This past weekend, my teenaged daughter and I joined hundreds of protesters on the streets of Lincoln, Nebraska to protest the KXL pipeline. To get there, we took a bus from Chicago with other activists. As we rode the bus 12 hours, I was conscious of the fact that we were using fossil fuel to go to a protest of the fossil fuel industry. I chose to take the bus instead of driving (which would have been shorter and would have spared by knees) in part because it was the more environmentally responsible choice, i.e., the cumulative impact of taking the bus was less than everyone driving individually. But I’ve driven to other protests before.
This past January, I helped organize a rally and march near my home in Northwest, Indiana. The action was planned to support activists who had been recently arrested at the BP tar sands refinery in Whiting, Indiana; to protest Trump’s picks for the EPA, Secretary of Energy, and Secretary of State; and to promote a just transition to a renewable energy economy in our region. The event went off very well, and it was reported on by our regional paper, by the Chicago Tribune, and by the local NPR station.
I was riding high the day after the event. And then I read the comments to the Tribune article. Several of them implied that protesters were hypocrites because they drove gas-powered vehicle to the march or because (it was presumed) they didn’t have solar panels on the roofs of their homes. This struck home, because I did drive a gas powered vehicle to the protest — a fuel-inefficient SUV — and I do not have solar panels on my roof. Nevertheless, there are three big problems with these kinds of criticisms:
1. Criticism of activism betrays the critic’s despair.
First, these kinds of criticisms actually say more about the critic than the protester. They betray a corrosive sense of powerlessness and despair on the part of the critic themselves.
Most often, these criticisms come from people who are not politically active. They are lobbing their criticisms from the comfort of their armchairs, sitting (often anonymously) behind computer screens. And they are hypocritical, because (most likely) the people making these criticisms also drive gas-powered vehicles and do not have solar panels on their roofs.
These cynics criticize those who are active in order to assuage their (conscious or unconscious) sense of shame at their own inaction and also to validate their feeling of powerlessness. Activists challenge the assumption that we are powerless and they call us to stand up and take action. This can be discomfiting for people who are comfortable with the status quo.
2. Activism does not require perfection.
Second, there is no purity test for being an activist. There is no requirement that a person must live up to anyone else’s standard of perfection in order to engage in activism. You can protest factory farms and eat meat. You can stand up for racial justice, while recognizing you still have implicit biases you need to work on. And you can drive your SUV to an environmental protest. If anyone tells you differently, show them they are wrong by showing up anyway.
Sometimes these criticisms come from other activists. To those people, I would say, you’re cutting yourself off at the knees. Shaming other, often newer, activists divides the movement and ultimately renders it smaller and irrelevant. That’s the opposite direction from where we need to be going.
I recently received a letter of support and a donation for the 350.org chapter I am a part of from someone who works for the BP refinery in Whiting. While that might surprise some people, in reality it’s not uncommon for people to have to work for a destructive industry in order to support themselves or their families, and yet also be critical of that same industry and support activists who oppose it. This is not hypocrisy; it’s the reality of living in a system which offers us only less-the-perfect choices. And I applaud anyone who is willing to stand up, wherever they are, to do whatever they can to support what they believe in.
The fact that we still have work to do on ourselves and changes to make to our lifestyles should not prevent us from getting active now. If we had to wait until we were living our values perfectly, there would be far fewer activists. And we need more activists.
3. Criticizing consumer habits plays into the individualistic mindset which is the root of the problem.
Finally, the biggest problem with criticisms of activist’s consumer choices is that it plays right into the excessively individualistic mentality which is at the root of the problem. As a culture, we have bought into this idea that we are individuals first and foremost and that our power comes individual decisions. As a result, we are blind to our connections to one another and to the earth itself. We ignore the impacts of our actions on the environment and on other people. What’s more, when we finally do wake up to the problem, we think we have to solve the problem by ourselves, as individuals.
As Martin Lukacs recently wrote recently in his article, “Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals”:
While we busy ourselves greening our personal lives, fossil fuel corporations are rendering these efforts irrelevant... The freedom of these corporations to pollute ― and the fixation on a feeble lifestyle response ― is no accident. It is the result of an ideological war, waged over the last 40 years, against the possibility of collective action.
The notion that we can shop our way out of the climate crisis — by buying greener cars and greener light bulbs — is a marketing ploy. As Alden Wicker recently wrote,
Conscious consumerism is a lie... Making series of small, ethical purchasing decisions while ignoring the structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models won’t change the world as quickly as we want.
Take for example the movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which helped raise public consciousness about climate change. But do you remember the list of proposed solutions that came at the end of the movie. All of them had to do with changing individual consumer habits, like changing light bulbs and driving less. None of them had to do with decreasing the influence of corporations on our politics or shifting away from an economy based on infinite growth. Even if every individual in the U.S. implemented the changes suggested by the movie, it would only result in a fraction of the necessary reduction of fossil fuel emissions. That’s because most emissions are created, not by individuals, but by corporatized industry and government, from utility companies to the industrial farm complex.
Individual consumers did not create climate change. It was created by a broken political system which gives dirty industries and immoral corporations too much power. The only way to solve the problem is to work together to take back our democratic power. We need responsible citizens more than we need responsible consumers. As Jensen writes, in his article, “Forget Shorter Showers,” “the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.”
What Is Person To Do?
Of course, we need to make more responsible choices about what and how we consume as individuals. But for real change to happen, we need to alter the choices that are available to people. Even if it were effective, green consumerism is a luxury of the privileged. You want people to buy electric cars and rooftop solar panels? Then fight for legislation which will make them affordable for everyone, not just the privileged. You want people to walk or ride their bikes to work? Then advocate for funding for sidewalks and bike lanes and for zoning laws that will make possible for them to live near where they work. You want people to eat more sustainably? Then check out how the Farm Bill incentivizes unhealthy eating.
And while you’re at it, fight for a living wage so people will have the economic freedom to make the changes you are advocating. And also fight against the environmental racism which allows privileged White communities to (for now) insulate themselves from the effects of industrial pollution and climate change, while the impacts of pollution fall predominately on communities of color and poor communities. As Lukacs writes, “individual choices will most count when the economic system can provide viable, environmental options for everyone—not just an affluent or intrepid few.” And in order to make that happen, we need to stop thinking like individual consumers, and start taking on corporate power through collective political action.
Now, none of this is likely to keep people from criticizing activists. But the next time you hear an environmental activist criticized for driving a car or using a computer or whatever, keep in mind that the criticism is probably coming from a sense of powerlessness. And remember that the way to empower people is not by shaming them about their consumer choices, but by reminding them of the power of collective political action. And if you are on the receiving end of that criticism, you can just say, “You’re right. We can all do better. In the meantime, I’m doing what I can. You’re welcome to join me.”