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Put on a happy face – Unmasking the toxic positivity of climate gaslighting

November 19, 2023

When I first heard about Just Stop Oil, I was deeply skeptical. Founded in the UK in 2022, the movement uses nonviolent civil disobedience to pressure governments to halt all new fossil-fuel licenses. Protestors have shut down major highways with sit-ins, causing fury amongst commuters on their way to work. They have thrown their trademark orange paint onto historical buildings and corporate headquarters, in addition to interrupting everything from the British Grand Prix to Wimbledon and most recently a performance of the musical Les Miserables in London.

I was skeptical for a simple reason. My approach to raising awareness about climate issues involved promoting bringing joy, inclusivity, and a solutions-oriented mindset to the climate movement. Just Stop Oil’s messaging, with its crudely drawn skull logo, felt overly negative, potentially alienating the public rather than garnering sympathy. The internet was full of videos of angry commuters literally dragging protestors off the road. How was this supposed to inspire people to join the climate movement? What were the constructive proposals? And splashing paint on revered works of art? It felt self-serving and performative.

My views evolved unexpectedly in 2023, a year of broken records and broken promises. The slowing down of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a vital component to Earth’s global ocean circulation. New lows in arctic ice cover. New oil leases granted despite commitments to the Paris Accords. I tried to focus on the positive: Biden’s creation of the American Corps, the EU Nature Restoration Law, the solutions worked on by countless people everywhere. But these felt like wallpaper distractions in the face of a planet dying of a thousand cuts. I was disheartened and full of grief.

But acknowledging that pain was liberating, a sign that I was human. It was also challenging: I had to accept that so much of what we have lost is irrecoverable, and that perhaps everything would not turn out fine, or maybe it would. That was beside the point. Embracing grief became a source of strength. It fueled my commitment to act on my values, regardless of the likelihood of success.
Behind the stunts, I realized that Just Stop Oil was playing a vital role: giving voice to suppressed emotions that government, business, and mainstream media refuse to reckon with. Their tactics are disruptive not just because they make people late for work, but also because they shine light on the elephant in the room: collapsing ecosystems, confused political systems, and the collective trauma of living through the breakdown of the world as we know it. Rupert Read, director the Climate Majority Project, says “people are told to put on a happy face when what they actually need is to be heard in their pain for the world and their fear for the future.

There is a term for being gaslit for our healthy emotional responses to climate collapse: toxic positivity. Naming it is crucial for awareness, and three cultural narratives empower it.
The first is the belief that recognizing “negative” emotions means denying positive ones and thus giving up on working for a better future. In reality, our emotions are not a zero-sum game. We can give space to grief and anxiety and still feel hopeful. Grief doesn’t cancel out joy; all the opposite, they can reinforce each other. To engage a wider range of emotions as fuel for action, it can be helpful to scrap the negative/positive distinction, and instead reframe all emotions – pleasurable and painful – as healthy signals that our body is responding to its environment.

The myth of progress is the belief that human history moves forward and tends toward improvement. This is in contrast to much of the world’s indigenous cultures which understand history as moving cyclically or in multiple different directions simultaneously. The myth of progress denies the possibility that the future could be less shiny than the past, and it pathologizes those activists, scientists, and journalists ringing the alarm bells, as abnormal.

The myth of authority – aka the “we know what we’re doing” myth – is the assumption that those in positions of power know what they’re doing. And whilst we do have the solutions for drawing down carbon and restoring biodiversity, the political reality of how to implement these is no simple wave of the wand. It’s clear that some politicians are clueless and oblivious to those solutions, whilst others are keenly aware and willingly refuse to implement them. A facade of false confidence is maintained that robs people of agency, preventing us from recognizing our own power to analyze issues, voice concerns, and organize movements. Part of recognizing our grief involves accepting that our leaders aren’t going to save us. We have to find a way forward ourselves.

The alternative to toxic positivity is not a pendulum swing to a toxic negativity, the type of negativity I had initially identified in Just Stop Oil. Instead, it is a sane realism, one that recognizes that it is normal and healthy to be alarmed today, and that we can take meaningful action in response.

I do think that Just Stop Oil is an overly simplistic refrain that stops short of looking at the systemic causes of our fossil fuel addiction and thus is weakly positioned to offer a constructive remedy beyond raising alarm bells. But I think we have to give it credit for giving a voice to our emotional landscape, for publicly normalizing what so many of us are feeling, and for being loud and unashamed in a moment where there are a million reasons to put our heads in the sand. Speaking up doesn’t solve our problems, but by clarifying our problems, it offers a more honest ground for action than the big denial of toxic positivity. Lets, in the words of Donna Harraway, “stay with the trouble,” rather than close our eyes to it.

Félix de Rosen

Félix is a California-based author, landscape architect and founder of Studio Polycultura, a design and communication studio focused on nature-based adaptations to ecosystem and social collapse.

Tags: gaslighting