Environmental gatekeeping, also called sustainability gatekeeping and just simply gatekeeping, occurs when individuals or groups prevent general access to the environmental movement. A lot of creators and personalities in the eco-friendly space have been calling out this toxic behaviour; including eco-shaming, perfectionism and a general lack of inclusivity. It’s so important we all continue to do this.
Environmentalism is not a one-size-fits-all experience. We will achieve far more for the planet by working together than we ever will tearing each other down. Listen on to find out exactly what environmental gatekeeping is, how it manifests and how to respectfully call it out.
What is environmental gatekeeping?
Environmental gatekeeping is when a person or group applies their definition of what an environmentalist should look like on others. This is usually skewed to their lived experience, geographic location and socioeconomic status. They take it upon themselves to create a rulebook that defines who can be an environmentalist or who is practising environmentalism the “right” way. As the gatekeeper, they decide who gets to pass the gates into the club.
Wikipedia defines an environmentalist as: “a person who is concerned with and/or advocates for the protection of the environment.”
That simple definition leaves a lot of room for interpretation and a whole lotta grey area. It’s a title that can be given or self-awarded with no formal qualifications or criteria. That means environmentalism can be expressed and embodied in an infinite number of ways.
How does environmental gatekeeping manifest?
Here are 4 common phrases and points of environmental gatekeeping and why they are incorrect:
“You can’t be an environmentalist without being vegan”
There is a multitude of reasons why people cannot commit to veganism. These include eating disorder recovery, food availability, income allowance, health conditions and more. While some people are just accustomed to having a high meat diet, as is common in many societies. Some people simply aren’t educated about the alternatives. Attacking and shaming people for this will rarely result in them becoming vegan. But gently encouraging them while providing meat-free solutions just might.
“Taking individual eco-friendly action and limiting plastic use will never stop climate change”
As my podcast and social media pages are all about individual eco-friendly actions we can take, I get this one a lot from strangers. I’ve been accused of making propaganda, personally insulted and consistently told that taking these actions won’t stop climate change. And my response is always the same, “you are right.”
I am well aware that little old me switching to loose leaf tea and eating plant-based will not solve the climate crisis. I have never once claimed that it will. Meanwhile, I’ve never labelled myself as a climate activist nor do I really address the issue with my content. In fact, my Instagram bio reads anti-plastic, zero waste, eco living. I’m not sure why environmental gatekeepers are hellbent on forcing everyone into a box that says “perfect climate activist.” I have huge respect for climate activists and the important work they’re doing. But I am not one of them and have never claimed to be.
“You can’t truly care about the planet if you still fly”
Air travel has a huge environmental impact and there’s no way to sugar coat that. I certainly feel a twinge of guilt when I fly, which is much less these days. I also offset my carbon emissions. It’s not a perfect solution but my opinion is that it’s better to do something than nothing.
The problem with environmental gatekeeping is that an individual or group takes it upon themselves to create a rigid definition of what an environmentalist can and cannot do. Unfortunately, it’s not for any of us mere mortals to make these decisions. It’s helpful to educate people on the carbon impact of flying. But it’s not helpful to eco-shame someone if they fly.
“It’s all well and good that you have a bamboo toothbrush, but 100 companies are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions.”
I like to call this the “comparing apples and oranges attack”. The aim is to discredit someone’s point, simply because there are bigger issues in existence. You can still care about what your toothbrush is made of and not simultaneously be fighting the climate crisis, world hunger, modern slavery and the wide variety of important issues of our time. It’s possible for humans to care about more than one issue at a time without them overlapping at all times.
Last week’s episode: The history of Earth Day and how to celebrate it sustainably
Why is it so important we stop it?
Environmental gatekeeping does nothing but break down this important movement into smaller groups and causes infighting. The oldest tactic in the book of squashing movements is to divide and conquer. Breaking large movements down into factions through gatekeeping will only make us less effective in bringing about the change we desperately need.
It’s also important to remember that every individual has their own worldview shaped by their lived experience. What you may define as a good environmentalist may be different from what I believe. Sustainability does not exist in a vacuum and there are many instances where we choose a less environmentally damaging choice instead of one that is genuinely good for the environment.
Perfectionism has no place in environmentalism. All we can do is our best.
How to respectfully call out environmental gatekeeping
The number one thing to remember is always to be respectful. The other is that usually, someone’s actions are a representation of themselves as opposed to a reaction to you. So try your best not to take bad behaviour and gatekeeping personally. Some people go for a walk when they’ve had a bad day, others choose to be mean to strangers on the internet.
When faced with environmental gatekeeping, I call it just that. I explain why this person or group’s rigid views are only serving to gatekeep sustainability. Short, sweet and to the point. It’s rarely worth your time and energy to go back and forth with an environmental gatekeeper. Some people who choose to behave like this do so because they enjoy it. They don’t care about the issue as much as they like feeling morally superior by being “right” and labelling someone else as “wrong.”
Meanwhile, some people are just channelling their climate anxiety and frustration about the lack of progress in an unhelpful way. While this isn’t an excuse to be rude, it can be helpful to think empathetically about their actions. As I said in the last episode, don’t take your climate anger out on individuals but rather direct it to big businesses and your elected representatives.
It’s always best to kill people with kindness or simply not engage. Be protective of your energy and always be the light.
Eco Action Step
This week’s eco action step is to simply be kind to other people online and respectfully call out environmental gatekeeping when you see it occurring. As Michelle Obama famously said, “When they go low, we go high.”