized," she says.

This is the difference when it comes to millennials, 18-33 year-olds. Young Americans, including staunch environmentalists like Lisa, may be turning away from the word "environmentalist." A Pew Research Center poll earlier this year asked participants if they felt the term "environmentalist" describes them very well. Over 40 percent of respondents said yes, except when it came to millennials. Just 32 percent of them agreed. That might not seem substantial, but Pew says it's statistically significant.

The Pew Research Center didn't ask participants for their for reasons why. But Lisa Curtis has a theory: the word "environmentalist" has become outdated.

"It's starting to be used more in a derogatory way," she says. "Oh you're such an environmentalist. You're not in touch with the real world."

She's conjuring imagery that 48-year-old Thomas Hayden, currently a professor of environmental communication at Stanford, is all too familiar with.

"30 years ago — even I cringe a little to remember it — I was sporting white-guy-dreadlocks and living in a commune called the Eco-House," he says.

Today, Hayden's students at Stanford are some of the most motivated, young environmentalists in America. Two of them recently helped convince Stanford to divest all portions of its nearly $19 billion endowment that were attached to the coal industry. This is in line with another point: young Americans are not necessarily any less concerned about the planet's health.

Previous polls have found people under 30 were more likely than older Americans to favor developing alternative energy sources. Millennials are also more likely than other generations to believe that humans are responsible for climate change.

Thomas Hayden wanted to reconcile these two findings. So he recently asked his class, "who identifies as an environmentalist?" In response, only a few hands went up. One student, who'd kept her hand down, explained why.

"'OK, fair enough. I am actually an environmentalist... But I wouldn't say that just anywhere,'" Hayden recalls the student saying. "They understand if they come out saying 'I'm an environmentalist, and here's what I think everybody should do,' that that's immediately polarizing."

Hayden says that's because his students saw how previous generations of environmentalists, including Hayden and his commune buddies, came off as scolding to the general public.

Lisa Curtis wants to stay away from all that. So she calls herself a "social entrepreneur."

She runs Kuli Kuli, a company that helps west African villages economically and environmentally. But the words "environment," "earth," and "climate change" are nowhere to be found in her company's mission statement.

She says that is on purpose.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now, for another installment of NPR's New Boom series about the generation that already outnumbers the boomers - the millennials, who were born between the years 1980 and 2000. If you walk onto just about any college campus today, there's a good chance you'll be stopped by students who hand you flyers and sign-up sheets for clubs, for student elections and to save the planet. The environmental movement has always looked to young people for enthusiastic recruits, but as NPR's Chris Benderev reports, might be harder to find them now.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: I want to introduce you to an eco-friendly family, the Curtises of Oakland, California. Three generations gathered at the family home recently to talk with me. First up, there was Sis Curtis. She's 84, the grandmother, and she's been a longtime member of the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund.

SIS CURTIS: We used to hike all over the Sierras. We did the whole John Muir Trail.

BENDEREV: Next, there was her daughter-in-law, Barb Curtis. She's 55.

BARB CURTIS: We try our hardest not to use plastic; we have solar panels; we have a hybrid car.

BENDEREV: Finally, there's Lisa - Barb's daughter and Sis's granddaughter. She's 26, but already, she sets the bar for sustainability in this family. For example, when she met her boyfriend's family back in Chicago a while ago, it became a mildly traumatic experience when she realized there was nowhere to compost her leftover food after dinner.

LISA CURTIS: And at first I, like, refused to throw the food scraps away. It just felt so wrong. So I put it in a little bag, and then I didn't really know what to do with it.

(LAUGHTER)

L. CURTIS: So eventually I just threw it away.

(LAUGHTER)

BENDEREV: It actually is, like, physically difficult for you to just throw something in the trash that could be composted?

L. CURTIS: Yeah, it is. It feels wrong.

BENDEREV: Now, it seems all three generations of Curtis women would embrace the label of environmentalist. So I asked them. Let's start with Grandma Sis.

S. CURTIS: My views are definitely as an environmentalist, yes.

BENDEREV: Next up Barb, the mom.

B. CURTIS: I would say yes, if somebody asked me on the street.

(LAUGHTER)

BENDEREV: And finally Lisa, who, remember, feels a visceral need to compost.

L. CURTIS: I wouldn't because I think that the term has been corrupted.

BENDEREV: And here's the difference when it comes to millennials - young Americans, including staunch environmentalists like Lisa, may be turning away from that word, environmentalist. At least, that's what seemed to emerge in a poll from the Pew Research Center earlier this year. It asked people whether the term environmentalist describes them very well. And over 40 percent of respondents said yes, except when it came to millennials - 18- to 33-year-olds - just 32 percent agreed. That might not seem like a lot, but Pew says that's statistically significant. Now, Pew didn't ask for reasons why, but Lisa Curtis has a theory.

L. CURTIS: It's starting to be used more in a, like, derogatory way. Oh, you're such an environmentalist, you know, you don't - you're not in touch with the real world.

BENDEREV: And when it comes to being out of touch, a guy named Thomas Hayden knows all about that.

THOMAS HAYDEN: Thirty years ago - even I cringe a little bit to remember it - but I was sporting white-guy-dreadlocks and living in a commune called the Eco-House.

BENDEREV: Hayden's 48 now and teaches environmental communication at Stanford. His students are some of the most motivated young environmentalists in America. Two of them recently helped convince Stanford to divest entirely from the coal industry. And in fact, polls have found people under 30 are more likely than other Americans to favor developing alternative energy sources and to believe that humans are responsible for climate change. Thomas Hayden was confused by all this, so he asked his class, who among you identifies as an environmentalist? Only a few hands went up. One student, who kept her hand down, explained why.

HAYDEN: OK, fair enough. I am actually an environmentalist, she said, but I wouldn't say that just anywhere. They understand that if they come out saying, I'm an environmentalist and here's what I think everybody should do, that that's immediately polarizing.

BENDEREV: Hayden says previous generations of environmentalists, including Hayden and his scruffy commune buddies, just came off as scolding to the general public. And that's why Lisa Curtis, the 26-year-old we heard from earlier, she doesn't like the term. Instead...

L. CURTIS: I call myself a social entrepreneur.

BENDEREV: She runs a company that helps West African villages economically and environmentally. But the words environment, Earth and climate change are nowhere in her company's mission statement, and that, she says, is on purpose. Chris Benderev, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.