What is Sustainability Lifestyle Activism?

Photo by Vincent M.A. Janssen on Pexels.com

Impending environmental doom.

It’s an issue a lot of us are concerned about, but apart from becoming a conservation biologist or otherwise dedicating your career to the environment what is the everyday average person supposed to do?

The answer, in my opinion, lies in lifestyle activism.

Now, there is a lot of misconception about what lifestyle activism actually means, in my research for this post I found very little consensus about what actions qualify as lifestyle activism or not. The most common theme? That the term was used in a negative way and seen as lesser than true “activism”.

The problem with this is that nearly every article I found critiquing lifestyle activism failed to compare it to anything other than “activism” in a general sense, simply presuming the reader might intuit what it is exactly that the writer believed true activism to be.

Overtime, I discovered the particular brand of activism many of these critics were comparing lifestyle activism to can be more specifically defined as civic change. Activism aimed at civic change involves addressing issues through political channels and pushing through governmental policy changes. This includes actions such as voting, lobbying, attending marches, or calling your senators. Lifestyle activism includes basically everything else from posting on social media, buying activism merch, reducing personal waste, and shopping at the farmer’s market. This brand of activism aims not to create civic changes but cultural changes and engender shifts in how we live our day to day lives.

However, as I mentioned before there is very little consensus on how lifestyle activism is actually defined. I have seen both attending marches and becoming an artist who focuses on social justice both negatively referred to as lifestyle activism.

However, I just find this hate of lifestyle activists a bit confusing. What is wrong with activism becoming a part of the broader American lifestyle? Isn’t that kind of the dream? Isn’t it wonderful that it doesn’t make you an outcast to have attended a climate strike or women’s march?

Particularly when it comes to sustainability, I feel that there is a unique and strong connection to lifestyle activism with the low waste, minimalist, and plant based eating movements all becoming trendy and gaining a lot of steam. Environmentalists are more or less expected to make lifestyle changes such as having reusable water bottles, coffee cups, and shopping bags in a way feminists or other activists aren’t expected to. I’ve never seen feminists encouraging each other to ditch fast fashion so as to not take advantage of vulnerable women the way I see environmentalists ditching fast fashion so as to not take advantage of our vulnerable planet.

Isn’t it admirable to not be able to just talk the talk but walk the walk as well? If you protest fast fashion outside city hall and encourage governmental policy for sustainable clothing production it’s going to look hypocritical if you’re always shopping at Forever 21.

At the end of the day I believe that all this hate on lifestyle activism is uncalled for and unhelpful. The amount of sustainable products and alternatives that have popped up for consumers, governments, and businesses alike in the last decade is staggering. These changes can only happen if there is a public interest in and desire for sustainability, lifestyle activism is the engine that drives these cultural changes.

Now, I say none of this to detract from modes of civic activism at all. Voting is important. Lobbying is important. Calling your senators is important. I just don’t see any reason that the importance of civic activism has to detract from the power and potential of lifestyle activism.

For there to be policy changes people have to care enough to fight for those changes, and the way to get more people interested is through cultural shifts that are driven by lifestyle activism. Civic change alone isn’t going to create interest in the hearts and minds of the people.

As much as sharing posts on social media is generally considered to be the most lazy form of activism, no one would ever argue that social media hasn’t been instrumental in spreading ideology and awareness about sustainability. Sure, one individual sharing a post doesn’t change the world. But to focus on that fact completely misses the point that millions of people are posting and sharing and that does create massive cultural changes.

Take for example the video of that turtle with a straw in their nose, sure no one individual is a hero for having shared that video. But you’d have to be blind to not have noticed the sudden changes taking place after that video went viral. Coffee shops have changed the shapes of their cups to ditch the straw, some restaurants have stopped giving them out altogether, and a ton of people have begun to carry their own reusable straws.

Even the most commonly cited form of lazy and false activism has created potent, fast, and tangible changes.

Even if most people who shared that turtle video aren’t engaged in any other forms of activism does that really mean they shouldn’t have shared that video? Would the environment be better off if these folks had not shared the post?

At the end of the day, this idea that lifestyle activism is bad and civic activism is good, is just a false and oversimplified dichotomy. Both are vital and important to achieving sustainability goals and saving our planet. So, why don’t we just stop wasting time hating on people who aren’t doing activism the way we are and just focus on working together.

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