Activist vs. Expert: Who’s Better at Creating Positive Change?

– by The Shitty Activist

expertAbout halfway through my twelve-year career as an environmental activist, I started to wonder if I might better be able to protect the planet by enrolling in a Ph.D. program.

Not so much because of any information I’d be privy to (which these days is available to anyone with an internet connection), but because of the instant credibility that would’ve come along with having those three letters after my name. Justified or not, it’s hard to deny that it’s easier for an activist with an advanced degree to get media coverage, speaking engagements, and even book deals, than it is for an activist without one.

Still, after a great deal of soul searching, I decided against it. So why didn’t I become Dr. Activist? Was laziness to blame? The exorbitant expense? A bit of both, perhaps. But ultimately my refusal to rejoin academia to advance my advocacy was for another reason entirely.

Those at the crossroads of either spending the next several years as a scholar or immediately jumping into the fray as a grassroots activist, might want to consider some of the same questions I did before making your decision.

First of all, how much influence do experts actually wield on a particular issue? Take climate change, for instance. Climate scientists have studied the phenomenon for decades and presented us with measurement after measurement showing an increase in global temperatures corresponding with increased carbon emissions. More than 97% of the world’s scientists agree that humans have caused—or, at the very least, contributed in a major way to—the current climate crisis.

Without these experts, we might never have been able to figure out what was changing our climate, and might’ve blamed anything from angry deities to sex out of wedlock (for some, the jury’s still out on the last two).

Despite this nearly unanimous proclamation, we have yet to enact policies that would significantly reduce carbon emissions. It may be more popular than ever for politicians to voice concerns about climate change, but actions that would reduce energy consumption while transitioning to low-carbon sources are few and far between.

Clearly, the data alone isn’t enough to spur meaningful action. As important as experts are to our understanding, we’ve got plenty of them to go around. Less plentiful are effective grassroots activists, ones who understand science enough to communicate the issue to the average individual, translate hard cold facts into popular campaigns, and draw the connections between our runaway energy consumption and runaway climate change.

In 2008, I co-organized a conference with a few other activists to call attention to the link between logging forests and climate change, one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions, along with fossil fuels, and industrial agriculture. We called it Clearcutting the Climate, and we enlisted forest ecologists and other scientists to explain the role standing forests play in slowing runaway climate change, and how cutting trees down makes it worse.

While the conference was only a small blip on the radar, by packaging experts for public consumption, we organizers were able to generate a fair amount of local awareness of the link between forests and climate change. Instead of spending half a decade to become experts ourselves, we just jumped right in and got the information out there.

I said before that the expense of a Ph.D. program wasn’t a major deterrent for me getting my degree. Which is only partially true. It was less the hit to my pocketbook that concerned me, and more the understanding that purchasing one’s credibility is not an option that everyone has. Because of the staggering costs involved with an advanced degree (upwards of $100,000), the role of expert is often less accessible to certain groups and individuals. Meanwhile, activism doesn’t discriminate.

There are always student loans for those who can’t afford it, of course, but that’s hardly a free lunch. In fact, it’s the debt hanging over the heads of many Ph.D.’s that sometimes forces them to make career decisions that they might not otherwise—such as climate scientists working for carbon polluters—to pay it back.

Further, even well-meaning experts can do more harm than good. The entire purpose of getting your doctorate is to focus on a narrow field of interest, which sometimes makes it more difficult to see the bigger picture.

James Hansen is perhaps one of the world’s most famous scientists, helping to call attention to the safe limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million (we’re currently at 414, by the way). As his message got out there more and more—thanks, in large part, to climate change activists such as Bill McKibben and—

Hansen started taking on more of an activist role, speaking out against fossil fuels (so far, so good) and endorsing nuclear power (oops).

Hansen is right that the only way to curb the worst of runaway climate change is for us to stop spewing carbon. However, since 80% of our energy use currently comes from fossil fuels, the only way we’re going to make clean energy work is by also reducing our energy consumption. Or, as Hansen advises, we can build a bunch of nukes.

Yes, this expert’s solution to environmental degradation is for us to transition from a dirty energy source that has screwed up our planet for the next thousand years with carbon emissions, towards an energy source that would screw it up for the next several hundred thousand years with radioactive waste.

