Let me say upfront: I like fun, and I like sex. But I’m sick to death of hearing that we need to make environmentalism fun and sexy. The notion is wrongheaded, disrespectful to the human and nonhuman victims of this culture, an enormous distraction that wastes time and energy we don’t have and undermines whatever slight chance we do have of developing the effective resistance required to stop this culture from killing the planet. The fact that so many people routinely call for environmentalism to be more fun and more sexy reveals not only the weakness of our movement but also the utter lack of seriousness with which even many activists approach the problems we face. When it comes to stopping the murder of the planet, too many environmentalists act more like they’re planning a party than building a movement.
For instance, there’s a video on YouTube of supermodels stripping, allegedly to warn us about global warming. How better to warn us than for a supermodel to shimmy out of her clothes to the accompaniment of a driving rock beat? The tagline beneath the video says, “No matter what your politics are, I think we can all get behind the notion of supermodels stripping.”
Well, not me. The video reinforces the values of a deeply misogynistic culture, where women’s bodies are routinely displayed for consumption by men, where pornography is a 90 billion dollar industry and the single largest commercial use of the internet. And in a movement that already loses women in droves because they’re objectified, harassed, raped, and silenced by men they’d considered comrades, do we really want to use recruiting tools that further this objectification?
Contrast the supermodel strippers with the Message from Sheyla Juruna, also on YouTube. A spokesperson for the indigenous Juruna peoples of the Xingu River in Brazil, Sheyla Juruna stares straight into the camera and says: “The Belo Monte dam is a project of death and destruction. It will decimate our populations and all of our biodiversity . . . We’ve already attempted various forms of dialogue with the government, doing everything we can to block this project, but we have not been heard. I think that it is now time for us to go to war against Belo Monte. No more dialogue. Now is the time to make more resolute and serious acts of resistance against this project.”
I guarantee that Sheyla Juruna did not become an activist for the fun and sex.
What’s more, the “fun and sexy” approach to environmentalism attempts to mobilize techniques that were developed for selling products toward building a movement. Showing a woman’s orgasmic face as she picks up a bottle of fabric softener may influence some people to purchase that brand. But becoming an activist is an entirely different process from buying fabric softener. The former requires fortitude, discipline, and dedication, while the latter requires four dollars to purchase the “natural brand that makes your laundry fluffy, cuddly, and static-free.”
In the arena of public relations, the U.S. military understands all too well something that environmentalists completely fail to grasp: How many recruiting ads have you seen selling the military as fun and sexy? None. An adventure, yes. Service to the community, yes. The few, the proud, yes. All of which, by the way, could and should be said about activism. Recruitment based on fun and sex will attract those who are in it for the fun and sex. Which means that either there will be a very high rate of attrition among such recruits or, far worse, the activism itself will become superficial enough to retain them. It ought to be obvious but in case it’s not: You can’t build a serious movement on superficiality.
The problems themselves are neither fun nor sexy, and the work of resolving these problems is anything but superficial. Organizing is hard work, sometimes tedious, often enraging, and, at this point in the ongoing murder of the planet, nearly always heartbreaking. Sheyla Juruna’s message isn’t about fun and games. Her message is about life and death — her own, that of her people, and that of the land without whom her people are no longer themselves.
Unfortunately, the notion that activism (they never dare call it resistance) has to be fun and sexy pervades the entire environmental movement, from the most self-styled radical to the most mainstream reformist. I have in my hands the most recent issue of the Earth First! Journal, which includes a photo from the most recent Earth First! Rendezvous (events that have a well-deserved reputation for drunken debauchery) depicting young men and women making a naked human pyramid. Remind me what this has to do with stopping this culture from killing the planet? Can you imagine Freedom Riders making coed naked human pyramids, painting their faces, or bringing papier-mâché puppets to sit-ins?
Or consider a recent campaign involving college students stripping to their underwear (do you see a theme?) and running around their campuses. A promotional article titled “Expose Coal Company Lies — With Your Underwear” begins, “Who doesn’t love a good cause that you can support by taking off your pants?” The “project” is a partnership between the Sierra Club and a “stylish underwear brand” called PACT. The Sierra Club, we are told, reports: “Over the past few weeks, students from coal-powered campuses have already used the underwear line in conjunction with organized events such as flash mobs, where students spontaneously [sic] strip down to their ‘Beyond Coal’ underwear, and a race to renewables, a cross-campus underwear run to advocate for the use of cleaner fuel sources.” An embedded video of the “underwear flash mob” is so thoroughly embarrassing (and depressing) that I truly hope you don’t look it up. Beneath the video, the text reads, “
Hats Pants off to the Sierra Club and PACT!”
Do I really need to explore what’s wrong with (and creepy about) Sierra Club leaders and underwear makers encouraging young people to take off their clothes, much less pretending this is activism? I’m thinking about a recent global warming campaign where “3,000 people in New Delhi formed an enormous elephant threatened by rising seas — a plea to world leaders not to ignore the ‘elephant in the room.’” I’m thinking about face painting, and I’m thinking about puppets. And I’m thinking how spectacle supplants reality.
I’m also thinking about a conversation I had with some First Nations people in Vancouver, British Columbia, who described how, during the anti-Olympics protests, some Indian warriors were standing firm, alongside some of their nonindigenous allies, facing down police over the desecration of their lands. And they looked behind them and saw a physical separation between themselves on the one hand, and a big cohort of mostly white protesters on the other. But the separation was far more than physical, because the people in front were all dead serious, and behind them were any number of people wearing bunny costumes or running around in cardboard models of bobsleds.
When and why and how did partying and spectacle and debauchery become a substitute for serious political organizing and resistance? How did taking off one’s pants and running around become a political act? And where does dignity fit into any of this? There is, of course, a role for absurdity in political discourse. But the role of absurdity in political discourse is to ridicule and humiliate those in power, not ourselves.
The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took up arms in defense of their lives. The Shawnee war chief Tecumseh took up arms in defense of his people and his land. Harriet Tubman risked her own life to free her people. We, on the other hand, have a long way to go to form a serious resistance movement.
Originally published in the January/February 2012 issue of Orion
Republished at Deep Green Resistance News Service