Schwartz: Environmentalism is more than nature photos, requires political action


Alex Schwartz, Opinion Editor

Instagram is always popping on Earth Day. People become environmentalists for the day, posting heartwarming photos of themselves enjoying nature and professing their love for the planet. I’ll be honest — I love seeing the pictures. And I think it’s important we have a day to at least remind people that they live on basically the only known spinning rock in the universe that can support life.

However, as is the case with any form of activism, a post is nowhere near enough. And with environmental movements especially, slacktivism is the worst thing we can engage in.

Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day on April 22, 1970, to connect previously independent environmental advocates across the country. That day, 20 million Americans collectively demonstrated for causes like toxic waste cleanup, wilderness preservation and oil spill prevention. The newly created holiday was a way for eco-activists from across the country to find common values, even though their specific struggles differed. Earth Day, in essence, is a call for all people to consider the environment as a broader system, to reflect on the connectedness of the issues it faces and — most importantly — to take action to protect the planet.

Understanding the origins of Earth Day as an explicitly activist holiday should encourage us to do more than post pretty nature photos. We should be doing tangible work to fight against environmental issues and the systems that perpetuate them.

It’s also important to examine the ways in which we push for sustainability. We’re barraged with media that tell us how buying something different will help the environment: We’re told to ditch plastic, change our light bulbs and use less water, and that if everyone were to change their habits with the help of innovative products, we’d be in the clear. But doesn’t all that just sound like someone who’s trying to sell you more stuff?

In his famous essay “Forget Shorter Showers,” Derrick Jensen brings up data that show how widespread change among individuals will have negligible impacts on sustainability. If everyone did everything Al Gore told them to in “An Inconvenient Truth,” U.S. emissions would only fall by 22 percent. Taking shorter showers and turning off our dishwashers would only affect the 10 percent of water that is used directly by humans. The other 90 percent is used in agriculture and industry, which also use the majority of our energy (individuals use only a quarter of it). And reducing our trash would only get rid of 3 percent of total waste production in the U.S.

Jensen says these statistics shouldn’t discourage us from trying to live sustainably, but he puts it in perspective. Subtle messages in our daily lives congratulate us for making sustainable choices (read: buying more “sustainable” products) and absolve us from any other wrongdoing while preventing us from acknowledging our place in an economic system that violently exploits nature and people in the name of profit. We turn off our water without calling our congresspeople. We recycle our plastics without planning marches. We go vegan without addressing environmental degradation in our own neighborhoods. But behavioral change is nothing without political action.

In this case, a top-down approach is needed. Individual sustainability measures can prepare us for long-term cultural change, but we need government regulation of destructive corporations that are dwindling our resources and causing our emissions and waste to skyrocket. There is simply no time left to do anything otherwise. We need to center legislative action in our fight for environmental justice, and we need to be courageous enough to take on the systems responsible for the degradation of our planet.

It is possible to make an Instagram tribute that aligns with Earth Day’s true values. Instead of a vague caption that celebrates the Earth, acknowledge our economic system’s role in climate change and other environmental problems. Offer ideas for political action, not just recycling and shorter showers. Signing petitions and contacting congresspeople to support the banning of single-use plastics in several states is a good place to start. And go beyond Earth Day — be disruptive with your environmental activism throughout the year.

We will never survive if we don’t take immediate and drastic political action to end the destruction of our planet at the hands of lifeless and greedy corporations. In most ways, the environmental movement is really centered on humans: It’s an effort to save ourselves, since the Earth will live on without us. So keep posting photos. Keep raising awareness. Keep turning off your lights. Keep shortening your showers. But keep going — there’s a lot of work to be done.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.