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How to Inspire Climate Action With Negative and Positive Activism

Climate change activists often employ startling, fear-inducing rhetoric. This can induce anxiety in listeners, causing them to ignore or reject the activists’ message. In order to motivate productive action, activists must mix their messages of fear with messages of hope.
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January 22, 2024 06:06 EDT
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Climate change, disease and starvation plague the world. Activists must take on the responsibility of educating others about them and driving action. In other words, activists must both use fear to instill a sense of urgency while also using hope to inspire action. They must strike a careful balance between negative and positive advocacy.

Simply using fear-based tactics can be counterproductive, causing people to shut down rather than engage with the problem. People can respond to distress with maladaptive behaviors, ignoring the issues in order to avoid the discomfort and fear. Although it makes little rational sense, we often behave as though, if we ignore a problem, it will not affect us; we assume that it will become somebody else’s problem.

Psychologists have classified different emotional responses to fear-inducing climate activism. These include eco-depression and eco-anxiety. Depression is a deactivating emotion, driving a person into a despair that inhibits climate action. Conversely, anxiety is an activating emotion, eliciting avoidance rather than engagement with climate change. Both culminate in the same failure to take action.

Another counterproductive effect of overly negative activism is psychological separation. Climate activists often wield the shock value of negative activism as a tool to produce action. For instance, they circulate images of polar bears starving on melting glaciers, turtles stabbed by plastic straws, forests reduced to fields of bare stumps and devastating wildfires. Instead of scaring people into action, these images create disbelief. From the comfort of their homes, viewers too easily regard these events as insignificant, happening far away. They simply cannot believe that something so disastrous is really occurring. Like eco-anxiety, this separation triggers avoidance of the problem.

The harsh images can also overwhelm people with their severity, fostering a doomsday mindset of inevitable climate failure. “If the situation is already so dire,” people think, “what will my individual help achieve? There is no point. We are all doomed.” Like with eco-depression, they shut down.

Positive activism helps negative activism achieve its goal

Without hope, fear is not an effective motivator. People need to believe their actions will have tangible results. This is where positive activism comes in, picking up where negative activism leaves off. Positive activism uses hope and inspires excitement to make a difference, focusing on the results people can achieve with action rather than the consequences of failure.

Elizabeth Wathuti, a young Kenyan climate activist, successfully blended negative and positive activism. In her passionate speech at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in 2021, Wathuti began by using negative activism, describing the vivid effects of climate change on her home environment: “The natural world that [her] friends and [she] knew as children began to change before [their] eyes,” as they saw “the streams … no longer flowing” and “tree stumps instead of mighty trees.” She continued to speak of the hardships endured by millions of Kenyans starving due to deforestation and climate change-induced natural disasters. 

Once Wathuti established the urgency of the climate situation, she switched to positive activism and harnessed the fear. She declared that if people can “get everybody around the world to love nature … then [they] can change so much in the world within a short period of time.” With these inspiring words, she evoked the beauty of what climate change resistance can save, establishing a strong incentive for action. 

Using this synthesis of negative and positive activism, Wathuti has organized the planting of tens of thousands of trees in Kenya and addressed many leaders, successfully spreading climate awareness.

Another powerful example of this approach to activism is in the Irish rock band U2. The band has won 22 Grammys and been widely recognized as one of the best live acts in the world. The band has played many concerts for disaster relief, including a Conspiracy of Hope tour on behalf of Amnesty International, an organization centered on protecting human rights. Lead singer Bono co-founded the humanitarian organization One in 2004, aiming to fight extreme poverty and diseases. He also founded Red, an organization dedicated to battling the AIDs crisis. Through these organizations, Bono has raised hundreds of millions of dollars and saved millions of lives. But the band’s impact goes beyond direct aid. It also uses its music, complete with negative and positive activism, to inspire advocacy.

U2’s recent live act Achtung Baby debuted in September 2023 at the Sphere in Las Vegas. Using technology revolutionary to the music industry, U2 combined their music with digital projections. The band ended the show by placing the audience in a visual cathedral of the natural world. First, they displayed animals in danger of extinction, the footage filled with a monotone beige. This visual served to warn the audience of the devastating impacts of habitat loss. Gradually, as the music swelled, color crept into the animals until a vibrant array of life surrounded the audience. Negative activism gave way to positive, and the band reminded spectators about Earth’s beauty that they could protect, if they fought for it.

Fear is a powerful emotion. We need fear, because we need to know what to struggle for. But fear by itself is unsustainable and ultimately unproductive. We cannot remain in fear without going further. Fear will not vanish, because as long as humans live on Earth, evils will persist. We must center our mindset around hope. With hope as a horizon, a beautiful aim beckons us forward for every step of progress we make.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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