So I know I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve been super busy with the holidays, school and the podcast, not to mention a housing hunt! But I wanted to post this for Valentine’s Day because it’s about love, though not of the kind conventionally understood as romantic.
For the past couple of years now, there’s been a vigorous debate within the world of climate activism over the best way to motivate people to take action. In particular, there has been a vigorous debate over whether positivity or fear is more effective. Do you emphasize the positive – the fact that we already, now, have everything we need to transition off of fossil-fuels, and thereby build up people’s hope and enthusiasm? Or, do you emphasize the danger – the increasingly dyer scientific warnings, the horrific visions of the future if we don’t change, and try to scare people into “waking up” and taking action? I would argue that both sides of this debate are, with all respect, wrong. Neither positivity nor fear is what’s needed. Positivity alone is too weak a motivator for the kind of massive, whole-scale transformation called for by the climate crisis. The crisis literally requires that we change everything – our economy, our agriculture, our transportation and travel habits, everything. And change that sweeping can be as scary as exciting. It will therefore require something stronger than just positivity about the fact that it can be done to help people push through the fear, leave behind the devil they know, and become active in the transformation.
Using fear, meanwhile, can backfire in two distinct ways. First of all, as has been frequently pointed out, it can have the effect of shutting people down, so that they become even more inactive and disengaged. But also, though far less discussed but of equally great concern (or it should be) to activists, is that while fear can powerfully motivate people to fight for their survival, it can motivate people to do so in very nasty ways. Because, when people are afraid for their survival, unless they already have a very strong, very well developed and embodied ethic/politics/spirituality/practice of radical compassion in place, they tend to fight ruthlessly, doing whatever they feel they must in order to assure that survival. It tends to create a “lifeboat” mentality, in which those other than “their own” are felt to be in competition for survival resources and thus a threat. And so people fight xenophobically and cruelly. This is a big part of the reason why times of crisis provide such fertile ground for fascists and other right-wing demagogs. And I don’t think we want a “life-boat” mentality to inform climate politics!
Rather, as Naomi Klein beautifully shows in her three most recent books – This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs the Climate (2014), No Is Not Enough (2017) and The Battle For Paradise (2018), by far the most courageous, determined, but also generous and open-hearted struggles for transformation come neither from positivity nor from fear, but from love. Often, they come from love of place, love of animals, love of children/grandchildren and their future, or love of cherished ways of life (farming, fishing, subsistence hunting, Indigenous traditions). These struggles tend to invite allies in to help defend what is beloved rather than seeing strangers as threats, and to forge common links with others engaged in similar struggles. This has even allowed groups once antagonistic to each other (settlers and Indigenous people, ranchers and Vegan activists, BIPOC and white allies, youth and elders, etc,) to come together to resist extraction projects and demand climate justice (see Klein for some amazing examples). And this has even lead to the beginning of powerful processes of healing from historical trauma (see again Klein,)!
To some extent, the role of love in motivating struggle has been understood by activists as campaigns to get people to “fall in love with nature” show. What has not been grasped yet, it seems to me, is the necessity to activate people based on what they already love rather than trying to get people to love what you think will activate them. We need to not only meet people where their knowledge is, but where their hearts are. We need to not only help people see how what they love is endangered by climate change, but how what they love can be transformed through politicization, and thus be carried forward into a new, just, sustainable world. Because, if people believe that the transformation will destroy what they love every bit as much as climate change will, they won’t fight. They’ll go into despair instead. And they will cling desperately to the old civilization even as they know it’s destroying the planet, preferring to “go down with the ship” then to loose what they love dearly – basically, nihilism. And/or, they will join the struggle, but half-heartedly, held back by ambivalence.
I struggled with this myself for a long time. Because, although I deeply believe that Phantom is a story about social justice, I feared greatly that the aesthetic, especially of the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage-show, could not be continued without the big-city, capitalist infrastructure that originally produced it. But that aesthetic is part of what I love about Phantom. And oddly enough, I feel a deep connection between the aesthetic and the social justice (more on that in future posts). I felt very much on my own, however, in finding my way out of this impasse, because I did not feel that I could talk about it with fellow activists. Most of the activist I know express their politics through aesthetics of simplicity, and so I feared that they would not be any too sympathetic to my love of the high-romantic aesthetics of Phantom (an attitude with which I do have prior experience, so that fear does not come out of nowhere). Thus, although my Phanship and my anti-poverty and Disability activism have been a strong fit with one another right from the start, for a long time I feared that my Phanship and my climate activism were incompatible. Because, I feared that the necessary social and economic changes to transform us to a degrowth society would destroy Phantom just as much as climate change itself would. I wanted to believe that there was a way to carry it forward – that that destruction wasn’t inevitable, but I couldn’t see how yet. And the message I felt coming from climate activism was, not meeting me where my heart lies and helping me figure it out, but “put away childish things, leave behind such a relic of white, heteropatriarcal, bourgeois consumer-capitalism, and fall in love with nature instead and thereby embrace simplicity”. Not that anyone has ever said this to me directly, but it seems to be very strongly implied in the messaging of much climate (and other) activism. But I have never found that terribly helpful, and I suspect I’m not alone there! Because, you can’t just stop loving what you love because some one says you should, even some one you admire and respect. You love what you love for reasons, even if those reasons don’t always make sense to others!
