The New American Environmentalists

Photo: Olympia Snowe, a Republican and former Senator from Maine, is overseeing an analysis of the economic risks of climate change (Fortune Live Media)


If the first image that springs to mind when you hear the word “environmentalist” is a Birkenstock-wearing tree-hugger, allow us to offer this reality check. These days, you’re as likely to find environmentalists in the board room and on the pulpit as you are to find them protesting in the streets.

Environmental justice pioneer Robert Bullard once said that if you breathe air and drink water, you’re an environmentalist. This fundamental reality has gotten lost in the idea that “going green” is a niche lifestyle choice.

Here we’ve gathered four communities not typically considered environmentally-minded to show how broad the movement for a healthy planet really is. With the help of these new leaders, we come closer to that great day when environmentalism gets archived alongside movements like women’s suffrage and abolitionism: movements that became obsolete when the wider society adopted their values.


The Military

The military argument for climate action is two-fold: one, the rising cost of oil puts the world’s single-largest purchaser of petroleum (the U.S. Military) in a very vulnerable position. Two, climate change is causing strain on infrastructure and political stability around the world. Former Naval Officer Leo Cruz noted that extreme weather events like Typhoon Haiyan, a disaster that prompted the assistance of 14,000 US military personnel, are going to increase. That’s why the US Navy plans to replace half of its conventional fuels with renewables by 2020 and why Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is helping the military take steps to reduce its energy use.

Troops on the ground are already seeing the value of clean energy: When Col. Robert Charette Jr. started deploying solar panels with Marines in Afghanistan, they immediately started benefiting from lighter packs and less reliance on resupplies. Now the Marines are rolling out all kinds of innovative technologies including light, glass-free solar panels and electricity-generating backpacks.


Religious Leaders

The leaders of pretty much every major religious community have released statements on the importance of protecting the planet. Advocates of “creation care”, like the Evangelical Environmental Network, argue that stewardship of the planet is a central tenet of Western faith traditions. Pope Francis is drafting an important papal document specifically on the environment, and Interfaith Power and Light helps people of all faiths talk to their congregations and communities about the moral imperative to address climate change. Grassroots organizations like the Indigenous Environmental Network work from the premise that the earth is sacred.



When it comes to climate change, the perceived conflict between “the economy” and “the environment” is breaking down in a big way. Big companies are realizing that they simply can’t operate in a world of scarce resources and climate fueled-disasters. This hit home for Coca Cola in 2004 when it lost its operating license in India because of drought. Now the company is a vocal advocate for climate action.

The growth of the divestment movement has also pushed economic impacts into the spotlight. Economists and advocates are increasingly using phrases like “carbon bubble” and “stranded assets” to explain economic climate impacts. And investors are paying attention: In late 2013, 70 global investors representing more than $3 trillion in assets asked fossil fuel companies to assess the financial risks that climate change poses to their business plans. The Risky Business Initiative will answer that very question when it releases its report in 2014.  Others, like this coalition of major charitable foundations, are pulling their assets from fossil fuels entirely, and billionaires like Warren Buffett, Jeremy Grantham and Tom Steyer are putting big bucks into renewable energy.



Despite the fact that Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon passed some of the nation’s most important environmental laws, today’s Republican members of Congress rarely carry the green banner. Outside Congress, conservatives who advocate for environmental issues are easy to find, whether they’re climate hawks like former Republican Members of Congress Olympia Snowe and Bob Inglis or Indianapolis mayor and sustainability champion Greg Ballard. Even segments of the Tea Party have been working with environmental groups at the grassroots to support renewables because of the shared value of energy independence. The Republican group ConservAmerica is making the case that it’s a small leap from conservative to conservation: “original conservative philosophy compels us to be good stewards of our natural resources”.


Where do you think the future of environmentalism is headed? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment below and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win a green prize from EarthShare.


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