Making the world around us a better place seems like a fairly universal, non-partisan goal.
But at least in Utah, the words “environmentalism” and “environmentalist” can have strong negative connotations. That connotation isn’t unjustified either; to me, the environmentalism of past generations seems grating, simplistic and occasionally condescending. Like the author of this Grist article, I’m concerned about the environment, but even I don’t really feel comfortable calling myself an “environmentalist.”
In response, I think that when we talk about the environment, especially in Utah, we need a better and less polarizing term that better captures our values. That term, I believe, is “stewardship.” Moreover, I think if we really want to push traditionally “green” policies, we’ll only talk about “stewardship.” For the sake of effectiveness, let’s expunge “environmentalism” from our vocabulary.
One reason for using this word in Utah is obvious: stewardship is a canonical value of the LDS Church. “Environmentalism,” on the other hand, is vilified by the political right.
But stewardship is a broader term as well. Environmental writers from many locations and backgrounds use it frequently already. And in any case, it seems to capture a better sentiment: people are supposed to wisely take care of the earth. In that way, “stewardship” can help people see that widely held values align with concepts they might otherwise reject as “environmentalism.”
Stewardship is also an active value, rather than a prohibitive one. So, for example, stewardship might suggest that we should plant trees rather than not cutting them down, as environmentalism tended to emphasize. We should walk to get places, rather than not driving so much. We should conserve and recycle, rather than not dumping trash in landfills.
Where “environmentalism” has come to imply a whole slew of pain-in-the-neck rules and anti-behaviors, “stewardship” implies active engagement. The end result is similar — less pollution, more trees, etc. — but stewardship focuses on individual action and simply “deactivates” destructive behavior collaterally.
This isn’t a new or revolutionary argument. And of course it’s a semantic issue that needn’t change the actual policies currently being pursued by green-oriented Utah citizens. But it’s also an issue that if properly “packaged” with more accurate terminology, can help people see that they have more common ground than quarrels. In other words, Provo may never be a city of environmentalists, but it’s already filled with potential stewards.