Inanna Tribukait discusses the difficulty of breaking the stigma surrounding eco-consciousness.
Following the Amazon rainforest and the Congo Basin, the whole continent of Australia is now ablaze. After heavy floods in the United Kingdom and Venice, Indonesia is currently experiencing the worst flood since the 1860s. In September, Hurricane Dorian cost at least 80 people’s lives in the Carribean, hundreds are still missing. That was 2019 and the first weeks of 2020 don’t show any signs of improvement. Natural disasters of an unprecedented scale are lining up like pearls on a necklace, only much less pretty and far more destructive.
2019 also saw the growth of the environmental movement and climate protests, culminating in the until now biggest global strike for climate ever in the week from 20 until 27 September 2019. Being environmentally conscious was never more important, never more present in the news and never less controversial – and still: those who advocate for environmental justice and those who make ethical choices in their own consumption are still faced with constant scrutiny and what is worse, ridicule.
The most prominent example would probably be Greta Thunberg. Since she started school striking at the age of 15, she has been called lazy, instrumentalized by her parents, mentally unstable, a silly young girl. The insults and attempts to undermine her have been so ceaseless, so brutal, and so uncalled for that calling it gaslighting seems like an understatement – attacks on Greta Thunberg’s activism are sexist, ageist, and ableist and only very rarely are they criticising the very facts that she is addressing.
But Greta Thunberg is not the only person affected. Often the attacks on environmental activists are more subtle. Reactions range from suspicious looks over jovial jokes about veganism to “I understand why you are trying to live more sustainably, but don’t you think it’s a little extreme?”, often followed by either a resonated “You won’t make a difference anyway” or the reproach of hypocrisy: “If you care so much about ethical consumption, then why do you have product X?”.
Even more insidious, the dismissal of environmental action as meaningless or hypocritical is oftentimes tinted with different kinds of oppressive systems. Something that particularly women often seem to experience from men is endearment as if there was anything sweet or adorable about not wanting the planet we live on to go up in flames (read: “I think it’s really sweet how passionate you are about the environment. Do you do that in your free time while your husband is at work?”). Immigrants concerned about the environment might be told they shouldn’t raise their voice because they take flights regularly to visit their families, activists from low-income backgrounds are attacked for going on climate strike while shopping at discount stores.
Yet, curiously, in my personal experience, the very people who make the reproach of hypocrisy are very rarely the ones who live the most sustainable life themselves. To me, it seems like the dismissal of climate activism and of those who make sustainable choices ultimately comes down to a more subtle form of climate denial: There is an awareness of the problem, but an unwillingness to face the fact that immediate action on all fronts is needed. The people making fun making fun of environmental activists often seem to either not believe that we find ourselves in a crisis at all, or they believe that it is already too late for all action and we should just keep on comfortably dancing while the world burns.
This results in their criticism hitting those who take some kind of action because they are supposedly not doing it properly. Perhaps that is because it’s easier to tell your vegan child that they are killing the planet by eating avocados than it is to email your MP. Maybe it is more fun to laugh about unwashed hippies than to acknowledge that if we do not take immediate action, we are facing extinction. But dismissing activists is doing nothing except chipping away at their mental health and energy with little to no positive effect. After all, the people who need to be ridiculed and criticised as hypocrites are much more likely to be politicians, lobbyists and corporate greenwashers. They are very rarely citizens who try their best to live sustainably in a society that makes sustainability almost unattainable.