One of the greatest barriers that prevents many from engaging with activism, is the belief that participating in the system you were born and indoctrinated into somehow makes you unable to criticise it. There is this prevalent rhetoric that imperfect activists are hypocritical, and consequently, you might think you don’t have a right to advocate for change while owning a car, or heating your house with a combi-boiler, or using a smartphone.
But let’s face it, by applying that logic there will always be some reason not to act. No one is perfect, most of us are far from it, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care or that we can’t be part of a movement striving for a kinder more sustainable future. If being imperfect meant you had to stay quiet, there would be no environmental movement, there would be no activists, there would only be deathly silence.
Without imperfect activists, scientists would be sitting in their labs and writing papers while despairing that everyone was ignoring their stark warnings. We have to recognise that we are imperfect and act anyway — and that It’s OK to criticise a system from inside of it.
If you had to be perfect to be an activist, there would be no activists.
In this article I will discuss why it is so important that we have vast numbers of knowingly imperfect activists, rather than a small handful of activists futilely attempting perfection. I will also discuss why those who hold environmental activists to an impossible standard of saintliness are being utterly counterproductive, and why the criticisms they dish out say far more about their own headspace than the activists they are criticising.
Those That Hold Activists To Impossible Standards
It can be incredibly frustrating when you witness or take part in an action, and then watch the criticisms role in through social media and news outlets, while those doing the criticising wilfully ignore the greater issue that the action is trying to bring to light.
I’m sure you’ve seen and heard it before: critics speculate about the mode of transport the activists used to get to the protest or scrutinise the clothes on their backs, the snacks they happen to have in their hands to sustain them, the plastic buckles on their bags, the materials they used to create their artivism installations.
Anecdotally, I attended an Extinction Rebellion event called ‘Blood Of Our Children’ — this creative action applied immersive theatre to produce an emotive visual. Everyone wore black and walked as a funeral procession, carrying buckets of fake blood to the gates of parliament, which were then thrown onto the street representing the river of blood that will be spilt when the full effects of the climate crisis reach our doorsteps.
It was a visceral metaphor and grabbed the attention of the media, but of course, the critics poured in, saying how ironic it was that activists claiming to care about the environment were carrying plastic buckets and spilling ‘chemicals’ that were polluting the waterways. Of course, this was speculation — the red mixture was plant-based and perfectly harmless, and indefinitely re-useable buckets aren’t really the problem. But that didn’t matter to the critics, nor, it would seem, did the actual message of the action.
This happens no matter what the action, no matter how flawless it seems.
I recently read an article about a teenager who is planning to cycle all the way from Devon to Glasgow for the Cop26 Climate Summit, to highlight all at once that young people’s voices need to be heard, train fares are exorbitant, and travelling by plane is unsustainable. You’d think it would be quite hard to pick holes in that but sure enough, on social media the keyboard warriors were out in force, criticising the material of her clothing, her bicycle tyres, and so on.
It didn’t surprise me.
The people doing this are well aware that absolutely no one could meet their impossibly high expectations — leaving them free to tear down anyone who dares to act. But why do they do it? What are they trying to achieve?
Understanding The Mindset Of Nitpicker Critics
To be clear, not all criticism is unjustified, and we imperfect activists should always be receptive to constructive feedback, seeking new ways to improve our actions, and learning from mistakes. Here I am discussing the vast swaths of nitpicker critics who make counterproductive remarks, as exampled above.
The climate crisis will affect everyone, and we need as many people as possible to advocate for change. But because these critics have set such high expectations for activists that no one could possibly meet, it provides an excuse to refrain from participating in the movement themselves. It’s much easier to discredit those who act rather than facing up to one’s own inaction.
This rhetoric has a damaging ripple effect. It silences people and blocks change, because others witness the negative comments and feel disempowered to make their own actions or statements, for fear of being called out for hypocrisy. The inescapable fact that we are not perfect is used as a weapon to muzzle us.
In order to better deal with these critics and avoid burnout, it is worth applying a degree of empathy.
We can all agree that the issues facing our world are terrifying and overwhelming, so the temptation to hide one’s head in the sand is understandable. It’s not too surprising that some feel affronted by activism, which draws attention to the crisis, and requires us to all consider our fragility and impermanence — something most people would rather not think about.
Climate crisis awareness triggers different responses in different people. Some feel burdened by an obligation to act; others protect their own wellbeing by disengaging, denying, or deciding that individual action won’t change anything. This is the easier, more comfortable stance, as it frees them to get on with their day-to-day lives unburdened. When they see others taking action, it threatens this mindset.
So next time you participate in activism and someone calls you out for a triviality, take a breath and respond with empathy and wisdom rather than reacting with anger.
Understand that their adversity is not a personal insult to you, even if it manifests that way — it more likely stems from a place of internal discomfort.
Imagining A ‘Perfect’ Environmental Activist
This is a thought experiment. I am trying to visualise what a perfect environmental activist, with the power to defy any critic, would look like in the context of our society:
Despite having been born and indoctrinated into capitalism, they would have overcome this entirely and not own a single item. They would need to be underprivileged, so people couldn’t accuse them of ‘champagne socialism’, but working full-time and paying taxes, so people couldn’t tell them to ‘get a job’.
This individual would somehow have to achieve this without a bank account and their job would have a zero or negative carbon footprint (perhaps they have found someone to pay them for a rewilding project — which would be difficult seeing as these are usually covered by volunteers). They would live in a cave, wash only with rainwater, and survive purely on fruit that fell from trees. The fruit would give them enough energy for their physically demanding job, which they would conduct using only handmade tools, wearing clothes crafted from fallen leaves.
Every penny they earned over their tax contribution would be donated to environmental causes. And somehow they would have found their job without using a computer to apply for it or to write their CV or to search for someone to teach them the skills necessary.
As far as their activism was concerned, they would have to recruit people to their cause without social media or a phone or using any form of fuel-powered or manufactured transport. I suppose they would have to make posters also out of fallen leaves with the call-to-action written in mud, and wander the country barefoot going door-to-door, during their limited holiday days.
I don’t think many people would open their doors to a grubby bare-footed stranger dressed in leaves, and no doubt people would still yell ‘get a job’ even though they had one.
In short — kudos to this person if they exist, but sadly I don’t think they do, and I doubt they would be able to make an awful lot of difference in terms of systemic change anyway. Which is what we need the most if we are to save our world in time.
For systemic change, we need mass participation. Not one perfect activist in a cave, but thousands or millions of imperfect activists outside the gates of governance. Speaking of which…
Systemic Change Is Key
While lifestyle changes are great, and every sustainable choice you make has a positive impact, society needs to change on a systemic level if we are going to fix this crisis. That means our governments, those we pay incredibly generous wages through our taxes to do the job of looking after our society, are the ones that need to be held to account.
Unfortunately at this stage, they are the only ones that can affect change at the scale needed to rescue our world in time, using their power, influence and capital. But instead, they continue to steer us towards our collective doom by subsidising the most destructive industries, failing to adequately allocate funds to important green initiatives, and failing to educate the population about the extent of the crisis.
When there is corruption at the top it is everyone’s right to challenge it, regardless of our day-to-day habits. The most powerful action we can take is to direct them, make ourselves heard by them, and pressure them into action, using every non-violent trick in the book.
The right to protest is inherent to democracy. If we can’t tell our governments what we want and need, what is the point of it? What are we paying them for? So we must continue to be imperfect activists, yelling at our leaders and disrupting them until they take responsibility and do the job we are all paying them to do, and everyone else can call us hypocrites because we organised the protests on our smartphones, but we will do it anyway, because if we don’t, then who?