Performative activism is an ongoing issue as it diminishes the meaning behind environmentalist movements by doing nothing to help and using the movement for to avoid societal pressures.
Performative activism is an ongoing issue as it diminishes the meaning behind environmentalist movements by doing nothing to help and using the movement for to avoid societal pressures.
Megan Khor

The actors “saving” the world

Will “saving the trees” and “saving the turtles” help save the people? Or is it just another ploy to save face?

The Earth has been presented with numerous amounts of grand gestures in order to save it. One of these being in Cary’s neighboring town, Apex. This past Christmas, residents of Apex witnessed one of these grand gestures from their mayor, Jacques Gilbert.

In a picture on the official’s Instagram account, Gilbert and his family stood tall in front of an old oak tree which the town affectionately named,  “Oakey”. The post’s caption, which was the aftermath of Gilbert preventing an Apex construction company from tearing down the 100-year old tree in order to install a new sidewalk, celebrated the presence of the almost absent tree with a sprinkle of environmentalism hidden in between the lines. 

Although the message, at its core, means no harm, at its surface is a cheap political strategy. The romanticization of this tree in particular comes with the profit it makes for downtown Apex. It is seen as a “landmark” more than it is a piece of nature. While the Mayor saved one tree from being loss to development, there hasn’t been much action to slow down this development anytime soon.

It is evident, according to the town of Apex’s official site, that Apex is currently in an economic boom because of how many businesses it has, parks, and walking accessibility due to an immense amount of sidewalks. As the safest town to live in in the United states, and categorized by its age-old catch phrase “The Peak of Good Living”: the town continues to receive an influx of new residents annually.

According to the US Census, the town is home to more than 75,000 people and counting. So, with all of these residents to house , the options left up to officials are narrowed down: to protect the old or gain from the new.  

Now, The Town of Apex has set its sights on Veridea, a development plan which will reserve more than 1000 acres of land in Apex. On the town’s official site there is a map of this plan and by the looks of it, there is no doubt that other trees are being cut down to maintain space for it.

The message Mayor Gilbert is trying to convey falls short of authenticity as his claim that we should enjoy and celebrate nature is debunked by the $3 billion investment on a development that threatens to ruin the land by further opening it to human interaction and settlement.

This idea is most commonly referred to as performative activism. 

In all of these respective sectors, politicians, celebrities and internet personalities over-exaggerate how much they’re really doing for environmental movements as a way to appeal to target audiences who may strongly support these causes and save themselves from accountability.

This is not to say that Mayor Gilbert was intentionally doing a bad thing. In fact, most people who participate in performative environmentalism, don’t even know what they’re guilty of.

For example, in 2019 to 2020 there was a trend  of purchasing metal straws as they were regarded as better for the environment. Following was a trending phrase “Save the Turtles” in order to spread awareness of the sea turtles at risk of consuming the plastic. In addition, companies and influencers used this phrase in order to benefit from people’s new found environmentalist urge to protect sea turtles from their demise. What followed was the rise of reusable water bottles and straws. 

However, according to National Geographic, the main cause for such a rapid decline in ocean life is overfishing. In fact, disregarded fishnets and other fishing equipment represent almost half of the ocean’s pollution. Although reducing the consumption of plastic is still great for the environment, this is just one of many examples where a sugar-coated, consumerist driven environmentalist movement used to make others feel like better people, takes away from the main concern of a movement. 

Overall, performative environmentalism is no evil scheme to save face but it is a way for big businesses and public figures to save face when having to appeal to audiences. Whether it is unconscious or conscious, this act is harmful for the environmentalism movement as a whole because it sheds light on minor issues that end up being marketed enough to overshadow the major ones. 

Instead of making the concerns of environmentalists a means to sell more products or win more votes, there should be an analysis of the bigger picture. What else can be done to protect the environment? What will make the biggest impact, even if it is not convenient to most people? 

Protecting the environment is a complex issue especially because it is something that needs to be done in addition to housing the 8 billion people around the planet. There will always be more developments built and new towns like Apex rising in demand, but there will also always be an Earth, as long as there is action.

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    Sra. SánchezMar 4, 2024 at 7:29 pm

    Very informative and thought provocative! This was also very well written! Thank you for writing it!