Hansen’s failing is his narrow-minded academic focus on carbon, to the extent that he’d trade who knows how many more meltdowns and tons of nuclear waste in favor of a reduction in carbon emissions. Of course, without a reduction in energy consumption, the likelihood is more of all the above: more fossil fuels, more nuclear, and more forest-burning biomass and trash incinerators, a major carbon polluter in its own right.

Simply put, experts are essential to effective activism, but with a few exceptions, they make shitty activists themselves.

So if your goal is to become an expert because that’s always been your dream, then go for it. It’s an essential role in our society and you will be rewarded both financially and socially for your efforts.

But if your main interest is to help shift the balance of power from the elite towards the common person in hopes of someday reaching the democratic ideal, then there’s no more important role than activist.


  1. says

    Many times in the past I thought about attaining another degree in hopes it might somehow help me become more effective, gain access to funding for uncompromising campaigns which could lead to radical societal change, and perhaps even pay myself and others some medial stipend. However, I always concluded that my time (life) is more effectively spent actually defending and saving native forest ecosystems and critters within, for which I have been relatively successful. I suppose my successes and freedom to muckrake regarding anti environmental policies enacted by Democrat politicians including presidents without strings attached corrupted my decision of just becoming part of the Enviro NGO complex and corporate foundation funding hamster wheel that only rewards maintaining the status quo and going along to get along.

    Do I sometimes rethink those decisions? Sure, especially when I postulate that my political muckraking of democrat politician corruption and NGOs keeps me from receiving foundation money and fulfilling my full potential as an activist. However, I wouldn’t be free to become the best activists I could be with NGOs controlling me through salaries and benefits attached.
    My conclusion, being an ecosystem advocate or real activist is many times more effective than just maintaining the status quo whether it’s politically or through the courts. It’s just quite depressing to know that such uncompromising activism will likely never be funded to a level to reach its full potential.

  2. Jim says

    I’m happy for you if you feel you made the right life choice in becoming an activist and not getting a PhD, (so did I!) but please don’t try to make it into a general rule of thumb for others.
    The choice you ask readers to make between activism and expertise is a false choice.
    There are many, many “experts” who are effective advocates for social and environmental causes. Marcia Ishi-Eitemann is an incredible expert/activist. So are Olivier deSchutter, Sivan Kartha, Jahi Chappell, Lori Wallach, Jane Goodall and Miguel Altieri. So was Wangari Matthai, Rachel Carson, Albert Einstein, the list goes on.
    These people all got PhDs (or law degrees), which seems to be your definition of becoming experts. AND they organize(d) conferences to raise public awareness, which from the story you told seems to be your definition of activism. They also testify before Congress, commit civil disobedience, sue the bastards, organize demonstrations, start grassroots organizations and so much more.
    You can be an activist without being an expert. You can be an expert AND and activist. These are both legitimate choices if you want to help shift the balance of power from the elite towards the common person in hopes of someday reaching the democratic ideal. And one certainly isn’t morally superior to, or automatically more effective than, the other.

    • says

      Well, now I’m neither an activist nor a Ph.D., so who knows if it was the right decision, haha.

      I don’t suggest my choice was the right one, was providing a process of questioning that people can follow before they make their own decisions.

      And my final conclusion was that both are valuable, but one path is more accessible to the majority of people, and therefore more democratic.

      • Jim says

        I can’t agree with you there. Those last few sentences (in the original post) clearly make a broad and unsupported judgement about experts and activists, and then tell people what you think they should do. (And to a first time reader of the blog, it also sounds like sour grapes, which I’m sure is not your intent.)
        Another approach might have been to leave out that stuff and instead say, “Here’s the choice I was faced with and here’s what I did, and here’s what I think about it. What do YOU think?” and then see what readers say.
        (I don’t read a lot of blogs, so maybe I am over-thinking this. But it says, “Leave a Reply!”)

      • says

        Thanks for the post, Jim.

        Sour grapes means wanting something you can’t have. As I write in the post, continuing in academia was an option for me, but the reason I chose not to is because it’s not open to everyone. Others might very well have sour grapes due to their limited access to money, which seems like a perfectly legit grievance in my book.

        Your suggestion that I leave it open to the public as to which is the better option might be a reasonable journalistic decision, however not on The Shitty Activist, since the whole point is to encourage more grassroots activism (hardly a spoiler)!

        Activism is about your average individual exercising power based on the arguments they are making, rather than whether an institutional gatekeeper has officially sanctioned their efforts. Experts are great, but depend on current system, an inherent weakness that is partially responsible for the mess we’re all in today.

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