In 1991, environmental organizers of color convened to create the 17 pillars of environmental justice, formally establishing the environmental justice (EJ) movement in the United States. They did so to fight the toxic industries that were exploiting their neighborhoods, interrogate the dominant white narrative in mainstream environmentalism, and overturn the social-political systems that continued their oppression.
Today, environmental justice organizers address the same issues, but within the context of a drastically different activism landscape: With the rise of highly publicized youth climate strikes, a lot of climate organizing has moved over to social media, allowing some activists to make a living off of videos, infographics, and ads that promote sustainability.
While social platforms can allow for more voices to be heard and for activists to connect across borders, they also reflect societal inequities. Only a certain type of account usually gets famous. Someone deemed “media-friendly” — i.e. someone who is conventionally attractive by Western standards, good at marketing themselves, and based in Western Europe or the United States — is far more likely to gain thousands of followers than a grassroots organizer based in the Global South, where the effects of climate change are more imminently felt.
“Eco-influencers” use their platforms mainly to share educational content via attention-grabbing videos and infographics, as well as to promote sustainable brands. This is all in their efforts to raise awareness, which they say is essential to actionable steps.
However, social media is structured in a way that encourages one’s interactions with an issue to awareness alone. It is designed to encourage users to spend hours scrolling through automated feeds. Users can like a single post from an eco-influencer and feel the gratification of having taken a stand against climate change, then move on to watching cat videos.
Unlike influencers, grassroots organizers advocate directly within communities, forming a genuine bond with residents and their needs. Online and off, they engage in tangible initiatives to divest institutions from fossil fuels, prevent the construction of polluting industrial facilities in Black and brown neighborhoods, influence local politicians on environmental legislation, and so much more. They take the crucial next step after raising awareness, which is making tangible change.
Influencer culture’s focus on individual branding and personality is antithetical to grassroots organizing. It creates a hierarchy within the climate movement, bestowing more clout on those with the largest platforms. The media fuels this effort by repeatedly highlighting a handful of individuals as the “face of the movement,” when it is actually a collective effort. Moreover, these “faces” are rarely from frontline communities, whose voices should be uplifted the most.
Eco-influencers now at the “forefront” of the environmental movement hoard media attention, instating a positive feedback loop of more attention and more followers, which can take the focus away from grassroots causes. Just take a look at the speaker list from this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin. There were various climate panels at the high-profile event, but none of the sessions spotlighted the activism of local Austin organizers. “You would think if you are coming to do something in someone's community you would invite someone from the community,” Susana Almanza, the director of PODER, an Austin-based environmental justice organization, told Teen Vogue