Environmental "slack-tivism" in 2018

Wednesday, May 2, 2018 - 9:48pm

It’s 2018 and this year we celebrated the 48th anniversary of Earth Day, a global day of recognition for environmental protection. It also marks day zero of the Environmental Protection Agency “strengthening” the quality of science it uses to write new environmental rules, a decision made by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “Strengthening” in this case means narrowing the scope of science available to the EPA to only findings that are reproducible and authentic, which may potentially violate the EPA’s pledge to use the best available science.

Recently, I was reminded by a CNN push notification that the health of my environment, as well as the integrity of my right to take action, is deteriorating. I immediately felt there was no legitimate way for me to express my disdain for political decisions like this one. After reading, I interrupted my friend’s final-paper-writing trance so she could commiserate with me in anger about the article. “Wow,” she sighed, “you should share that article on Facebook.”

This is “slacktivism,” or the watered-down support for an issue that requires only the most minimal effort, such as expressing opinions on social media. This is how our generation takes action. Is it true that millennial Wolverines are lazily riding a ski lift up the activism mountain, while generations before us trekked and trudged to reach the top of it? It is possible we come off as the pre-cooked meals in the freezer section of Kroger that require minimal effort to enjoy – just two minutes of “labor.” We are to past generations of activists as EasyBib is to handwriting an APA-style reference.

Activists across the world gather annually on Earth Day in an attempt to harness the power necessary to keep the passion alive and stand up against environmental injustice. But what classifies as standing up for the Earth? Is it when we stroll through the Diag and write down our uniqnames, signing up for the Planet Blue e-newsletter? Is it when we take a complimentary apple from a tent display and pledge to turn our lights off when we leave home? Yes, standing up for the Earth in 2018 is quite different than it was in 1970, especially on the University of Michigan campus – but how different?

“Slacktivism” on our campus, unfortunately, casts a shadow on our school’s unparalleled legacy of student-driven action. In March 1970, U-M students organized a four-day-long series of events that revolved around taking action toward bettering their dirty surroundings. This “teach-in” served as a precursor to the first Earth Day just one month later. Before 1970, the environment was degrading nationwide; the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted that it ignited and Santa Barbara was suffering after a massive oil spill. Locally, the Huron River’s wildlife populations were dropping like flies because its flies were drinking poisoned water. Many people recognized increased public consciousness about pollution was needed in order to prioritize the correction of these issues on the president’s agenda. Students saw the potential for change, harnessed the success of the recent anti-war student protests and shifted it to encompass the increasing momentum of passion for the environment.

The 1970 teach-in let students take action in a way that had never been done before. Young adults our age attended conferences hosted by politicians in an attempt to gain perspective on the issues. They enrolled in the brand new environmental law major and walked along the Huron River to protest its deterioration. They took sledgehammers to a vehicle in the Diag that was facing a “trial and execution” for its pollution crime. They visited a former Ann Arbor Coca-Cola bottling plant and dropped off thousands of cans that were, at the time, non-returnable. They then picked up that mess of cans with their own hands.

Our generation has a slightly different way of expressing disgust for the state of the environment and its policies, as shown by my friend’s suggestion to Facebook “share” the Pruitt article. We use our own two hands to type outraged, opinionated streams of consciousness onto Facebook, letting the world know our true opinions about who is responsible for polluting what, and how John Appleseed should be paying for its clean-up. We retweet digs at Pruitt that criticize his tactics, question his motives, and press for answers about the future of the EPA. However, we need to start doing the action ourselves — the criticizing, the questioning and the pressing for answers.

We’ve picked a bad time for action to shift to inaction, for correspondence with state senators to turn into retweets and Facebook shares. I say “bad time” because as a country, we exist in quite a tumultuous environment, both environmentally and politically. Just this past year, humans’ actions resulted in the inability to coexist with certain species and a climate disaster in Puerto Rico. The U.S. was one of the only countries to withdraw from the Paris agreement and remove itself from the pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Not to worry — if all feels hopeless and degradation seems inevitable, check out the University’s sustainability website, and explore the huge progress the University has made to better the Earth and work toward our 2025 campus goals. We’ve already succeeded in applying 40 percent less chemicals to the green of our campus, but we need to focus on recycling to reduce waste sent to landfills and walking or busing to class to reduce our carbon footprint.

April 22, 2018 has come and gone, sweeping like a whirlwind over our country and hitting Ann Arbor especially hard. The 48th anniversary of Earth Day should serve as our push-notification reminder to wake up and smell the roses, both figuratively and literally. We are now in the same position as the 1970 U-M undergraduates that spoke up for what they believed in and inspired a national movement. It is up to us: Do we want to be a generation of environmental activism or slacktivism?

 

Julia Montag can be reached at jtmon@umich.edu