Now, I have recently begun to see a way out of this dilemma, and not by renouncing my Phanship either! I have begun to see a way that Phantom, in all, or at least most, of its high romantic splendour, can be transformed so that it can be carried forward into a post-carbon, degrowth world. Though, no, I won’t give away what that is just yet! And certainly the time and energy spent wrestling with this issue didn’t stop my climate activism. I worked for a habitable planet and a society based on climate justice, and hoped that Phantom might be preserved even as I feared that it wouldn’t. But it did hinder my climate activism. It made me ambivalent, and therefore less effective then I might otherwise have been. And I suspect that there are lots of others out there in a similar position – knowing that climate change is a crisis, wanting to do something about it, wanting to make the world a better place, but fearing that the things they love will be lost in the transformation.
I think, then, that we need to do four things if we truly want to get people mobilized and active:
1. We must learn to tell the difference between love and consumption simply to fill the void of an alienated life. For example, a lot of people would likely read my Phanship practices as mindless, addicted consumption. And they certainly do involve a fair bit of buying stuff I’ll unapologetically admit! But there’s so much more to it than that, as anyone who reads this blog or listens to my podcast can hopefully tell! I would argue, then, that the difference (or at least one of the key differences) is that, like for so many Phans/fans, my/our love for Phantom/whatever our passion is inspires me/us not only to consume, but to create as well – blogs like this one, Phan/fan art, Phan/fanfiction, Phan/fan crafts and jewelry, etc,. (I haven’t yet done Phan art or crafts, but I know lots of people who have! And the same most definitely goes for folks in other fandoms, too.)
2. Help people understand how what they love is endangered by the climate crisis itself, and by the underlying societal problems that created and drive it.
3. Without dissing, shaming, talking down or condescending, help people politicize what they love by making the critical tools available in a friendly, safe and supportive way. For example, although I had an instinct that Phantom was inherently political from the beginning, I couldn’t articulate why or how until I almost literally stumbled across intersectional Critical Disability theory. But once I did, that opened Phantom up to all kinds of explorations of its political possibilities that I wish I’d had access to years earlier! Also, though, support those who already do have a politicized understanding of what they love, even if it’s not yet well articulated. “Jedi Knights for Justice” (no, sadly that’s not actually a thing that exists that I know of) should be welcome at any climate rally or march, as should be “Phans for Social Justice”! (No, that latter doesn’t actually exist either, but it’s something I’d love to start!) Yet all too often, pop-culture fans see activists as super-serious people who’ll give them dirty looks if they come in their fan/Phan regalia, and activists see pop-culture fans/Phans as frivolous, narcissistic and juvenile – a highly unproductive impasse! So we really need to move beyond those stereotypes and start coming together to discover how all the things we love can power us into a just, equitable and sustainable future.
4. Get really super creative, and help facilitate people’s being able to imagine the things they love transformed so that they no longer depend on the fossil-fuel economy to exist. This will require a lot of creativity and “outside the box” thinking, because many things seem so deeply imbedded in the current system that it is hard to imagine them any other way (film, television, fashion, big rock ’n roll, etc,). But if I can figure out how to imagine a post-carbon ALW Phantom, then surely it can be done for other things people love as well!
These four inter-related recommendations are by no means the final answer to how to mobilize the world for the struggle for climate justice, though I hope they are at least a start. But certainly the task they’re components of is a significant part of that answer! Because, as we all surely know, there is no more powerful motivator than love! It can change lives, and it can change the world. People don’t sell out what/who they love for a better deal no matter how “irresistible” that deal is made to sound – as various fossil-fuel companies have found out when trying to get Indigenous communities to agree to let pipelines and other extractive projects into their lands (see Klein). And this position baffles and stymies the power-structure who only understand greed and competition (see Klein). Moreover, people will risk and sacrifice everything for what/who they love, up to and including safety and even life (see again Klein’s work for amazing and inspiring examples). As Naomi Klein says in This Changes Everything, “love will save this place”. Indeed, I would argue it is the only thing that can, but only if people believe that their love can carry them forward into a world transformed for the better. If they believe their love is doomed, though, then they will feel doomed as well and act accordingly. And that would be a vast and unnecessary tragedy when, if we can but activate the great love people already have for their particular piece of the world, we really do have the power to change everything! But as has been said at every climate march since the massive one in New York City in 2014, “to change everything, we need everyone”. So we’d better make sure we don’t exclude anyone!
Naomi Klein (2014). This Changes Everything. Simon and Schuster.
Naomi Klein (2017). No Is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. Penguin Random House (which division varies by country).
(Note, outside of the U.S. it’s published as No Is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.)
Naomi Klein (2018). The Battle For Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes On the Disaster Capitalists. Haymarket Books.
Note, all of these are available in unabridged audiobook as well.