How “Environment” Became a Dirty Word and What Public Historians Can Do About It

A recent online discussion among fellow environmental historians revealed a troubling development: the word “environment” carries negative connotations for a large proportion of the American public.Some instructors at institutions in regions with predominantly conservative political cultures are witnessing an enrollment downturn in their environmental history courses listed in catalogs under that title. Students in some of these courses confirmed professors’ fears: the presence of “environment” in the course title dissuaded many from enrolling for fear that the course would be about “tree hugging” or a form of environmentalist indoctrination. The ensuing discussion focused on alternative titles that might circumvent this problem and the relative success creative renaming has obtained for instructors in the field.

Yet the dilemma facing environmental historians is more than a sales issue. It reflects a transformation in American political culture decades in the making: “environment” has become conflated with “environmentalism,” and both equated with liberal elitism, economic stagnation, infringement of property rights, and a government overstepping its mandate. The EPA is a favorite boogeyman of an increasingly populist conservative movement and many consider environmental consciousness, at best, a luxury reserved for a meddlesome few who already enjoy material prosperity and, at worst, outright hypocrisy. Continue reading “How “Environment” Became a Dirty Word and What Public Historians Can Do About It”