The Death of the Climate Activist
Bayo Akomolafe, Ph.D.
In the south-eastern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, in a small municipality called Laguna, a curious intra-species alliance has evolved over the years. If you were to pedal to Tesoura, a beach facing the Atlantic, you might find fishermen knee-deep in the water, cast-nets in hand, doing nothing. Or so it seems. If you do not grow impatient, you might witness the first shot in what is to become a ping-pong rapid fire series of trans-corporeal signals and gestures. First, a dorsal fin or two might pierce through the calm surface, invoking a wave of recognition that flutters across the men’s lips. The dolphin’s name. Another dolphin surfaces, only in part, slapping its tail on the surface. The men closest to this dolphin suddenly become very active. This dolphin heads straight for shore; the men casts their nets. The retrieved nets are never empty of fish, the local mullets called tainha. The men say to anyone who would listen: when the dolphins aren’t around, it is not worth fishing.
Here’s a riddle: who are the fishermen? The men? The dolphins? Or something that resists convenient and conventional naming?
If the science pans out, then numerous climate change reports suggest we are collectively headed for more difficult, fiery times. In 2018, the IPCC released a report calling for drastic and fundamental transformations in the ways we perform the economy, advising that if significant amelioratory efforts aren’t in progress by 2030 to limit warming to (and emissions consistent with) 1.5C, the runaway effects could mark the beginning of the end of a healthy planet as we know it.
Another report – authorized by the Australian Senate in 2017 – adds petrol to the stinging fumes, shames the curt conservativism of the IPCC model and predicts that without radical mitigation efforts in the next decade, human civilization could end by 2050. Arguing that the IPCC’s scenario-building apparatus was too reticent in its appreciation of the sheer complexity of Earth’s interconnected geological and political processes, the Australian document unfolds a narrative that reads like the plot of a filmic exploration into the origins of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic ‘society’.
On the backs of these narratives of catastrophe, climate activists and environmentalists around the world are amplifying their efforts to educate the public, force the hand of the powers that be to shape policies consistent with the science, and organize communities to transform the ways they live. In doing so, these activists have touched the nerve of the status quo, angering repressive governments like the Bolsonaro-led Brazilian state, who believe they have a lot to gain by mining resources and killing communities that protect the integrity of those troubled lands.
The enforced killings, “disappearings”, and silencing of activist voices around the planet is a story worth telling – perhaps with just as much intensity and grief as the previously referenced reports on climate collapse. An account from international NGO Global Report puts a notably conservative figure to the number of enforced activist deaths and/or disappearances recorded in 2018 in countries like India, the Philippines, Brazil, Columbia, Mexico and the DRC (among others): 164. One hundred and sixty four lives snuffed out because they challenged large corporations, stood up to government officials, and demanded an end to the mercantilist algorithms of a system committed to protecting its escalating bottom-lines.
And yet, in the face of a globalizing population deadened by the fetish of apocalyptic endings and to a consumerism that rewards the cavalier, climate activists push on towards the pinnacle where the courtly suits hobnob with each other in the hallways of power – more than often without success. Wielding the apparent righteousness of their motivations, data management tools, fundraising strategies, social media approaches and communications, and daring events, activists continue to insist on the possibility of a radically different world. Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, who skipped classes at age 15 to hand out flyers to chastise the bewildering inaction of adults at the Swedish parliament, will in mid-August (2019) board the Malizia II, an open-cockpit racing yacht, to attend a United Nations summit meeting on global warming in New York. The two-week journey across the Atlantic fits in with Greta’s avowed rejection of air travel because of its associations with greenhouse emissions.
It is in the context of these electrifying tensions – between the climate justice claims advanced and articulated by practitioners like Greta and the associated resistances mounted by the powerful not only in the so-called Global South but in the United States and in Europe (where artful smears and condescendingly finger-wagging essays crowd dailies to berate the juvenility of these activists) – that another concern emerges. A third entry. A traversal streaking through the sky like a comet, tearing up the fabric of the ordinary as it passes. The traces of an unsettling set of questions are faintly discerned: if we grant that our lives and bodies are materially entangled with the environment, agentially inseparable from nonhuman processes, then should we not take into account the ways we ourselves are being acted upon by the materials/tools in and around us? In simpler terms, if the climate activist is ‘correct’ in saying that the world around us is not just a natural resource to be exploited for our whimsical pursuits of growth at all cost, and that the world by implication is alive and active and animated, then what does that do to the ‘climate activist’? In even simpler terms, if we ‘humans’ are part of the world and not apart from it, then who is the activist? And, more shockingly, where is power?
Every attempt to mark the take-off point for the Anthropocene – the so-called “age of Man” characterized by irreversible effects on the planet due to anthropogenic activity – is strewn with trouble. It would be easy, for instance, to say the Anthropocene began with the advent of industrial societies, with the deployment of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombs, or much earlier when human societies began to use tools and language – except that the Anthropocene calls into question (among many other things) our assumptions about the linearity of time. Beginnings and endings are not neat in a world that is entangled and entangling. Origins spill into endings that are initiatory and catastrophic all at once. In a sense beyond the scope of this essay, time becomes material, rhizomatic, performative, participatory and diffracted – no longer the dependable tour guide that was enlisted to lead us all to a certain future.
