The Future of Armchair Activism

IMG_1024.JPGGreetings from quarantine.  I would first like to say that I hope whoever is reading this staying healthy and doing the best they can in these extraordinary circumstances.  If you are working right now, thank you for everything you do.  If you are staying home, thank you for keeping us safe.  I have not been taking lockdown particularly well myself, but I felt the need to write this.

The following call to action is for those who are ready and able to take those actions.  Those with the privilege of savings, safety, and free-time have the opportunity to step up and speak out during this crisis.  Although everyone’s chief concern is obviously stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus, we must awaken to the fact that certain people will use this time to their advantage–and ultimately our detriment.

In Naomi Klein’s 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine”, she shows how governments and other organizations exploit national crises to push through changes that would have been unimaginable in previous circumstances, while the public is distracted by the crisis at hand.  This theory, often referred to as disaster capitalism, intrigued me when I learned about it a month ago, and I was struck when I saw it playing out before my eyes.

There have been a lot of hopeful posts circulating about clear water in the canals in Venice, clear skies over New Delhi, and wild animals taking over city streets in the absence of traffic.  Amidst these encouraging signs, the Trump administration has distributed millions in relief funds to the oil and gas industries and, shockingly (or perhaps not), the EPA announced last week that they will be suspending all environmental standards during the crisis.  This means there will be no testing for water or air pollution, and no monitoring of polluting facilities, all because of the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus.

On top of these rollbacks, the temporary policy has no specified end date, and gives the EPA no right to intervene in the event of an emergency.  The door is wide open for violators to avoid punishment.  To put it bluntly, he Environmental Protection Agency can no longer protect the environment.

And how did I hear about this?  This past Sunday, I got a sponsored post from the Sierra Club about it on Facebook, asking for support.  The new policy came out last Thursday, and I have barely heard a peep from the environmental community about this, much less the mainstream media.

The horrible irony in all of this?  Exposure to air pollution makes us more vulnerable to COVID-19.

On a more local level, the Williams Pipeline, a long contested energy project that would bring fracked gas from Pennsylvania to the New York Harbor via an underwater pipeline, is on the verge of moving ahead despite minimal public input.  In addition to creating harmful disturbances to the local marine ecosystem, and posing threats to human health, the project would deepen the area’s reliance on fossil fuels, as well as being extremely expensive–the current estimation is just under $1B.

National Grid, a proponent of the pipeline, previously placed a moratorium on new gas hookups in the NYC area until the pipeline was approved after the project failed to acquire a water quality permit from the state.  They were subsequently fined $36M for “abuse of its customers”.

National Grid held a number of public meetings in March over Zoom about the project, in place of in-person meetings at Brooklyn Borough Hall.  These were unadvertised, and though many local residents attended virtually, people signed up to speak out against the pipeline were not given the time they were promised and some were skipped entirely.

A quick note on National Grid: while writing this article, I learned that they have also been trying to push through permits for a second pipeline during the crisis, the Metropolitan Natural Gas Reliability Project (also known as the North Brooklyn Pipeline).  This project would also bring fracked gas from Pennsylvania, and would run underneath a densely populated area of Williamsburg.

I had been planning to attend these meetings in person, as well as participating in demonstrations with the Stop the Williams’ Pipeline coalition.  It is frustrating to not be able to protest in this way, but it begs a bigger question: what does environmental activism look like in the time of COVID-19?

I have long discouraged others from participating in campaigns only as “armchair activists”.  While bringing attention to problems on social media is a net good, there is so much more to activism than what you see on Instagram.  Taking direct action, showing up at town meetings, talking to others about the issues, protesting, signing petitions, exercising voting rights, living by example–these are the cornerstones of effective activism.

I still believe that “it means something to physically show up,” as I wrote in an article about last year’s climate march.  Now that we have been barred from doing so, and the times we are required to are fraught with dangerous health impacts (just look at the recent Wisconsin elections), we must restrategize and reframe what activism means in the environmental movement.

Now is the time to plug into activist networks and get on mailing lists to stay informed.  This is a good way to learn about the work of non-profits, and to see if you want to get more involved with a cause in the future.  These groups have their ear to the ground on the issues and are a great starting point if you want to get involved but aren’t sure how.  Normally, environmental non-profits offer access to a variety of community events, learning opportunities, and actions you can take to make an impact.  Most of these have moved online at this point, in the form of petitions, virtual meetings, and messages to share with your network on social media.

We should also make an effort to read local papers and listen to local radio stations.  A lot of environmental policies created at the state and local level, as well as localized problems, would never be reported on if not for these organizations.  You’re just not going to get any info on your local landfill from the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal.  Paying attention to local issues keeps you in the loop when there’s a town meeting to attend (virtually, for now) or a reason to write in to the local editorial board.

And that’s not the only writing to be done.  Public comments on major projects are a great opportunity to have your voice heard on an issue you care about, and can usually be submitted electronically.  The Stop The Williams’ Pipeline Coalition, for examply, has been sending out comment prompts in phases to their supporters that guide them to write in to voice their concerns.

Then there is the tried and true call-your-representatives-or-so-help-me-God approach.  Your representatives in state and national legislating bodies are supposed to answer to YOU, the voters, so your input matters.  Does this EPA thing sound crazy to you?  Call or write to your reps.  Let them know that you are paying attention and you want to see these issues addressed.

On that same note, if you become aware of something that is not being covered by news outlets, write to them too!  You, as a reader of a publication, can make suggestions about what should be reported on.

I also encourage you to speak up about issues you care about on social media.  Bringing consistent awareness to issues in your posts will help spread the word where traditional media can’t (or won’t).  Make sure to certify that the information you post is accurate so that you don’t spread false information.

I am still learning as I go with all of this, and I’d like to invite you to learn with me.  I will be posting over the next few weeks about what my activism looks like right now in the hopes that it might inspire you to get involved too.  If you have an action you’ve taken that you’d like me to highlight here, please get in touch at  I would love to bring more voices to this conversation.

Below are a list of resources for upcoming actions in relation to some of the issues I addressed above:

Voice your opinion on the Williams Pipeline here:

Join Patagonia Bowery, Surfrider NYC, and Sane Energy Project for a townhall (TONIGHT at 7pm) to educate yourself on the Williams Pipeline Project and how you can help:

Patagonia Action Works, for virtual skill-based volunteering and petition signing:

Get involved with your local Extinction Rebellion chapter for climate action and education:

Find your local 350 chapter, a coalition of environmental non-profits and activists:

Find and contact your representatives: (NY only) (NY only)

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