James Robert Brooks
Being a climate activist is a lot like being queer in a heteronormative world.
If I ever met Greta Thunberg, I’d tell her this. I mean, I am an indefatigably proud queer, and I’m proud of my work as an activist; the similarity is worth noting. Even though all my elite, left-leaning, coastal friends support my climate activism and think I’m great (I get thanked a lot)– my expérience intérieure isn’t the same as most of them, considering most aren’t climate activists. It seems then, I fear irreversible climatic changes more than they. Or maybe they, comfortably ensconced as the majority—somewhat like being straight‑ are uncomfortable with the reality of how climate change, if faced unblinkingly, would obliterate a way of life.
Queer identities and climate activism trouble established norms. I may relish pushing gender boundaries—I’m a straight-passing gay man— but in the end, political progress is still subject to the comfort level of (straight) social institutions, cultural practices and knowledge systems.
Similar, climate politics— the urgent entreaties of the 26% of people like myself (and Greta)— push against the established economic order. The one in which many of my sympathetic friends, and strangers I meet at cocktail parties, are firmly installed. I can make them feel uncomfortable when I talk about climate change. Even my friends— they’ll roll their eyes.
Queue the Rejection, Again
Many climate activists now identify a posturing-neglect cycle on climate on the left. Beyond abject climate science denialism on the right, there is a tendency towards a “climate emergency pretense” on the left that describes a broad political obstruction to immediate action. It represents a left-right agreement on climate change mitigation that fears economic disruption more than a distant climate emergency. Beyond mere left/right polarization on climate science, an “institutionalized denial” (I.D. for short)— aided and abetted by fossil fuel industry influence, ignorance and psychological apathy— explains a broad political stasis on climate controlling even left political discourse on climate policy.
I.D. describes an America that may think clean energy is important, yet consistently regards climate change as a low policy priority. It’s an America that doesn’t talk much about climate change either.
Myopic and fractious, I.D. much like heteronormativity, and as a social institution, may be a better way to describe an American subconscious on climate change. A cultural, political and economic impulse to preserve the current (unjust) economic order. It may call for gradual alterations to the current system, but its essence seeks to largely preserve it.
I.D. is an odd abettor to the antics of industry- organized climate denial on the political right.
The Economy is Normal (Really??)
I once heard one of the grand poobahs of climate activists, Bill McKibben, founder of the climate campaign group 350.org, describe himself to his audience— of climate activists, who else— as a “professional bummer-outer”. Nodding in agreement, we all had this grudging awareness that outside our little cliques, we were a decidedly unpopular political group.
McKibben once said, “the inertia of the established order is powerful” and “if we can think of a plausible, or even implausible, reason to discount environmental warnings, we will”.
Institutionalized Denial intermingles with real dependencies on 2- hour commutes, iPhones and frequent flyer miles (to name just 3). For cultural theorist Christopher Musello (“Objects in Process”), the “stuff” of this in situ order, initiating standards of living, should be framed, evaluated and interpreted within the context of political life.
The equipage of the modern economy wrote Musello, can expressly control the definition and enforcement of normalcy. Established (visible) economic infrastructure in other words, is a political extension of I.D. in itself. Where climate activists as critics of the economic system, become misanthropes and interlopers on the powerful political terrain of the normal. Confusing.
This can draw climate activists into unproductive arguments with their audiences as an enemy. As the worst effects of climate change are down the road and impersonal in nature, activists push against what is already economically and materially salient. What is normal– and violent — over what, well, isn’t.
Silence = Death
From the purview of political majorities rooted in I.D. politics, doing something meaningful about climate change can feel like a disagreeable end to a deeply rooted way of life. British environmental campaigner George Marshall says that an impulse to preserve this modus vivendi as a political mechanism is concealing an injustice historically, and remarkably similar to, societies that remain silent about their own human rights abuse.