In fact, nothing stays the same. The same porosity and corrosiveness infects, and de-exceptionalizes, the human figure.
Modernity invested ‘humans’ with a transcendent separability that privileged us above the material world. Fancying ourselves unique and above the realm of messy things, we built concepts that enabled us colonize others and our environment. Ironically, the Anthropocene has worked very well as an effective rallying call to the untoward effects of anthropocentrism. We are learning the hard way that we are not at all central to the world’s workings, and that – even more worrying – the properties we imagined we owned are not at all ‘ours’. We can no longer draw a line to mark where we stop and whence the environment begins, where nature crashes at the doorstep of culture, where our internal and supposedly private subjectivities end and where the blind deterministic laws of Newton hold sway. We can no longer say who the fisherman is.
Holding a cup of warm water (as opposed to cold water) could be the difference between judging a stranger as trustworthy or untrustworthy. Traumatic memories could be passed across generations due to the activisms of gut bacteria. And phones – those ubiquitous tools of modern addiction – are actively modifying the way we think, express ourselves, know the world, and show up bodily. These are not simple cause-effect relationships, but ‘intra-actions’ so relationally penetrating that the ‘objects’ only emerge as a result of the relationship, and not prior to it.
Together with Bruno Latour, and in a perverse misstating of his aphorism that he would no doubt approve of, let us all announce: we have never really been human. In a surprising twist of plot, we are neither the heroes nor the only matters of fascination in a pluriverse of the manifold. The tool-wielder is become (or has always been) the wielded. The net caster basks in, and is shaped by, the aquatic expertise of dolphins. The ultimate is now penultimate. From Pollanian apples in their conspiratorial attempts to use humans to propagate their kind, to Baradian-Bohrian quantum particles doing experiments in the (now saturated) ‘void’, the world is truly alive and agential – suffused with the ‘elements’ of personhood we gleefully grab for ourselves.
In short, the Anthropocene calls upon a radically new ontology, and dismantles the Aristotelian-Cartesian one most modern western dwellers have long taken as granted. This is the material performativity that notices ‘molecular’ processes (in the Deleuzian sense), transcorporeal bodies, companion species, queer time, and nonhuman agency. This ecologically vibrant world of emergence, de-sacralizes human activity, placing it within a web of other agential effects streaming from an incalculably perverse and rhizomatic world. A processual world of fluid becomings and performances.
The world that the climate activist hopes to save kills him. Dismantles him. Tears him apart. Diffracts him so that what was once quintessential is now spread abroad. Things fall apart and the centre cannot hold.
Instead of an independent agent – the vaunted unit of social change whose intentions and motivations and exhaustions are the engine room of world change – surrounded by the paraphernalia of her vocation, we must now turn our attention to the whole assemblage and what this organization of bodies is doing. The climate activist is no longer the human separate from the furniture of activism, but the ‘human’ and the materials: the computer screens, the concepts, the classifications, the categories of thought, and the city in its subjectivizing effects. As such, the classical self is decentred as the focus of our attention and prayers; social change is not predicated on the unilateral moves of the human self, but on assemblages breaking through (deterritorializing and reterritorializing) other assemblages.
Is some kind of postactivist inquiry discernible? What might the matter of such investigations raise up? The methodologies of a postactivist engagement are not this essay’s to discuss, but whatever they are, such a vocation holds great promise – especially in a time of despair, when it seems the same veteran approaches to climate activism (or activism in general) are failing to provoke movement.
As a child of the so-called Global South, my people have long been recipients of the benevolence of the West. NGOs are as bountiful as thieving churches on every street. People nickname themselves ‘activists’ in order to locate their mouths squarely beneath the faucet of foreign aid and Euro-American philanthropy. Not much changes, however. Activism often translates into street smarts for fooling yet another virtue-seeking foreigner. To fresh-faced well-intentioned wanna-be activists, the lessons are stark and quickly adopted: it hardly matters what your righteous cause is, or what your intentions are, in order to survive you have to get with the program.
What a postactivism might invite us to dwell with are the various furniture elements that comprise the activist assemblage. Instead of focusing squarely on the human, we are being called to notice the apparatus, what it stabilizes, what it re/produces, what it excludes from mattering. We might find for instance – taking seriously this postactivist invitation to de-privilege the human ‘actor’ – that how we see our problems is often a part of the problem: that our solutions, thoughts, contributions and ideas are secretions of the assemblages we intra-act with. As such – and this is another important postactivist consideration – we will often reinforce the problematic situations we want to escape: our ‘solutions’ will often turn out to be the crisis doubling down on itself, gaining intelligence, becoming more nuanced.
Most importantly, a postactivist investigation might help us recover a sense of wonder and re-enchantment by pointing to ‘other places of power’. Perhaps this is its greatest gift: hacking through habitual patterns of perception and engagement to reorient attention to other sites of potentialities bubbling from the chemical landscapes of the Anthropocene.
In the final analysis, the climate activist’s greatest sacrifice is her identity, her pristine separability. Her demise scatters her remains abroad, seeding every banal surface with agency and promise. It is there we must go, in the performative distance, where the otherwise swirls.
 “Existential climate-related security risk: a scenario approach” by David Pratt and Ian Dunlop (May 2019)
 Not too surprising, given that non-western philosophies have been speaking of this strange entanglement for generations.