A tree hugger is someone who promotes environmental causes, believing that humans should take an active role in protecting the environment and advocating for sustainable use of the environment. This term actually originally emerged as a piece of derogatory slang, but it was later adopted by environmentalists to refer to themselves. When used self-referentially, people usually use the term in a somewhat joking way, poking fun at themselves to make people feel more comfortable with the causes they support.
This term emerged to describe environmentalists who were active in the anti-logging movement. Logging proponents sometimes suggested that if environmentalists liked trees so much, they should go hug them, and some environmentalists did just that, linking arms around trees to prevent loggers from taking them. Over time, the term came to be used more generally to anyone who promoted sustainable environmental practices, not just a member of the anti-logging movement, and the modern tree hugger may not necessarily have literal tree hugging experience.
Tree huggers tend to be particularly focused on preserving nature and wilderness areas, arguing that these areas should be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations, and the use of the animals and plants which inhabit them, though they may be interested in other environmental causes as well. Preserving natural areas is viewed as an environmentally friendly practice because it promotes the sequestering of carbon, and helps to keep the climate stable. Environmentalists point out that preserving forested regions has immediate benefits in addition to long term ones, and these benefits may outweigh the use of the forest for timber, intrusive recreation, or development.
One organization which promotes sustainability has even adopted the slang term in its title. TreeHugger promotes sustainable design, and provides resources for readers who want to learn about various ways in which they can “go green,” adopting sustainable practices to conserve the environment. This use of the term is an example of the fun-loving adoption of “tree hugger” by people who formerly experienced the use of the term as an insult.
In some regions, the terms “hippie” and “tree hugger” are sometimes used interchangeably, along with the pejorative “dirty hippie.” When these terms are used as epithets, they are often meant to describe people with values which are viewed as naïve, obstructionist, or simply irritating. Tree huggers often oppose developments and exploitation of natural resources, much to the frustration of people who profit from such activities, and terms like “tree hugger” are among the more tame insults hurled during heated discussions about such issues.