The Student News Site of University of Chicago Laboratory High School

Performative activism can sometimes be helpful

November 12, 2021

On Oct. 29 at 3:00 p.m., the YouTube trending page was flooded by content creators releasing videos marked with the #TeamSeas. This torrent of content coming from hundreds of popular creators was part of a charity initiative aiming to remove 30 million pounds of trash from our oceans; one dollar donated to the project corresponds to one one pound of trash removed from the ocean. Within an hour of the videos being released, over $1 million had been donated. 

While this incredible effort was well received, it is an example of the often-criticized phenomenon of performative personal activism. The people donating a few dollars to #TeamSeas and posting screenshots aren’t being socially condemned, but other more egregious displays of “environmental wokeness” are criticized and mocked as counterproductive hollow exhibits of activism. However, the practice of personal environmentalist theater should be appreciated as individuals’ best tool in the fight against climate change.

Many people find performative activism indulgent, naïve and counterproductive. Performative environmentalism often seems like insubstantial annoying “virtue signaling.” Popular memes mock people who loudly brag about their metal straws and constantly mention their reusable grocery bags. Individuals’ annoying displays are also trivial, because corporations rather than individuals contribute to the bulk of harmful pollution; just 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions from 1988 to 2017. Given this context, one person’s decision not to use a plastic straw or drive a diesel car makes a minimal impact. Besides being mostly ineffective, performative environmentalism hinders progress by directing focus away from the companies and governments that can make impactful change. 

However, trivial personal environmentalism is an excellent to for influencing corporate behavior. As personal environmentalism grows more popular and more common, consumer and voter behavior favors companies and candidates that address climate change. 

According to interviews in Forbes magazine, leaders from major corporations such as IBM, Ford and General Motors are moving to prioritize sustainability because of how environmental concerns are affecting consumer behavior. These companies are responding through eco-friendly initiatives. This year IBM committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and Ford announced that it plans to invest $29 billion into electric vehicles through 2025. 

Elections are also influenced by cultural focus on climate issues. During the last presidential election, the candidate debates included questions about climate change for the first time in over a decade, responding to the 52% of Americans that now list climate change as a top priority for congressional and presidential elections. Politicians who can enact meaningful regulation on corporate pollution and other detrimental practices are beholden to these voters, and many are taking steps to respond.

Viewing climate change as an issue that can only be remedied by faceless corporations or unseen political negotiations fuels an unproductive narrative that there is nothing we can do.”

Finally, personal activism is necessary for a healthy mental wellbeing. Growing climate concerns are directly linked to mental health issues, especially in young people. Small actions posted online let individuals feel powerful in the face of such a massive unapproachable issue. Small actions posted online make us feel less powerless in the face of such a massive unapproachable issue. Viewing climate change as an issue that can only be remedied by faceless corporations or unseen political negotiations fuels an unproductive narrative that there is nothing we can do.

So go perform. Donate to #TeamSeas, bring tote bags to grocery stores, bike to school, buy from eco-friendly companies and go vegetarian if you can. When you see people making a big show about their metal straws or posting about how they thrift their clothing to fight fast fashion, try not to be annoyed. Congratulate them. 

Leave a Comment

U-High Midway • Copyright 2022 • FLEX WordPress Theme by SNOLog in

Comments (0)

All U-High Midway Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published.