4 Things Every New Activist Should Know

One thing I quickly learned when I became active is that it’s easy to get discouraged. There’s four myths about activism which I think contribute to this. These myths are perpetuated by critics of activists as well as by activists themselves.

1. You don’t have to have all the answers.

The first myth of activism is that you have to have all the answers.  For example, when you talk to people about climate change, you will inevitably be confronted by a naysayer who is eager to argue that what you are doing not the answer to climate change. I think what drives some of the naysayers is despair. They are afraid to hope, and so they resign themselves to what they perceive as the inevitability of failure. But, if you are like me, then you are one of those people who would rather work against incredible odds for a better world than throw up your hands and do nothing.

It is easy to criticize any proposed solution to climate change, because climate change is an incredibly complex problems. No single solution will be the solution. And every solution do will have unintended and unforeseen consequences for which we will have to find other solutions. Slowing climate change will require large numbers of people working at many different levels over an extended period of time. This doesn’t mean that your work isn’t valuable. It just means that your work is a small part of a much larger effort, the whole of which is very difficult to see. Climate change and systemic racism are bigger than any one of us, and the solutions will be bigger than any one of us as well.

This applies. not just to climate change, but also to systemic racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to have all the answers in order to legitimate your activism. If someone challenges you about whether what you are doing will make a positive difference, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know. But I’m doing what I can right now. And that’s important to me. I encourage you to do the same.”

2. You don’t have to be perfect.

The second myth of activism is that you have to live up to someone else’s standard of environmental purity. When people first get involved in activism, they start to see all the ways that they need to make changes in their life, and it can be it can be overwhelming. Inevitably, you will meet someone who will try to belittle the work you are doing because they think you are a hypocrite in some way. For example, if you are an environmental activist, they may think you should be a vegan. Or maybe they think you should give up your job. Or maybe they think you need to stop driving a car or stop using electricity. Whatever it is, they will try to make you feel like your work isn’t valuable because you not are living up to their ideal. To them, I think you can only respond, “I don’t claim to be perfect. But I’m doing what I can right now. And I think that’s important.”

Similarly, none of our solutions have to be perfect either. Every solution we come up with will have unintended negative consequences. If you go to a climate march, for example, you may have to drive to get there, which creates greenhouse gases. If you want to connect with others doing the same kind of work, you may have to use a computer, which is made of rare earth metals and has built-in obsolescence. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint by installing energy-efficient CFL lightbulbs, you will discover that they mercury in them, which has environmental costs associated with both extraction and disposal.

There is no perfect choice, no choice free of all negative consequences. But it’s important not to be paralyzed by this fact. We don’t have to be perfect. The best we can do is to educate ourselves about the consequences of our actions and make the most responsible choices we can given a range of less than ideal options.

3. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone.

The third myth of activism is that only those people who have earned their activist chops have a right to speak up. When people first get involved in activism, it may seem like everyone else has been at it so much longer and knows so much more. But it’s never too late to get active. You don’t need to feel embarrassed and you don’t need to apologize to anyone.

Someone on Facebook once questioned my right to speak out about the environment because, in their mind, I had not proven myself as an activist. I had been open about the fact that I was new to activism. But I was nevertheless tempted to send this person a list of the things I had done recently. I think that would have been a mistake. There is always more to be done, and it is impossible to satisfy everyone.

But, more importantly, I think it’s a mistake to buy into the myth that you have to meet some threshold of activism before you can raise your voice. Raising your voice is a form of activism. Speaking out is a way of changing the dominant narrative, which is a necessary precursor to more tangible forms of action. Of course, we need to act with our hands and our feet, too. But we shouldn’t diminish the importance of speaking out.

I’m very open about the fact that I wasn’t active until my 40s, because I think it’s important for people to see that it’s never too late to get active.  It’s also important for people who are thinking about becoming environmentally active to not be discouraged by those who have been active for a long time. Sometimes this discouragement is unintentional, and sometimes it’s not. Some people who have been active for years or decades may feel like those new to the movement should have to prove themselves. But this attitude is counterproductive, because it ends up driving away the very people that the movement needs.

4. You don’t have to do it alone.

The fourth myth of activism is that you have to do it by yourself. When you start to get active, it’s easy to get discouraged and wonder whether your small contribution is really making a difference. But remember that you didn’t cause climate change by yourself. And you’re not going to solve it by yourself.

Part of the shift in consciousness which our world needs is a shift from a paradigm of hyper-individuality and alienation to a paradigm of community and interconnectedness. This is true whether the issue is environmental degradation or systemic racism. We got ourselves into this situation, in part, by being overly focused on the individual. So part of getting ourselves out of this situation is shifting the focus to community. Individual action is important, but collective action is what will turn things around.

Whenever you start to despair about the effectiveness of your actions, it may be a sign that you are too focused on the level of individual choice. Take a step back and ask yourself how you can turn your individual action into a collective action. Ask yourself how can you connect with other people who might share you concerns. Building community is one of the most important ways to fight against the status quo.

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