Where environmental activism got it wrong

It looks like, so far, activism has largely failed on climate change. There have been wins, here and there, but the relentless push of economic growth has overtaken these. For example – wins on halting rainforest destruction – we might stop it for a while, but the push for relentless economic growth eventually overcomes these gains. With climate change, one of the wins is the growth of renewable energy. This has made a difference, but still, the push for growth means ever higher carbon emissions.

What could we have done differently?

This is quite subtle psychology, but I believe I’ve spotted an important element to the process.

Some of the messages that are handed down to us in society relate to the glorifying of the individual. You’ll be familiar with advertising slogans telling you to ‘dare to be different’ or to ‘break out from the crowd’ and to be essentially, true to yourself. These are great message. Everybody should indeed have the courage to be themselves. Being the best version of you is how you’ll get the best out of your time on Earth.

What actually happens to the vast majority of people is exactly the opposite – conformity – being just like everyone else. There are some strong psychological drivers behind this conformity, making it very hard to resist. Being like everyone else gives you feelings of acceptance and safety. This would have been very important in our prehistoric past, our tribes needed to stick together and make sure everyone was working in the interests of the group. ‘Sameness’ was very important for group bonding. It still is. We instinctively feel uncomfortable if someone steps out of line and does something different; it almost feels like a threat to both group and personal identity. And so if people do indeed dare to be different, they are often ridiculed and shot down in flames for it. A great example is when some declares that they have decided to go vegan. Do non-vegans who might not have considered veganism, upon hearing this news, say “oh, that’s interesting, good luck, let me know how you get on with that.” They do not. They are quite likely to feel that their values are under attack, that they are under attack, and say something disparaging about veganism. Meat-eating is seen as ‘normal’ – it’s what everyone does. We all just do it… because we all just do it. Many of the things we do in our various cultures, we do, just because it’s the norm and it’s expected of us.

And so back to the problems of inadequate activism.

All activism, even in the smallest way, means breaking with conformity and saying ‘no’ to someone or something. I have personally watched adults drop litter in the street, after which I have gone up to them and said “I think you dropped something” and so far they’ve always looked sheepish and picked up their litter. This is a challenge to them and their behaviour. They could have told me to mind my own business – or worse. The break with conformity here is in daring to challenge another person over their behaviour. Most people would just say nothing to the litter dropper; am I right? Yes, I am. On a bigger scale, you might discover that a local company is pumping its waste into your local river. It’s killing all the wildlife, but the company hasn’t noticed. You and some friends decide to take action. You feel that if you say something, you’re stirring up trouble and you might make some people in your community feel uncomfortable – mostly people who work at the company. This upsets the cohesion of the conformity apple cart and company people and activists might feel a little upset with each other. Still, the company needs to be told.

On a larger scale, a large organisation, say, Greenpeace, might want to engage companies or politicians at a national level, gaining national media attention, thus attempting to influence the whole of society.

In order to mitigate this attack on group and society conformity, and trying not to be ‘too upsetting’ for the public, most of the large environmental campaign groups try to maintain as much conformity as possible. They wear suits, have standard regulation haircuts and try their hardest to be just like everyone else while at the same time saying something psychologically uncomfortable along with the delivery of their anti-conformity message of ‘would you mind awfully NOT destroying the world?’ This is an unpopular message as there’s a lot of money to be made in ripping up all of nature and then selling it to us. Those big businesses exploiting the natural world do indeed make a lot of money out of it and thus, they and their friends rise to positions of power and communicate through their friends in media and politics that there’s no problem in destroying the very planet that you’re living on. And so this message becomes part of conformity and many people don’t worry about the impending end of civilisation. This is a shame as it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d think would worry anyone. But they’ve been told all is fine and so, seemingly, it is.

It’s my contention that bowing to a level of society conformity by the environmental groups and trying to soften the blow of your unpopular message DIMINISHES the message rather than ENHANCING it, as intended.

This has gotten in the way of progress, to some extent.

Dare to be different. Be true to yourself. We still value individuality in the face of conformity, tough as it might be. Individuals can ‘break the mould’ and effect broader changes in society. Sometimes just very small things like changes in fashion or the generation of a meme that goes viral.

Activists in suits still get called hippies by the public and media anyway, so why hide from it. Hiding from who you are just makes you look weak. The public pick up this weakness, albeit subconsciously, and I think this makes them less inclined to take on your message. The public will hate you anyway, why not at least have the courage of delivering your unpopular message as your authentic self?

People, the public, are more likely to listen to people who are genuine; people who are being their genuine authentic selves. What people listen to, is people, not suits.

People, the public, might get upset by someone trying to upset the society apple cart, but those genuine mould-breaking individuals who stick to their principles, including being true to themselves, can gain respect and recognition. They are more likely to gain respect and recognition if they don’t present a watered-down version of themselves. People find this less convincing.

This, in part, is why activism has had fewer successes than it otherwise might have done.

Be yourself. Dare to be different.

Being true to yourself is all part of the passion you feel as an activist. And that comes across. Don’t water that down with compromising who you are.

Paradoxically, being your own query and unique self, while putting conformed society’s teeth on edge, may actually gain you and your unpopular campaign message, more recognition, not less. You are more likely to be remembered.

So please, no more suits or standardised haircuts.

I don’t care what you look like or how you choose to dress. If you’re different, I’ll most likely be interested, rather than feel threatened.

I want you to be you.

I want to hear what you have to say. And I want you to save the world. I believe in you.


For more of my brand of wisdom, check out my book.

It’s on Amazon UK – here, and Amazon US – here.