Environmental gatekeeping hurts the movement

You’re concerned about the climate. You pack tote bags to the grocery store instead of using plastic bags. You can’t remember the last time a plastic straw touched your lips and (most of the time) you remember to pack a travel mug. You check Facebook Marketplace to buy new-to-you items before shopping on Amazon and the next time you fly, you’ll probably offset with carbon credits.

You care.

You make efforts.

Are you an environmentalist?

Actually, yes, by definition you are, according to Merriam-Webster: “one concerned about environmental quality especially of the human environment with respect to the control of pollution.”

But there’s just one thing. (Two, actually.)

You own a car. A gasoline-fueled car.

And you eat meat.

Can you still call yourself an environmentalist?

As it happens, the pressure to “do environmentalism the right way” or in totality, is not an uncommon feeling. Taking small actions does swing big doors but going green isn’t always easy, which makes “environmental gatekeeping” especially insidious to the movement.

What is environmental gatekeeping?

Gatekeeping is simply “the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something.” (Oxford Dictionary.) Environmental gatekeeping occurs when one person/group’s definition or expression of eco-living is impressed upon another, creating toxicity.

Why does environmentalism experience gatekeeping?

Environmentalism is vulnerable to gatekeeping because it exists on a spectrum. Some people manage to reduce consumption of single-use plastics while others are able to achieve zero-waste—or close to it. Some folks are broadly mindful of the environment, while others frame their entire worldview through an eco-mindset. Some are hobby environmentalists, others are professionals. Underscoring this wide variety of participants who are all stakeholders of the same precious Earth, is climate anxiety. Environmental gatekeeping can come to loggerheads among groups and persons as a manifestation of frustration, feelings of a lack of control or impact, or simple overwhelm in the face of such a complex, existential issue like climate change.

What does environmental gatekeeping sound like?


Typically, environmental gatekeeping sounds like shaming people for things they are: a) doing; b) doing “wrong;” or c) not doing at all.

In one form, gatekeeping sounds like criticism for eco-hypocrisies because inevitably, people find themselves navigating environmental inconsistencies in their actions. For example: is it hypocritical to quit meat for environmental reasons while still flying commercial? Or consider that shoppers bring reusable bags to the grocery store, inside which they pack plastic containers of milk, laundry detergent and yogurt—and then drive home in a car.

In another form, environmental gatekeeping simply sounds like calling out groups/persons for not doing more in the first place.

Other times, it’s minimizing individual actions. What’s the point of planting more trees while the Amazon burns? What’s the point of shoreline clean-ups while oil burns on the surface of the ocean?

These are uncomfortable confrontations all environmentalists must grapple with.

Is environmental gatekeeping effective at prompting change?

One of the problems with environmental gatekeeping is that it doesn’t give permission for imperfection. As Anne Marie Bonneau famously declared, "We don’t need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

Realistically, there are limitations to the degree of success one can achieve when practicing self-environmentalism that we must accept. And sometimes those failings depend on external factors—like where you live and socioeconomics.

Take for example, the simplicity of recycling. Believe it or not, not all Canadian communities have basic recycling facilities, let alone curbside pick-up.

There are other examples, as well. If you’re renting, you’re not likely to invest in the installation of solar panels on your landlord’s roof; not everyone is efficiently serviced by public transportation on a schedule they require, especially in rural communities. Other times, the degree of commitment depends on trade-offs. If someone is preoccupied with survival or the basic routines of life, realizing a zero-waste lifestyle is beyond their bandwidth.

The second problem is environmental gatekeeping sometimes targets people who are already attempting to participate (to some degree) in environmentalism. The result is division and defensiveness.

It all begs the question: what are those who gatekeep trying to achieve by shaming? We can guess that it is a misdirected attempt at persuasion. In reality, according to Psychology Today, shaming doesn’t promote “prosocial behaviour,” (actions that benefit others or society as a whole) rather, it fuels withdrawal. When people are made to believe their actions are inconsequential because they are not as extreme as those who perform environmentalism professionally or as a dedicated lifestyle, the message that small actions swing big doors is diminished. Yes, policy change at the provincial and federal level has the potential to make exponential change, but individual actions are the most accessible actions we can take today. Pursuing a planet-friendly lifestyle is a marathon with the aim of creating a legion of long-haulers, not sprinters subject to burnout.

How to redirect environmental gatekeeping when you experience it

Whether it’s a family member, neighbour or person on social media pointing out your slip-up, calling out environmental gatekeeping by its name is fair game. Before engaging your energy, take a moment to gauge whether the gatekeeper is interested in having a productive conversation. If so, proceed with respect and avoid being defensive, pivoting the conversation to gatekeeping while honestly acknowledging your limitations.

If the person seems more invested in their position than a genuine exchange, set a boundary to limit your mental spend so you know exactly when to exit the conversation. Alternatively, if you find the person makes an enlightening point, there’s always grace in admitting you “now have better information with which to make a decision/take an action.”

The final word

Ultimately, when environmental gatekeeping shames people already participating in environmentalism—despite their level of commitment—it hurts the movement. A better application of gatekeepers’ energy and bandwidth? Fastening time and attention to persuading corporations to take accountability for their eco-footprint and demanding stronger policy from our governments.