Performative Environmentalism: Showing Off or Showing Up?
Performances have always been captivating, but if there’s one type of performance that’s been panned as unwelcome and unappealing, it’s performative activism. Often connected to the rise of technology and the popularity of social media, it’s a convenient way for people to appear interested in social issues when in reality their interest only extends to a retweet or a sharing of a post. It is described as harmful, silent, and not effective enough to incite change. Activism aside, another type of performance is being scrutinized for its effectivity: performative environmentalism.
When a person acts in environmentally-friendly ways to uplift their virtue, appearance, and status as an exemplar, rather than genuinely desiring to protect and preserve the planet, it’s tagged performative environmentalism. It’s toting around metal straws and reusable bags like shiny, holier-than-thou medals in coffee shops and grocery stores. It’s recycling and calling it a good day. The long-standing notion on climate change is that individuals’ actions aren’t significant enough to truly impact it. Instead, large-scale corporations, who happen to be the environment’s largest polluters, are twisting the narrative to purposely make consumers feel guilty. However, this notion is fervently denounced by some. Critics argue that the root of social change is individual action. As individuals consciously act in ways that support corporate pollutants, they exacerbate climate change. This discourse begs the question: what position does that put us in? Is putting on an Earth-saving face useless or even damaging, or is it a type of performance that should be embraced?
When it comes down to the numbers, it’s irrefutable that corporations lay the biggest claim to greenhouse gas emissions. Still, the numbers don’t account for our support of these corporations: buying their products and availing of their services, using them, and eventually disposing of them. This is where the benefits of performative environmentalism come in. Boycotting environmentally-degrading brands, allowing ‘flight shame’ to control your next holiday destination, and letting ‘meat consciousness’ dictate your next meal are often driven by our self-awareness and pride, but performing these actions have favorable results. Boycotting generates negative publicity and has the potential to hurt stock prices and revenues, especially when larger corporations and governments are involved. Flight shame has also proven to be effective; a survey discovered 21% of 6,000 people reduced their airplane travel time in a year. In 2018, it was discovered that ⅓ of Britons shifted their diets to exclude meat, and two years later, Americans hopped on the practice with ¼ of the population reducing meat consumption. Large groups of people influencing one another shift the dynamic of environmentalism from an individual mindset to a group practice. Through sizeable groups, the results of climate-conscious actions can be realized.
While collectively performing small actions for the environment can be helpful, no matter the intention or depth of authenticity, the problems that performative environmentalism critics raise are also valid: corporations gain power over our status-aware psyches, and we train ourselves to be complacent, and therefore, remain stagnant. Greenwashing has become rampant, thanks to corporations catching up on ‘trendy environmentalism’, so we are immediately enticed to support businesses that reward us with pats on the back after purchasing their supposedly environmentally-friendly products. ‘Supposedly’, because due to our complacency with acting like eco-warriors, we don’t take the time to actually research and determine whether we’re being duped or not. This highlights the problematic part of environmental activism: since our actions are mere performances, we may fall into the trap of continuously doing the bare minimum. When we share articles about endangered species on our timelines, switch off our lightbulbs when leaving rooms, and plate vegetable-based meals, we’re raising awareness and reducing our damaging impact on the environment. However, if we become too preoccupied with rewarding ourselves for performing those actions, instead of doing them out of genuine concern, we may miss out on other vital activities such as volunteering in wildlife refuges, switching to renewable energy, and supporting our local farmer's markets. While it is certainly not always the case, becoming overly proud of our performative environmentalism may trick us into being satisfied with the triviality of our actions, leaving us stagnant when there is always more to be done.
Based on the two sides to performative environmentalism, its truth lies in the middle: this type of activism can’t be neatly boxed into a category of explicit ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Performative environmentalism can do good at surface level, but its problem is the fact that it is surface level. Don’t get rid of your reusable containers and plantable pencils just yet; show them off, but when bigger opportunities such as climate strikes, environmental organization recruitments, and government elections come calling, remember to show up.
Andrea Salvador is a Filipino student and writer, physically living in Manila, Philippines, and mentally residing and studying in Melbourne, Australia. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys watching horror movies, reading diverse fiction, and fiddling with her film camera.
Header by Markus Spiske @markusspiske