Quitting the environmental shame game.

California State University, Fullerton

Many of us have had that particular social media experience: we read a post railing against a behavior or taking a self-righteous stand on an issue and feel “called out.” Do I do that? Am I part of the problem? Are they talking about me?! I had this experience recently, when a colleague in my field of environmental humanities sent out a Tweet chastising academics who flaunt their conference jet-setting on social media, thereby stoking the desire for a fossil-fuel intensive lifestyle. I felt particularly shamed by this commentary since, at that very moment, I was headed from L.A. to the International Conference on Environmental Humanities in Alacalá, Spain. And, yes, I had also Tweeted about it.

I could have sputtered back defensively or picked apart my colleague’s logic, but I ultimately chose not to engage in an old and tired circuit of eliciting and shouldering shame—a circuit that, as I show in my new book from the University of Minnesota Press, a recent wave of environmental artists and activists are also rejecting. This book, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, demonstrates how said artists and activists avoid, and even mock, the palette of affects historically associated with environmentalism: not only shame and guilt but also sanctimony, self-righteousness, “gloom and doom,” reverence, and sentimentality. Recognizing that these affective modes are limited and limiting, they instead embrace modes such as irony, irreverence, glee, absurdity, perversity, and playfulness.

As I establish in the book, many environmentalists are familiar with shame. We both feel it and inflict it. And our enemies attempt to stoke it as well. Recall, for example, how conservative critiques of the 2017 People’s Climate March seized upon the minimal trash produced by marchers, deploying it as evidence of their hypocrisy. And when I call this circuit of shame old and tired, I really do mean it: while my book focuses mainly on contemporary Anglophone media, we can trace the shaming of environmentalists back to at least the early 1800s, when a critic of Joseph Ritson, the British author of An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty, snarked that Ritson was a hypocrite because he “murder[ed] whole ecologies of microscopic organisms every time he washed his armpits” (as paraphrased in Tristram Stuart’s The Bloodness Revolution, 368).

Most of us (I hope) are guilty of washing our armpits. But do we need to feel guilty? As I argue in Bad Environmentalism, affects such as shame and guilt are stultifying, especially for budding activists. They feed into so-called “purity politics,” or the view of art and activism as zero-sum games in which any imperfection renders all other efforts moot. Since we can assume that anti-environmental forces will always manage to find problems with environmental movements, perfection is an impossible goal. Thus, I prefer the mindset that nature writer David Gessner, drawing on his friend Dan Driscoll, has proposed: “‘We are all hypocrites…But we need more hypocrites who fight’” (All the Wild That Remains, 165).

In my book’s fourth chapter, titled “Gas-Guzzling, Beer-Chugging Tree Huggers: Toward Trashy Environmentalisms,” I examine the works of some exemplary “hypocrites,” from Edward Abbey’s cult-classic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) to David Silverman’s animated The Simpsons Movie (2007) to Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’ mountaintop removal documentary Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story (2013). I show how these works deflect shame and accusations of hypocrisy, developing in the process a kind of “trashy environmentalism.” That term, of course, invokes lower-class designations such as “white trash” and “trailer trash”—which is no coincidence, as the texts in my chapter feature lower-class perspectives that have historically been shamed, and shunned, by mainstream culture at large: those of white populations known variously as “rednecks,” “bogans,” “crackers,” and “hillbillies.” As I discuss, mainstream environmentalism is associated primarily with the middle classes; the performance of voluntary restraint and refined consumerism defines both mainstream environmentalism and middle-class lifestyles. These artists and activists, instead, make “vulgar” excess—material, aesthetic, as well as affective—the very basis of their environmentalism.

For example, I highlight how Abbey’s radical, anticapitalist environmentalists, when they’re not busy
sabotaging development in the U.S. desert, spend their free time painting penises on Smokey Bear signs and making impulse purchases of beer coozies and harmonicas. These characters consistently refuse to get bogged down in guilt or otherwise relent in their activism, even when they do grasp their own shortcomings—which often makes for hilarious interludes. At one point, for instance, The Monkey Wrench Gang’s narrator focalizes through protagonist George Hayduke’s consciousness as he steers his Jeep, intoning, “Gotta remove that bridge. Soon. Them bridges. Soon. All of them. Soon. They’re driving their tin cars into the holy land. . . . There’s a law against it. A higher law. Well you’re doing it too, he reminded himself. Yeah, but I’m on important business. . . . Anyway, the road’s here now, might as well use it” (27).

Sprinkle and Stephens, the creators and protagonists of Goodbye Gauley Mountain, offer a queer, feminist twist on the masculinist hijinks of The Monkey Wrench Gang. Self-described “ecosexuals” who think of Earth as “our lover, not our Mother,” Sprinkle and Stephens spend a fair portion of their screen time writhing naked in creeks and rubbing themselves with mud, their ample, imperfect, middle-aged bodies on full display. The pair thereby enacts the kind of shamelessness and pleasure that, as I argue throughout Bad Environmentalism, has been so glaringly absent from mainstream environmentalist movements. Perhaps most importantly, as the pair clowns around at mountaintop removal protests and stages mock weddings to the mountains in Stephens’ native West Virginia, they enact a reversal of the classic dynamic in which the environmentalist is rigid, inflexible, and, therefore, the butt of the joke. Sprinkle and Stephens deliver the jokes, and they bring the joy rather than killing it.

I think we have much to learn from these fictional and real-life figures. As they pursue their environmentalist agendas, they eschew any attempt to be perfect, refined, tasteful, or classy, and instead revel gleefully in hypocrisy, impropriety, indecorum, vulgarity, excess, bawdiness, and the body itself. “Trashiness,” they suggest, is not just a class designation or a material description but a sensibility, a political attitude. We might take an even larger view here: ideals of perfection often function as a way of policing vulnerable bodies in a rigged system—as Black Lives Matter activists who critique “respectability politics” have shown us, and as many of us realized during the recent Supreme Court nomination hearings, when a theoretically “perfect victim” (white, educated, well-spoken, upper-middle-class, heterosexual) was cynically and cruelly ignored. As a political attitude, “trashiness” combats myths of meritocracy such as purity politics, respectability politics, and perfectionism.

This is not to say that we should, for instance, jet off every other week in the name of “trashy environmentalism.” But we might spend less time worrying what others think about us as we march, teach, write, think, connect, donate, and otherwise pursue change. We might also shift our targets. If, as a new report indicates, just 100 companies are responsible for the majority of global emissions —and if, as the most recent IPCC report shows, the climate change forecast is quite dire, then perhaps we could spend more time confronting the root causes of and the big contributors to environmental crisis. And less time Tweet-shaming each other.


Nicole Seymour is associate professor of English at California State University, Fullerton. She is author of Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age and Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination.

“As it turns out, climate change and the environment can be a laughing matter—at least, at an absurd or satirical level.”
—Foreword Reviews

Bad Environmentalism confronts serious environmental problems by way of ‘unserious’ texts. Nicole Seymour takes on complex ideas with lucidity, economy, and a witty sense of humor. Against the familiar affects that tend to characterize both environmentalism and environmental studies—such as awe, love, guilt, reverence, and earnestness—Bad Environmentalism pits less solemn alternatives, including playfulness, impropriety, irreverence, irony, frivolity, and glee. I am a convert. Bad environmentalists, unite!”
—Jennifer K. Ladino, author of Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature*

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