Climate strike blurs line between meaningful and performative action

Illustration of a person planting a tree with a sign that reads "climate action now"
Lily Callender/Staff

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On Friday, millions of young folks, old folks, schoolchildren, workers, hippies and squares, all stepped outside in a heartening display of global environmental activism. The climate strike may not have solidified immediate policy change, but it did set something in stone: the presence of environmentalism in the mainstream. The future of our planet has never been more uncertain, but collective demand for climate action has never been louder. While these are the worst of times, they are also the best of times.

Never before has it been cooler to identify as a tree-hugger. And that’s an objectively positive thing. The more folks who demand action, the more politicians who consider solutions and the more corporations that change their practices. Simple. Yet somehow, floating in the sea of water bottle stickers and cardboard signs that flooded Sproul Plaza on Friday, I couldn’t help but experience mixed feelings. While the words said and shouted were indeed moving, some carried the performative energy of a theatrical production, a display that felt oddly foreign. To me, the climate strike represents a development in the now established movement of environmentalism — a Tale of Two Causes. One cause for the planet, and one for a picture.

Why should hundreds of peers, each raising their voice for the same things I believe in, feel so alien? I reckon it’s due to two different breeds of environmentalism, one rooted in a connection to the land, the other in connecting with a group of people.

Here in California, my Southeastern breed of environmentalism feels out of place at times. Steeped in faint but precious memories of Smoky Mountain mornings and Pop-Pop’s lake, it brewed slowly and took on an intimate flavor. I’m partial toward living off the land and yet never thought much of granola. Despite deep conservationist roots, the walkout on Friday didn’t quite feel near and dear.

In Berkeley, the progressive mecca of the nation, donning green face paint and howling a fossil fuel Jody call are shoo-in strategies for racking up status points. The anger we put into our painted posters signals our virtues, which in turn signal our place in a common group, and shows us that we’re on the same team. The line begins to blur between climate strike and climate social. The conversation at times segued from climatic concern into more partisan issues. Though important and intertwined, climate change is a cause for all to rally behind. Claiming the issue as a crown jewel of progressivism isn’t conducive to climate action in a nation with such diverse citizens and diverse political views, shared or not. I hope not to seem cynical, pretentious or the archetypal white man with a superiority complex. There’s a lot for the greater Berkeley community to be proud of, but the complexities of these causes are worth considering as well.

What I hope for is to open a discussion on productive and unproductive ways to make positive change. I believe that begins with considering what effects one’s actions have, and recognizing one’s own motivations. The wake of litter following behind our procession of activists from Sproul hall was hauntingly ironic, but a great reminder that while awareness is crucial, so too is quiet action. A call to action is one hell of a thing, but what creates change is the action, not the call. The loudest call ever still makes no sound in a vacuum.

My greatest worry is that one of the most important issues of our generation will become no more than a popular fad, that in 10 years we might recall climate strikes how we remember Kony 2012, with popular environmental activism having gone the way of frosted tips and puka shell necklaces, another inconsequential blip on the radar of popular culture.

The issues our world faces were not neatly wrapped up at noon on Friday with the final round of applause. Taking a stand for an issue so large should be a daily event, not a flashy one-off checkbox. It requires actions both grand and minute, both performative and personal. Imagine the effects of four million afternoons spent phoning representatives, volunteering with nonprofits, local governments or universities, cleaning public lands. There are plenty of more tangible actions that also raise awareness.

I’ll close on a third and final reference to the only book I remember much of anything about from high school, capturing a healthy level of hope and anxiety for the fate of our Earth, hopefully as a reminder that each of us can always be more mindful of our actions:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Cooper Campbell is a senior studying molecular environmental biology.