The Climate Movement Is an Ecosystem. Find Your Niche.

All of us would do well to remember that we are one part of a much more complex whole.

Youth protest during 7th Brussels youth climate march on February 21, 2019 in Brussels, Belgium.

Maja Hitij/Getty Images

For a movement that is ostensibly charged with protecting the natural world, the climate movement—and environmentalism more broadly—can sometimes have a hard time remembering how ecosystems actually work:

  • Is fear or hope a more effective messaging strategy? 
  • Should we pursue oppositional protest or collaborate with the powerful? 
  • Should we focus on individual behavior change or systems-level interventions?

These are all debates I’ve engaged in at one time or another. And there is value in exploring which tactic or strategy is appropriate in any given situation, and in pursuit of any specific goal.

Yet more broadly, all of us—meaning those of us who care about and want to help solve the climate crisis—would do well to remember that we are one part of a much more complex whole. Just like the lions, the robins, the earthworms, and the fungi, we each have a role to play and a niche to fill—and that means we sometimes have to get better at some basic situational awareness. 

I recently interviewed British academic Steve Westlake about his own decision not to fly, and about his research into the social impact that such decisions can have. As part of that discussion, we got into the topic of shame and shaming—and I referenced Greta Thunberg’s refusal to take the bait when journalists try to get her to criticize celebrity activists with private jets. 

What Westlake told me was interesting: It makes perfect tactical and strategic sense for Thunberg to keep the conversation on the bigger picture. After all, her goal is to shift the global narrative on climate—and individual footprints can and are used by some to distract from systems-level interventions. Yet it might also make sense, however, for someone else within the movement—someone with a narrower goal of curbing private aviation or tackling the outsized carbon footprint of the excessively wealthy—to take on these folks and to use shame and/or guilt tactically to urge a rethink. 

There are many such examples where we need to get better at thinking beyond the binary. Not only do we need to ask ourselves where our specific power lies, but we also need to understand that our approach—and our role—as individuals is only going to have an impact in concert with millions of other individuals, each of whom will be taking a different path. 

Should we be cheering the invention of an electric Ford F-150 or should we be lamenting these gigantic and all-too lethal machines? Should we be celebrating that Shell’s oil production has apparently peaked or should we be interrogating the details of their questionable net-zero commitments? Sometimes the answer will be a simple yes or no. But often the logical response will be a little more complicated—and will depend on what our specific role is within the broader ecosystem of which we are a part. 

As Amy Westervelt—podcaster, investigative journalist, and an indisputable climate badass—told me in relation to the aforementioned Shell story: “Any progress is good, but that doesn't mean every little thing should be applauded. It can be good without being praised or overstated, especially when these steps are being taken decades later than they ought to have been.” 

Eyes on the prize folks. And then, for good measure, eyes on both your teammates and the opposing team. It’s the only way to figure out how you fit into this infuriating mess of a game you somehow found yourself forced to play.