Patriotic Environmentalism

Most of us know that we need to act now on environmental issues. From climate change to biodiversity loss, it is clear these are some of the biggest challenges of our time. But in an ever polarised society, for some it starts to feel like acknowledging this and doing something about it is akin to taking sides. 

From back in the 1960s when hippy culture was in full swing, caring about the planet has been seen as ‘left-wing’, something that is actually an attack on many conservative ideals. The idea of adding regulation and telling people what to do didn’t sit well with many. 

Fast forward to now and the reasoning behind the debate has almost been entirely lost. Tribal lines have been drawn and environmentalism gets thrown in a pile with trade unions and higher taxes.


So whilst we can try and win over hearts and minds by explaining the planet is dying and about to combust, we probably need to accept this still isn’t working for everyone and with time running out is it time to get a bit more sneaky? 

I got thinking about this idea of compromise and shared values during the run up to the EU referendum in 2016. A toxic time in the UK’s cultural history where things got extremely tribal. People started basing their whole identity on whether they were ‘leave’ or ‘remain’, muttering under their breath after a disagreement with someone that they were probably talking to a good-for-nothing Brexiteer. People would jump into conversations assuming the voting preference of the other person based on how they dressed or where they chose to hang out. 

But during the most heated months of the debate in early 2016, a few months before the vote, a weird thing happened. England were playing in the European Football Championships. I went to a pub with some friends from work to watch England play Russia and for the first time in months everyone in the room was cheering for the same thing. No more shouts of ‘remoaner!’ or ‘Brexit B*****’, the collective, to a man and woman, were cheering, gasping and moaning to the sight of some men kicking a ball around on the pub television screens. 

So it is possible to all get along in the 2020s? There are things we can agree on despite our different backgrounds and life experiences. Can this patriotism be leveraged to improve the planet?

A classic tale of patriotic environmentalism

This idea of using patriotism to drive environmentally beneficial behaviours isn’t new. In the mid 1980’s in Texas, the Department of Transport were trying to figure out how to get on top of the worsening litter problem along its highways. From a bit of research they realised that the main culprits were 18 to 35 year old males, the sort of men that wouldn’t take kindly to an aggressive ‘don’t litter!’ sign, which migh actually make them even more likely to litter, as it taps into an anti-autoritarian preference of theirs. So instead they asked themselves, what do young Texan males love most…..the answer? Texas! And so the ingenious slogan ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’ was born. The volume of litter on the highways fell dramatically almost overnight, and in just three years between 1987 and 1990 it was reduced by roughly 72%. The Texas Department of Transportation had sneakily made a huge group of people environmentalists over night, just by the clever use of language and emotion. 

If they had just gone with ‘Don’t drop litter!’ this would have likely been greeted with rebellion by those young Texan men, who might have seen it as the meddling government trying to tell them what to do. I still see these direct approaches everywhere, often surrounded by an ironic pile of trash. 

Pride for local nature

Wildlife has always been closely twinned with patriotism. The sight of the bald eagle can bring a tear to the eye of many American’s. Every state has a state bird, many of which lend their names to local sports teams and therefore find there way into the hearts of an entire city or region. We would do well to keep reminding people that they should care for the real world versions of those mascots, to ensure they aren’t just a memory encapsulated in embroidery. 

I felt this patriotism rising in the UK recently following the new BBC wildlife series ‘ Wild Isles’, an arguably overdue series that focussed on some of the spectacular flora and fauna of the UK. I could almost hear the chest beating from proud patriots who had accidentally began to watch having placed the remote just out of reach during The Antiques Roadshow on Sunday evening, as they witnessed spectacular shots of the local wildlife. I read many comments on social media from people saying something akin to: ‘why have so many documentaries focussed on the rainforest and far away lands, when we have such incredible nature on our doorstep?’ 

I don’t blame British people for having no connection to wildlife. Most of it has disappeared before they were even born, it is difficult to feel connected to something you’ve never seen. A huge acknowledgement has to go out to the film and production crews that captured the epic scenes. The narrative was cleverly weaved as to keep reminding the viewer that these sights are decreasing and that if you want to see more of it you better change your ways. 

Make people feel proud and patriotic about their local flora and fauna and then they will hopefully begin to realise how we need to act now to protect and restore it. Don’t simply tell them they ‘must do it or face certain death’ (even if there may be some truth in that).  

From home-sourced renewable energy to local supply chains

Another example of patriotic environmentalism arose recently in the UK. As gas prices began to soar due to tensions with the Russian government, many people for the first time began to understand our over reliance on natural gas from overseas. Suddenly there were calls for more emphasis on producing our own energy, wind and solar were not just sources of clean energy but also a stance against Russia and their illegal war in Ukraine. 

Food production is another area where perhaps there is room for some sneakyness. Buying local can have many benefits for the environment. The reduction of transport costs, storage costs and decreased likelihood of waste. If we can make people proud to eat British apples rather that their New Zealand equivalents then we would save 1000s of food miles. Perhaps people would once again start to appreciate seasonality, that its ok for there to be times of year where certain things aren’t available to purchase.

The potential issue….

Before we jump up and down and claim this as the perfect route to compromise there is one problem with this strategy I must highlight. If you try and be sneaky and get people to change behaviours for an indirect reason it can come back to bite you. Taking the Russian gas example above. The cheapest and easiest way to move away from a reliance on that option might be to open up more coal mines, potentially 2 steps forward 3 steps back. Purely driving British produce loses nuance as overseas vegetables still have less impact than British meat in many cases. This has been noted in other areas such as trying to get people to be greener to save money. 

So I think there are some situations where patriotic environmentalism works and some where it could end up backfiring. Patriotism can lead to some very bad outcomes and so it must be encouraged with caution. We need to carefully way up where to use this sneaky tactic but not be afraid to use it where it makes sense to do so and to open up conversations with people we may sometimes struggle to engage with. 

What do you think? 

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob is the head writer at Innovate Eco sharing knowledge and passion cultivated over 10 years working in the Environmental Sector. He is on a mission to build a community of people that are passionate about solving environmental problems.

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