Average is the New Green: How Millennials Are Redefining Environmentalism

There are few places in the world quite like Indonesia, where exploding urban and rural populations meet some of Earth's most diverse coral reefs and rainforest. A stunning archipelago of over 13,000 islands, it ranks second in the world for biodiversity and holds the ninth largest city on the planet. It's also the place I called home for much of my pre-college life.

I took my first steps on Indonesian ground and spent my days jockeying with monkeys for climbing time on the banyan tree in our front yard. I got my first lessons on the environment crouching in my Tevas to watch giant jungle ants pass comically large objects up an assembly line, or with my face pressed against the screen door while a monitor lizard stalked across the grass after some unsuspecting prey.

Growing up amidst all of that was amazing, but it also provided a front row seat to some pretty serious environmental degradation. Having one of the fastest growing populations in the world, the clashing needs of the ever-expanding cities and the dwindling old-growth forests were playing out before my eyes, and none of it was promising. As beautiful as it could be there, widespread poverty, burning mounds of trash and clear-cut forests were also part of the daily landscape. I didn't realize how much the experience had affected me until my second year of college, living in the United States again after 16 years overseas, when I surprised myself by declaring environmental science as my major and searching out internships at conservation non-profits.

The more I learn about the environmental movement, the more I believe that while we are winning some battles, without changing the way we talk about and fight for the environment, we will lose the war.

In a Pew Research Center study released in March, millennials dropped the green act: only 32 percent of people born after 1980 identified as "environmentalists," compared to 44 percent of the silent generation and 42 percent of boomers and gen-Xers.

I see this as an applause-worthy step for the environmental movement -- imperative, even. Coupled with the reality that millennials were also found to be more supportive of stricter environmental laws, more likely to attribute global warming to human activity, and more likely to favor environmentally-friendly policies than their predecessors, I'd argue that millennials have begun to shed the mindset that having concern for the future of our planet and species is specific to environmentalists alone. Our generation owns fewer cars and bikes and uses public transportation more often than generations before, but we don't identify as environmentalists as widely. We eat less meat, but fewer of us call ourselves vegetarians.

When I consider why we have begun to discard or even revile these labels, it becomes clear that we don't make sustainable decisions to be green. We do these things because not only do they make sense, but also because being actively and intelligently invested in the ecological condition of our planet is no longer a choice, but a necessity. We are learning that our eco footprints have impacts globally and that is something everyone, environmentalist or not, should embrace. This understanding could lead to the most practical and realistic manifestation of the environmental movement yet.

Even if pressed, I would have a hard time calling myself an environmentalist. I'm not alone -- many people I know feel the same, even as they hop on their bikes to peddle sustainably off to their job in the green sector. Maybe it's the stigma of environmentalists as wealthy do-gooders, put on this planet to glare accusingly as you accidentally dump your cardboard cup into the recycling hole for plastic. More likely, I believe it's the notion of nature as a separate, pristine thing that is only found in distant national parks. Environmentalism and modern, urban lifestyles not are mutually exclusive.

As it has been used traditionally, the language of environmentalism seems to suggest taking steps backward to achieve our conservation goals by restoring ecosystems at the price of jobs, livelihoods, and our experience of nature. Biodiversity has been and will continue to be lost, cities will continue to expand, and the impacts of the age of man will not be erased. To me, there is a freedom in accepting this. We can redefine nature as part of our urban existences, resilient and present in our day-to-day lives. The choices we make in sustainability and wise resource use will color every aspect of our lives and thinking that we can sector off the environment as a cause separate from the economy, technology, and our survival is a notion of the past.