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Messiahs, Radicals & Romantics - Redefining Climate Activism in 2021

The Tyranny of Expectations

Something interesting happened in the first quarter of 2020. There was a switch where many of my contacts on Linkedin went from enthusiastically discrediting a climate youth activist in late 2019 to being cautiously in favour of youth activism a few months later.

After her UN speech, it had become uncomfortable to bear witness to the vitriol and righteous indignation with which people considerably older than Greta, were digitally grouping together to condemn her.

In fact, ‘uncomfortable’ is putting it mildly. It struck me as being amongst other things, an unwise course of action. I wondered why anyone would choose to expose themselves in such an aggressive way on a professional platform. And why they were so brazen in their open contempt of a young woman who a few of them had previously idolised.

I do recognise that there are people in this world who don’t see the harm in ferociously criticising a teenager for caring about the environment. But what I hadn't realised, much to my dismay, was that I was connected to some of them.

Having given 'the switch' much thought, I like to think I now have a better understanding of what happened.

For one thing, people mimic their community and Linkedin is a community which explains the hubris.

Some of us might also benefit from re-evaluating our relationship with reality. The anger her speech roused tells me that those contacts had a long neglected and fractured relationship with their environmental realities and in an attempt to further repress that disconnection, they were projecting their fears on to their golden idol turned scapegoat.

This behaviour/ philosophy is a variant of climate denial.

I couldn’t identify it as such at the time because we haven’t outlined enough narratives beyond the climate believer-denier narrative to accurately recognise and categorise these moments. What we could use is a tier system of sorts to outline the different variants or levels of climate denial to prevent people from regressing into climatic oblivion.

I also think our society would benefit from rethinking our expectations of activists. To that end, it would be useful to clarify what we mean by climate activism and one way to do that would be to give it a new name and rebrand it as... I don’t know…environmental civic duty.

It's not a particularly catchy term but as a mandate it's to the point, transparent and better clarifies what’s required (effort and sacrifice) and by whom (you). And hopefully that added clarity has the added benefit of underscoring who you shouldn’t be pinning all your hopes on (Gerard Butler, teenagers and children in general).

There was nothing logical about the way people latched on to Greta, treating her as an almost saintly object. It seemed as if the attention was too sycophantic to be coming from a sincere, informed place. Greta’s assent amongst this class of supporters was marked by histrionic enthusiasm and her dissent is perhaps best characterised as emotional repression played out as histrionic condemnation.

In these instances, as more people chime in online, fears and errors tend to compound until that collective taint of condemnation hangs over the accused innocent like a biblical curse. The motivation behind condemning activists is a hope that with enough pressure the reality they are speaking to will go away. And what’s problematic about this culture is that it is so effective in the short term.

I could metabolise intolerance towards climate activists better if it didn't pose as self-righteous indignation. There's something very manipulative and sinister about indignation, especially the self-righteous variety. It almost always becomes a toxic presence.

Shades of Denial

It is possible to accept that climate change is happening and still be in denial about it. Most of us are in denial to varying degrees.

When you think about it, you realise climate denial is everywhere. Coming to grips with that denial is a process and my concern is that by ignoring and shaming activists, we are denying ourselves an opportunity to acquire an emotional education, to evolve.

Climate activism, as I see it, is a public service. When you watch activists communicating their fears, you might not realise it, but you’re mirroring them. You’re purging your fears alongside them. Although regrettably the interpretations and outcomes vary.

In the end, everything comes down to this one word - fear.

Greta and youth activists all over the world are afraid that nothing will change, that everything will stay as is.

Her critics are also afraid. They are afraid that everything will change, that nothing will stay as is.

Our Romantic Expectations of Activism

I think part of the problem is that in the Global North we have outdated and unrealistic expectations of activism. We have framed activism as something romantic and we can safely blame John Lennon and Yoko Ono for this.

I also suspect that we view committing to a cause to be not unlike committing to a person. Activism and romanticism do have a lot in common. One could argue that both decisions follow similar trajectories.

In the beginning you feel empowered and relieved to be in the company of equals. In the beginning you think very highly of your cause or your person. You nurse all sorts of unrealistic expectations on to the recipient of your adulation, when in reality the process of giving yourself to a cause or a relationship is uncomfortable, inconvenient and riddled with anxiety and boredom.

Both scenarios highlight psychological wounds and distortions and unfortunately, these only become apparent once they have taken over. The climate crisis will do that to you. It brings you face to face with those wounds and distortions until one day you find yourself acting out on Linkedin, with all the reflexes of an emotionally disturbed child.

In summary, I don’t think it’s useful to have romantic expectations of activism. I don’t even think it’s useful to have romantic expectations of romance. It helps to take people at their own evaluation before we project our hopes and pathologies on to them.

Greta was always very clear about wanting you to know that the climate crisis is a serious issue, that she takes very seriously. She was clear and consistent. Turning her into an environmental Joan of Arc, that was always on us and it speaks to our habit of blacklisting, abandoning and sacrificing people who persist in highlighting inconvenient truths.

My Working Theory About Why we Put People on Pedestals

Sometimes we seek perfection in other people not because we have high standards but because we subconsciously seek to sabotage.

When perfection becomes the goal post it also serves as a get out clause, a reason to excuse ourselves from the proceedings before we deviate too far away from what is familiar to us. Maybe part of us is hoping that someone or something will trip and fall short of our expectations because when that happens, we will be reconciled with the thing that we value most - our freedom.

We know that people are imperfect, teenagers are no exception to the rule, so demanding saint like ideals might be indicative of our apprehensions, our cold feet and an unwillingness to compromise, as opposed to their perceived failings.


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