Unless you regularly spend time around activists, one thing that might surprise you about activism is how many activists wish they weren’t activists. Didn’t plan to do it, don’t want the gig, but feel compelled because no one else signed up. If not them, then who?
I learned this (and quite a few other things) because I spent a lot of time this year with activists. “Activists” being people actively trying to change culture or society in the direction of social justice, often through protest.
2019 was the year I met AOC, bumped into Greta Thunberg on Broadway [the street, not the musical theater district], and marched down a highway during rush hour. I “died-in” in front of New York’s governor. Gave an interview to The Intercept about the relationship between climate change and immigration in handcuffs (flexicuffs, not pleasant) after NYPD stopped a peaceful demonstration. I even know who Teen Vogue’s “vigilante arboritists” are, but I’ll never tell. All because I really want to solve this climate crisis.
But before I go any further angering, alienating, or confusing any readers, I should establish a few things up front:
First, no one can individually “solve” climate change. To start, there’s no solution for the last several decades of fracking, fossil fuel combustion, and physics. Moreover, climate change is the ultimate collective action problem, and you don’t solve collective action problems individually, even if certain individuals (see: AOC, Greta) make oversized dents in them.
Second, I’m not an activist, scientist, or someone who’s been a “Day 0” part of this climate movement. I’m a few years in now, founded Brightest, and worked in renewable energy, but I’m new-er to this. The Bill McKibbens (of 350.org), Greenpeaces, and indigenous activists of the world who have been fighting their entire lives deserve a lot of credit and respect. They sounded the alarm and started the conversation about what a better world could look like. Now newer members of the movement are approaching it with fresh energy and perspective.
Third, if you don’t think climate change, global warming, and biodiversity loss are worth worrying or caring about, I’m not going to try and convince you, and you might as well stop here. I’ve read pretty much everything on the topic from books and scientific papers to the latest dispatches from The Economist and the United Nations – enough to convince me this is a problem well worth working on. I’ll give you one example chart from the Our World in Data team at Oxford, then let’s keep going.
Climate change does disproportionately impact the world’s poor (and has feedback loops to further worsen inequality), but problems are on the horizon that will be hard for anyone to buy their way out [which might help explain Elon’s recent behavior].
Which brings me (all of us, really) back to advertising. I mean activism. Wait, what’s the difference exactly?
One of the many contradictions about activism I find fascinating is it’s explicitly counter-cultural with the goal of becoming mainstream culture. As an activist, you’re standing up (often quite publicly) to say “this is wrong and needs to change,” then attempting to work yourself out of the job. The first Pride was a riot; today brands trip over themselves to sponsor parade floats [one hopes they’re equally enamored with truly supporting their LGBTQ employees 24/7/365]. You’re the indie band whose strategy is to cross over to pop. Message and medium are one and the same.
[Author’s warning: slightly graphic, symbolic content ahead in the next few paragraphs. If that isn’t your thing here’s a great Vanity Fair piece on Baby Yoda.]
Another thing I like about activism is it’s more or less morally urgent advertising with little-to-no money and accountability. If a corporation drove a truck up to their competitor and unloaded a stack of fake body bags in front of their office, the antagonizing company would be sued, ridiculed, and quickly bankrupted. But when Truth campaign anti-smoking activists did it outside Philip Morris’ headquarters, the wave of media attention brought a billion-dollar industry to its knees.
Because of its low-accountability, outsider relationship to the normative establishment, activists can do “advertising” against the system those working inside it can’t – an incredible advantage in a war of competing messages or ideologies.
There are times and places when this type of advertising is and isn’t appropriate. It can be divisive, and must be deployed with care. But when shockvertising is wielded with moral purity in life-or-death matters (civil rights, smoking, ecocide), it’s powerfully attention-getting, designed for media amplification, and incredibly cheap. Give a few activists a hundred dollars and a strong sense of moral urgency and you can make headline news (we’ll come back to that).
This has very important implications for climate change. Because, ultimately, what we actually need to achieve climate justice is transformation. Call it a revolution or don’t, but we need to switch from burning a million barrels of oil every single day to getting that energy from solar panels, wind, water, and other low-emission sources. We need to re-engineer cars, buildings, farms, and cities. We need to change culture and social norms. That’s not the type of change you achieve with a cookie-cutter, inside-the-system persuasion campaign. Environmentalists have been trying (and failing) for years.
This is not like selling shampoo. You need to be activist about it – and you need to really scale up the activism.
Ultimately, you need a different theory of change.
I was working through my own theory in November 2018 when it happened – twice in the same week, actually. On November 13th, one week after the midterm elections, activists from youth climate group Sunrise Movement sat inside Nancy Pelosi’s office to ask Democratic leadership for more urgent climate action (now that they had a majority in Congress). AOC stops in to applaud them. It becomes national news.
You only have to watch the video a few seconds to recognize this isn’t a fluke viral moment. There are values, a strategy, and a clearly-defined brand in play. And Sunrise is using protest more like the Truth campaign, or Civil Rights activists – it’s planned, proactive, and goals-oriented. Savvy with modern media too. Something about it feels weird and rather different – because it’s very, authentically real, and yet also somehow polished.
Four days later, completely independently of Sunrise, a group of British activists, academics, and scientists start sitting down on bridges throughout London, halting traffic as they sing songs, play music, and wave bright-colored flags with the extinction symbol. Dozens get arrested by the police. It’s not Sunrise Movement but it’s like Sunrise in the energy, tactics, orchestration, and uniformity – not to mention the demand: “climate action now.”
In other words, it’s good advertising. A campaign that might actually work. And at this point, I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard of Extinction Rebellion, or experienced XR in person if you live in the UK or any major city.
There’s a slogan (“rebel for life”), hell, they’ve got an actual style guide. Today they’re the fasting-growing “environmental organization” in history, with 485+ groups in 72 countries and hundreds of thousands of “members.”
It can be a bit funny to process this, but when you boil it all down, what the future of life on Earth needs is what these groups are designed to deliver: an epic advertising campaign. The campaign to prevent the end of all other campaigns.
We don’t need more scientific inquiry (though we certainly should keep both the arts and sciences humming along constructively)
We don’t need better or cheaper solar panels, batteries, and wind turbines (they’re cheap and good enough already).
And our governments and economies have the money to implement the steps to keep global warming limited to 1.5°C.
We just need to convince enough people to change the government so the government does the right things.
We need some really great ads (and organizing). Creativity versus the ultimate constraint: time. Patagonia’s on it, and we’re certainly attracting influencers, but where are Apple and Nike? Has anyone briefed McCann or Wieden + Kennedy? Or is our campaign for the future squarely on the shoulders of the people?
One thing’s for certain, the youth are up to challenge – and know how to spread a message (thank heavens). After a Greta-led call to climate strike on September 20th, over 7 million people took to the streets in protest. It was a flourish of anxiety, hope, frustration, artistry, and most of all truth – all around the world, all in a single week. Shortly after, Collins Dictionary named “climate strike” the 2019 word of the year.
It’s often said advertising is about selling hope. With the current state of our environment, we certainly need more hope, but we also need to channel and mobilize it. We need to reach hearts and change minds. We need scientists, engineers, coaches, teachers, but most of all, we need attention-getters.
After all, if advertising has a super power, it’s getting people to notice and care about the things they’d rather overlook – or didn’t realize they needed in the first place.
Closing note: Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and Fridays for Future are striking again this Friday, December 6th across America and in Madrid at the UN’s COP25 climate conference. Because if there’s one rule about running a successful campaign it’s never stop campaigning.