Opinion | Ditch performative activism and transform the world

Alexis Sutterman, senior political science major

In 2018, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that we have fewer than 12 years to drastically change the course of our future. This is because human-made activities have caused global temperatures to increase, sea levels to rise and anthropogenic emissions to increase. Pulling from thousands of other scientific reports, the IPCC warned that we must prevent global temperatures from exceeding an increase 1.5 degrees from the average if we want to prevent climate-related risks to health and economic growth.

We are already seeing the impacts of climate change, especially on low-income communities of color, which face the greatest risks from these environmental hazards. These communities are often located in polluted environments in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and they suffer the most from fossil fuel emissions and deforestation. Most of us are well aware by now that the end – of humanity, of all species and our planet – could be right around the corner unless we do something. But, when we attend activism events, grab stickers and “climate change” pins, the urgency is lost.

In Daniel Quinn’s philosophical novel “Ishmael,” which examines the hidden cultural narratives driving civilization, he uses a metaphor about an aircraft that is free-falling.

“Everyone is looking down, and it’s obvious that the ground is rushing up toward you,” Quinn writes. “Yet optimists still have faith in their aircraft, saying ‘After all, it has brought us this far in safety.’”

We are trapped in that aircraft, but not enough people are worried about it. When people take on “activist” identities, they normalize a world of violence, exploitation and oppression. They celebrate small victories that allow them to sleep soundly, like remembering to recycle, yet don’t call for the radical transformations we need to keep our species going.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges echoes these concerns in his book “Death of the Liberal Class,” and argues that liberal institutions – including the Democratic Party, unions, the media, artists and academia – have marginalized themselves and sold out. I agree with this, and am especially concerned with how such institutions claim to oppose the current system, but still perpetuate and legitimize the status quo.

While some social justice organizations discuss the intersectionality of climate justice and global conflict, many self-proclaimed activists still simplify or ignore this connection. Many refer to their work as “helping others.” But, when they do this, it reinforces and legitimizes a narrative that there are two groups: those who help and those who are helped. This can send a dangerous message and, as philosopher Paulo Freire writes in his 1968 book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” it leads to “paternalistic treatment of the oppressed … holding them in a position of dependence.”

Framing the struggle in this way also loses sight of the fundamental nature of society, and our humanity’s interconnectedness. Instead treating others with pity, we need compassion, like author Ram Dass writes in his book “How Can I help: Stories and Reflections on Service.” Fighting for a better world is the responsibility of all of us for all of us. To do this, we need to stop celebrating and boasting about our “activism” in echo chamber spaces. This slows us down, makes us complacent and weakens our ability to push for the change that we need.

Instead, we must take responsibility to embrace the risk of change in our own lives. Spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh says that “if we change our daily lives – the way we think, speak and act – we change the world.” Too many people criticize the way society is structured, but are unwilling to sacrifice the material benefits they reap from it. For instance, plant-based diets could improve people’s health and cut emissions, according to a 2016 study. But really, how many people are willing to give up hamburgers?

The aircraft is about to crash into the ground. It is up to us to reverse its course, but that requires effort, sacrifice and determination. It means we need to ditch the alluring traps of performative activism, and take on a deeper awareness of our own connected identities. Only then can we push forward into a brighter future.