Activism is how we make an environmental difference. But there is debate over how to make the biggest difference—or even whether some forms of activism hurt vs. help. Maybe looking at ideas underlying activism will yield insights. Below you’ll find an overview suggesting theme relevance, sample related axes, and an opportunity to take sides on this topic.
Environmentalism is, to many people, fundamentally about taking effective action to make a difference. But we all know that activism can mean many things to many people: is carrying a shopping bag environmental activism? is voting environmental activism? or does activism have to move beyond legal means? Perhaps these differences can be better understood by thinking about activism in the context of EcoTypes axes and themes—in particular, the Place and Action themes.
First, let’s consider the EcoTypes Place theme, built on the question “What world do we want, and what would be the place of nonhumans vs. humans?” It’s important to remember that all activism is toward some ultimate end—some vision of a better place. What exactly is this better place toward which our activism strives? In the Place theme, one vision champions the nonhuman pole: as the theme’s pole summary states, nonhuman Place “…approaches the place of nonhumans and humans in our world as one in which nonhumans were here first.…There can be a place in this world for humans, but only if it does not interfere with nonhuman flourishing.” We can readily imagine activism along these lines, say the Half Earth proposal summarized in the Conservation topic. On the other hand, the human vision of Place is summarized like this: “Human accomplishments and well-being define for this pole the relative place of nonhumans and humans in our world.…It prioritizes human needs, and accepts—even celebrates—human transformations of the nonhuman world.” Here, activism may be more along the lines of, say, environmental justice.
Activism also—clearly!—ties in with the EcoTypes Action theme. Here, the key question is “What action at small vs. big scales will help us build the world we want?” (echoing the Place theme). The Action theme incorporates the Change, Social Scale, Society, and Spatial Scale axes, all of which are deeply relevant to activism: overall, small Action would support incremental Change, individual Social Scale, consensus Society, and local Spatial Scale. One can imagine many calls to environmental activism that resonate with the small Action theme pole (say, taking shorter showers)…far different than activism along the big Action pole, where, say, priority would be placed on working collectively toward global environmental accords. The latter, build on radical Change, institutional Social Scale, (generally) conflict Society, and global Spatial Scale, are activism too, but of a quite different magnitude than that on the small Action pole.
Overall, to which Place and Action theme poles does current environmental activism lean? Interestingly, in contrast with many of the other EcoTypes application topics, activism is mixed across both of these themes. So, for instance, we will hear environmentalist calls to build a world championing nonhuman Place as well as other calls for a world in which human Place is central; and we hear strong endorsement of both the small and big Action poles—though rarely at the same time. Perhaps, then, the two poles of each of these EcoTypes themes can help us better understand some of the key discussions, differences, and debate around environmental activism today.
Different takes on environmental topics may reflect differing takes on more fundamental environmental ideas. Below are a few of the EcoTypes axes related to this topic; these and other axes contribute to the larger theme-based patterns summarized above.
Activism is all about making change happen—what what sort of change? The EcoTypes Change axis considers some big differences between incremental and radical approaches—say, between climate action in which every household does their part vs. climate action targeting capitalism as the culprit. Activism thus builds on important assumptions as to how genuine change can happen.
Many forms of activism are based on implicit understandings of why things are the way they are, and this ties closely into the EcoTypes Domain axis. If we view environmental problems as fundamentally due to misplaced values, we may seek action on the ideal Domain pole (e.g., via education); if, instead, environmental issues boil down to the things we do (say, polluting corporations), our action will accrue more to the material Domain axis. Either way, activism is attempting to address the understood cause of environmental problems—but in very different ways.
The most obvious, and contested, EcoTypes axis connected with activism may be Social Scale. On the one hand, the individual axis champions things each one of us can do, exemplified via those “50 Things You Can Do to Save The Earth” lists; on the other, the institutional axis champions collective action addressing shared constraints and opportunities, e.g., environmental laws. The outcome can be very different priorities for activism!
Related in some ways to Social Scale, the Spatial Scale EcoTypes axis relates to activism in significant ways as well. Is action best taken at the scale of our neighborhoods and community, say as in the local food movement, or should we prioritize larger scale action such as global climate accords? This tension between the local and global Spatial Scale axes leads to differing priorities and strategies for effective activism.
Take sides on this topic! It’s best if you are randomly assigned to a side, or pick a side you disagree with, as the point here is to try on a different approach than you may have, and to consider how differing takes on EcoTypes axes and themes may result in differing positions on environmental topics.
Following this tab are three positions—by no means comprehensive, but this gets us beyond the back-and-forth of a pro/con two-position debate. The first position is the default one, in some ways supporting what those interested in environmental issues have learned as the best way to approach this topic. Then there are two more positions that challenge this default position and/or each other. In each case you’ll find some details to get you started, and guidance on how each position may relate to EcoTypes axes and themes (do review the general material above, and feel free to explore other connections not noted here). The last tab lists all publications cited in the position summaries.
You could approach these three positions as a traditional debate, with each side attempting to win. Or, you could approach these three positions as starting points for environmental engagement around their creative tensions, hopefully to get to deeper, more meaningful, possibly complementary disagreement.
Have fun! Remember to fully try on your position, whether or not you personally agree with it. It is easy to say “Each has a point,” and indeed each position presented here is worth serious consideration. But as you’ll discover there are important differences, and you have the opportunity and responsibility to make up your own mind in light of these differences.