The appearance of climate change therefore bears an intriguing similarity to the plague script of HIV/AIDS in the 1990’s where climate activists, responding to its latent but steady deterioration of life support —the enemy you can’t see — conjures deep fears about economic dislocation.
AIDS Politics and Climate Politics
The HIV/AIDS group Act Up, as a rational response to the crisis, engaged civil society in the idea of structural reform. My queer artist friend and pioneering AIDS activist, Joel Tan, described their tactics as a deliberate response to a broad fear of AIDS and death, culminating in an extermination. They exposed a society to its own systemic, human rights abuse. Asian people in particular during this time, says Joel, a Chinese-Filipino immigrant, bore the brunt of HIV. White gay men, the de facto AIDS victims in mainstream perceptions in the U.S., and even within the HIV community, were controlling the definition of human suffering. Joel’s advocacy pointed to “model minority” racism, along with intercultural shame about AIDS, that left Asians underrepresented, and erased, in its death toll.
Similar, mainstream perception of AIDS consisted of the delineation of “normal” and heterosexual— hence not sick, and “abnormal”, hence queer with AIDS— as a system of control and a form of domination. Act Up activists were resisting the dominance of the normal and society’s control of its definition and enforcement.
The “Plague Script” for Climate Change
A psychologically remote climate change, conjures similar fear-responses and control by the mainstream “normal” economy, dominating and controlling the appeals of climate activists.
Plague script politics and its logical cohort, institutionalized denial, means climate activists’ push for an (abnormal and therefore uncomfortable) economic reordering—in the face of a stealth injustice. They are subject to the control and enforcement of the normal.
Climate activists, much like AIDS activists of the 1980’s and ‘90s, are railing against and exposing ID’s production of a crime against humanity that is concurrently regulating and subjugating their calls for reforming it.
Reclaiming What it Means to be a Climate Activist
While the audience as enemy framework of AIDS and Climate politics may align, a historical analysis will be needed to determine this. Act Up activists attacked the stigma, the label of queer and fear of AIDS, as forms of domination. More succinctly, they attacked the primary meaning of the disease by appropriating “queer” and political directives like “Silence=Death” thereby exposing homophobia and fear of AIDS and the AIDS silence, as systems of domination masking a human rights abuse.
By resisting and disrupting queer- with- AIDS-as-normal politics, Act Up tactically reclaimed the meaning of the entire system implicating it in perpetuating the spread of disease and death. Their attacks were caught between the association and disassociation of AIDS politics from queer politics.
Similarly, climate activists are attacking an unjust economic system and are caught between the politics of ID and their derogatory political label, as a form of domination.
A Flawed Environmentalist
More strategic advocacy may call for, at least in part, activists acknowledging and working within the system outlined above.
Climate activism embroiled within I.D., has an inequitable image problem that will need to counter our self-absorbed, haughty, radical cultural persona, says researcher Marilyn DeLaure, who investigates how people effect social change. Learning from Act Up as a way to capture the moral center of climate politics, DeLaure claims activists should do so as “fools and clowns” as a temporary respite from the paralyzing seriousness of environmental crisis politics.
In this spirit, climate activists shouldn’t see the problem of climate change as arising from inherit evil, but rather, as attributed to human limitations and mistakes. Advocacy then puts emotional and flawed climate activists struggling themselves to create an environmentally just society at its center.
Indeed, climate justice has real consequences that ‘we’ activists are daunted by too. This makes us like our audience— not unlike them. Our advocacy in other words, inculcates us as everyday citizens who struggle with, and resist, the necessary (even painful) re-ordering of a way of life that deep emission’s reductions demand.
The next time I’m noshing wood-plank seared salmon at another well-heeled social event, with Greta— I’d tell her that her autism, and queerness, and climate activism are all related. They’re not mainstream and normal and therefore powerful. She might nod in agreement. She’d say, oh yeah, people love and support my autism, but I can tell when they get uncomfortable with it.
Thanks to Chris Koenig (SFSU) for help in developing this article.