Do bizarre stunts actually help the climate cause?

Dear Umbra,

What is the point of the bizarre antics that different companies and organizations do to bring attention to climate change?

— Just About Done Enduring Dramatics

Dear JADED,

Last week, I wrote about the scourge of greenwashing companies — ones that falsely and loudly proclaim to be concerned with climate change in order to sell more products. So it seems appropriate to move on to ostensibly well-meaning but bizarre demonstrations in the name of climate awareness.

To pick a relatively benign example, the New Belgium Brewing Company announced last month that it was launching a new, intentionally unpleasant concoction under its popular Fat Tire beer brand. “To illustrate what the future of beer will look like if we don’t get more to commit to aggressive climate action, we’ve brewed up Torched Earth Ale,” the company website says of the beer, which is flavored with dandelion essence and smoke-tainted water. These are the kind of ingredients it says will be available in a heat-ravaged future. 

This is not the first time New Belgium has pulled this kind of stunt: When it got Fat Tire certified as a carbon-neutral beer in 2020, the company marked the occasion by temporarily raising their prices to $100 per six-pack — an homage to the cost of 72 ounces of beer if nothing is done to abate our current atmospheric trajectory. 

A weary consumer such as yourself, JADED, might ask, what is the point? If you are a person who’s spent more than a few late nights fretting over climate change, the taste or price of beer would likely not rank high on a list of concerns that includes mass displacement, collapse of infrastructure, and widespread disease. 

New Belgium, however, claims to have had noble intentions. Their Torched Earth beer page contains a link to a website encouraging people to tweet at Fortune 500 companies to make climate plans. “We realize beer is the least of our worries in a climate ravaged future,” a company rep told me. “Most of our customers are concerned about climate change and want to see truly meaningful work from companies. We believe impact is the greater predictor of our long-term business success because it enables people to be a part of what our brand is trying to do (both in terms of our coworkers as well as beer drinkers) vs. just having a transaction with us.”

Aha. One of the shared goals of marketing and organizing is to create an engaged and faithful community. Obviously, the end game differs — in the former case, you are trying to sell a product, and in the latter, you are trying to effect some sort of meaningful political change. Stunt releases of climate-themed beer is just a message to a customer base that says: You care about climate change, we care about climate change, we belong together.

This is a tactic, according to sociologist Dana Fisher, that climate-minded breweries share with confrontation-loving advocacy organizations, like the U.K-based Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion, also known as “XR,” isn’t all that big in the U.S. (yet), but is well known throughout Europe for headline-grabbing stunts like parading naked into the House of Commons to protest Brexit. The goal of doing something extreme, Fisher says, is two-pronged: “One is to send a message to people who are sympathizers, to appeal to them and get them to think that there are people who think the same way they do [about climate change] who are doing something about it. The other thing is to get in the face of people who disagree.”

And, of course, the goal is to get the whole thing covered on TV, or Twitter, or what-have-you. But shock value in the name of press attention is an unstable currency at best. It’s not necessarily hard to get people talking, but that doesn’t mean the resulting conversation necessarily helps your cause. Greenpeace famously tried to send a message to attendees of U.N. climate talks in Lima, Peru, and ended up damaging one of the country’s oldest world heritage sites. Just last month, Extinction Rebellion was roundly ridiculed after mostly white protesters dumped wheelbarrows of “cow manure” (some speculate that it was actually store-bought fertilizer) in front of the White House on Earth Day. It was intended as a commentary on the perceived tepidness of President Biden’s climate progress. Instead, it provoked some criticism of Extinction Rebellion’s disregard for issues of race, class, and labor — specifically, that the group was forcing mostly Black and brown municipal workers to clean up giant piles of shit

“All press is good press” seems to be the thinking of groups like the infamous animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. But core message aside, the group’s attention-grabbing methods are often criticized as being overly aggressive, in terrible taste, or burdensome to people who could be allies to their cause — like, for example, Jews. One campaign that comes to mind compared chickens in cages on poultry farms to Holocaust victims. Attention-grabbing: yes; movement-building: doubtful.

Climate action aligns with shock appeal better than many other issues. We’re talking about the fate of the planet, after all, and the scientific consensus is that we must act quickly if we are to avert many of its worst consequences. Climate anxiety and, yes, anger, are pervasive and growing sentiments.There is certainly a power in stunts that make environmentally-aware people feel like they are understood and that their fears and concerns are not only valid but shared. If you are a person who is sitting at home feeling helpless in the face of mass environmental destruction and political standstill, it is encouraging to see a group of people on TV or social media loudly and provocatively demanding attention to exactly the source of your anxiety. Even if the way in which they are demanding attention is kind of strange, like crazy-glueing one’s naked body to the entrance of the London Stock Exchange as a protest of climate-corrupting capitalism.

Getting a critical mass of like-minded people together has been a game-changer for climate politics, turning general anxiety into growing political will. In a 2020 essay in the journal Medicine, Conflict, and Survival, University of Dundee medical student Fiona Mansfield argues that this was exactly the power of the climate movements that have cropped up in recent years: “Together the Youth Climate Strikes and Extinction Rebellion have created a wave of self-organizing first-time activists; people who have never before identified as ‘rebels’ or ‘climate activists’ have found a platform to stand up for the future of our planet.”

We are living in a time in which “normal” or “sane” is a very mutable standard. If we are defining common sense as an ability to react to circumstances in a way that keeps us alive, then it is common sense to be highly alarmed about climate change and to behave in seemingly extreme or deranged ways to get other people to be alarmed, too. If you feel crazy, it’s kind of nice to see other people acting crazy on a global stage!

Anyway, here’s to being weird if it gets your message across. Sell the weird beer, run naked into legislative chambers — whatever works! As long as it’s for something worth a little bit more than shock value. 

Bizarrely,

Umbra



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