Climate terms 101: What is performative environmentalism?

The water crisis in Mississippi’s capital has slapped a huge exclamation mark on a summer of climate change disasters. Jackson’s water infrastructure was overcome by flooding days after heavy rain in late August, leaving 180,000 citizens indefinitely without sanitary water.

Record flooding and mudslides forced Yellowstone National Park, which spans three states, to close in June after roads and bridges washed out. Historic flooding in eastern Kentucky during July and August killed a dozen people. Last month, a severe heat wave in the Pacific north-west caused at least four deaths. And the Atlantic hurricane season is expected to produce an above-average amount of storms, according to experts.

As climate change continues to create more extreme weather events, with Congress only reacting to it in the last month, environmentally conscious people often wonder how they can help.

Some recycle. After all, plastic pollution litters many of the world’s waterways. Cut back on using straws? What about using your car or AC less? Go vegan? Maybe only buying thrift store clothes might help?

Our personal relationship with the climate is complicated.

Environmentalists argue that individuals’ belief that they can help save the planet by doing their part is the result of decades-long conditioning by corporate polluters in an effort to escape accountability. Corporations effectively shifted responsibility onto individuals, a practice known as performative environmentalism.

That has led to people believing they are the problem and subsequently choosing to make that right by focusing on small, primarily futile acts that make very little difference to the climate. That gives people the sense that they are doing their part.

Unfortunately, well-intentioned individual efforts don’t make a dent in the uphill battle to control the emissions that warm the planet. It won’t stop trash from collecting in the deepest parts of the ocean or prevent chemicals from seeping into our land and waters.

Instead, according to environmental activist George Monbiot, our virtuous actions only detract from the real problems of climate change: greedy corporations and governments that refuse to act.

In his Sept 2018 essay, Monbiot writes that people taking personal responsibility for the climate “perfectly represents the mistaken belief that a better form of consumerism will save the planet. The problems we face are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth. Of course we should try to minimize our own impacts, but we cannot confront these forces merely by taking responsibility for what we consume.”

According to reports, the five most polluting industries in 2022 are energy, transportation, agriculture, fashion and food retail.

Aside from refusing to take the necessary actions, corporations and governments have also convinced people that we are the problem. Performative environmentalism perpetuates that lie, according to Canadian writer Martin Lukacs.

“While we busy ourselves greening our personal lives, fossil fuel corporations are rendering these efforts irrelevant. The breakdown of carbon emissions since 1988? A hundred companies alone are responsible for an astonishing 71%.”

He adds: “The freedom of these corporations to pollute – and the fixation on a feeble lifestyle response – is no accident. It is the result of an ideological war, waged over the last 40 years, against the possibility of collective action.”

But that doesn’t mean we should all suddenly start throwing our plastic in the trash or go back to gorging on beef.

Personal virtue and the ability to consider our environmental actions are still necessary. However, it should not come ahead of forcing corporations and governments to make systemic changes to the world.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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