I have been a climate activist for several years now, in a variety of different roles.
From handing out flyers to passers-by, to putting up posters in the dead of night, meeting with politicians at Australian Parliament House, and participating in non-violent direct actions, I tend to spend a lot of my waking hours outside of my day job engaged in some sort of political activity.
Aside from the desire to push for social change and stand up for what we strongly believe in, is there something else that drives one to participate in activism? Although political action should certainly not be a choice that is made for entirely self-serving reasons, is there something else that one has to gain from participating in activism?
Yes. The answer is, unequivocally, yes. Before delving into the reasons behind this, I would like to contextualise this piece of writing by bringing your attention to two particular concepts: values and actions. Values are the things that we hold true or believe about the world, whereas actions are the things that we do in the world. Understanding how these two ideas relate to one another is not only crucial to understanding activism, but also to enabling a fulfilling, values-driven life. In behavioural psychology, the value-action gap is the breakdown between what one believes and how one acts in accordance with such beliefs.
"By engaging in activism, you are, in effect, practicing your values. You are creating the world that you believe in."
For example: if I value the beauty of our planet’s various natural ecosystems, and hold the belief that the waste caused by human overconsumption is destroying these ecosystems, how can I consciously contribute to this environmental degradation in ways that I am within my power to control? If the immeasurable beauty of our forests and pristine oceans and waterways instils within me a sense of deep satisfaction and gratitude, what would ever compel me to buy a takeaway coffee cup, knowing that it’s going to end up in the stomach of a sea creature, at worst, or a landfill, at best? Though it is not necessarily always this easy to identify or capture, the value-action gap is something that is present in most of our lives, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we are able to control it or not.
‘How, then, does this tie into politics and activism?’ you might ask. Well, my dear reader, as an activist, I am constantly working to overcome that value-action gap. Distilled down to its essence, this is what activism is. We spend our lives taking conscious action to make our values manifest; we are constantly working toward making tangible a certain set of beliefs about the world. By engaging in activism, you are, in effect, practicing your values. You are creating the world that you believe in.
With this in mind, I would like to propose that activism teaches us a few important lessons about how individuals navigate social and political life. First and foremost: engaging in political activity gives us a taste of the power that we have as an individual. Whether it be writing a letter to your local councillors or participating in an organised act of protest, activism teaches us that individuals have the power to change the world, especially when we are organised in the right way.
Further to this, we also know that activism strengthens one’s sense of agency and autonomy. In a world that is mostly dominated by corrupt, evidently self-interested politicians and leaders (let’s call this landscape ‘politics as usual’) it is quite easy to want to tune it all out, leading to both a disinterest in and disenfranchisement from political life. What happens when lots of people disconnect themselves from politics? We get politics as usual. We get the same fake news and consequence-free political scandals. What happens, however, when we see lots of activists campaigning on and organising around a particular issue (name one)? We have a group of self-determining, values-driven individuals standing up for what they truly believe in.
The kind of self-determination that comes along with being an activist is the kind that leads to a more fulfilling life. By engaging in activism, we are actively practicing and therefore living out our values, meaning that we are more inclined to make decisions in life that align with these values. This is what it means to close the value-action gap; by fighting for the world that we believe in, us activists are able to overcome the cognitive dissonance experienced when our vision of the world doesn’t quite line up with how we act within it.