This post contains spoilers for The Politician, don’t read if you haven’t finished it!
The Politician is not a perfect show. It’s one that many reviewers unanimously deem ‘messy’, but audiences seem to love. Regardless, it is something I’ve watched with interest since it first emerged. While the first season didn’t have much I could relate to, simply a storyline I could watch with some interest, I found myself surprised by just how much there was to think about in regards to the second season.
This is because season two finds Payton, the protagonist and aforementioned politician, running for state senate on a climate change platform.
Interestingly, after I finished my quick season binge (aided by the whole ‘not going outside’ thing), the first thing I did was start searching for others who may have written about how the climate was addressed in this show. What I found ranged from intriguing to thoughts I didn’t particularly agree with. On reflection, I think this is likely down to many reviewers not spending as much of their time in the contemporary world of digital activism/blog writing/eco-influencing, or whatever else you’d like to call it.
So, here are some things I noticed in season two that I thought were worth thinking about.
Perfectionism in environmental activism
In season two we’re re-introduced to Infinity, a character previously poisoned by her grandmother (who had Munchausen by proxy) who goes on to write a book about her experience, gaining notoriety and wealth. During a subsequent book tour, shown at the beginning of season 2, she realises the extent of the climate crisis and becomes an environmental campaigner and zero waste advocate. We see scenes of her shopping at a zero waste store, bringing her own bag, getting a worm farm for her kitchen, and even opening a clearly recognisable organicup directly in shot.
On their own, none of these things are bad (I loved the moment she talked about preferring her menstrual cup and I hope it spurs more people on to consider them). Both campaigning for environmental issues and making sustainable personal choices, when we are able to, are great things! What I did notice, however, was how her character quickly slipped into a mindset of perfectionism and judgement.
I’m unsure whether this was a deliberate attempt by the show to offer up nuanced discussion or simply an obvious choice for comedic and narrative purposes, but I think anyone who’s been in this space for a while would’ve noticed a few things immediately.
The first: Infinity has a trash jar. For many who know the low waste world, they also know the jar is predominantly bullshit. While it can be a helpful tool to understand what waste we’re producing most often and why, especially at the start of someone’s journey, there’s no way it can hold all the trash we create. This is because it doesn’t take waste created further up the manufacturing stream into account, and because most people who prescribe to a jar don’t actually put all the waste they create in there.
Almost anyone who has a trash jar has some sort of exception they don’t put in there whether it be condoms, contacts, broken glass, receipts, etc. It feels like you can justify keeping almost anything out of it. And, when you’re constantly picking and choosing between what goes in the jar and what doesn’t, you get a skewed perspective.
The fact is, whether it’s a prominent zero waster deliberately leaving things out of the jar for appearances or because accidents happen, waste still occurs. You can ask for no straw or cutlery and still be given them, you can be given a gift in packaging, or your accessibility to a low waste lifestyle may be limited. None of these things are bad or down to personal failings, they are simply due to the systems and world many of us live within.
This is directly addressed in the show, albeit subtly. We see Infinity talking with Payton and Skye (one of the people on his campaign team). They drink coffee from disposable cups while Infinity pours hers out of her disposable cup and into a glass jar to drink from. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that is never directly addressed. She does this in a wide shot while talking, prompting a viewer to focus more on the conversation rather than this small moment. But I noticed it, and I also noticed that when this conversation ends she exits with her jar full of coffee and leaves the cup behind. This never makes it to her trash jar and, while we don’t know whether this is motivated by keeping up appearances or by a lack of full understanding of waste, it’s indicative of a larger pattern of behaviour.
This also brings us to the grand irony of the conversation Infinity is actually engaging in while this happens. I’ll admit, the combination of her words and actions in this scene made me laugh out loud. At the exact moment that she ignores the waste she has created, inherently proving the point that perfection is impossible, she berates Payton and Skye for not being perfect. In fact, she calls their behaviour ‘disturbing’. The small moments she brings up are that Payton gets a suit dry cleaned, which results in a plastic dry-cleaning bag and hanger in the trash plus the use of toxic chemicals, and that Skye chews non-natural gum, which is made from petroleum byproducts. Both of these are fair points to bring up (I have written on both eco-friendly dry cleaning and sustainable chewing gum in the past so I immediately knew what she was talking about), especially because the characters in question are rich and privileged enough to have more sustainable options that are accessible to them. However, it’s how these conversations happen that I think is important.
Refinery29′s writing on The Politician phrased it like this:
Payton sees Infinity’s complaints as signs he needs to do better, but she doesn’t think he’s doing anything. He is selling his climate change agenda, but does he even believe in it? Once again, a valid question about Payton’s authenticity. She thinks that these mistakes could damage not only his campaign, but the movement. It’s why she wants him to go waste-free and neutralise his carbon footprint or else she’ll cancel him.
This is one reading of this situation, but I think it also completely misses the point. When these moments are brought up Payton says ‘we could all be doing a little bit better’ while Infinity replies ‘I don’t see you doing anything’ and ‘your actions don’t match your rhetoric’ even though she is engaging in the exact same actions. She is also not perfect. By showing us how this character creates waste that she promptly ignores it suggests that she also falls short of the mark, but her perspective means she sees herself as doing nothing wrong whilst she is simultaneously calling out others. It’s not wrong to bring up blind spots, it’s not wrong to say ‘if you’re going to run on this campaign, here are areas in your personal life that you can improve, because you have the ability to’. It is, however, wrong to suggest that you are perfect and someone else isn’t, and therefore suggest that said imperfect person destroys the credibility of the environmental movement as a whole.
I would argue that perfectionism is more dangerous to the environmental movement because it can easily stamp out intersectionality. Yes, Payton and Skye could choose better options because their characters have a lot of wealth and privilege, but Infinity is also wealthy and privileged, and this affects how she views environmental behaviours and activism. When she first tells her story on the show, at the event where she witnessesd the ‘disturbing’ behaviour of Payton and Skye, she says she’s not a hero, but one person ‘doing something that we all can do’. This is categorically untrue because not everyone can go zero waste, and if we think they can we are not being intersectional.
If every environmentalist is cancelled or seen as not committed enough because they aren’t fully vegan, create some waste, take hot showers, or sometimes have a higher carbon footprint, this can effectively bar those who have specific dietary requirements, live in food deserts (and lack of accessible food is often inherently linked with racial segregation), poor people, disabled and chronically ill people, and many more from being part of the movement at all.
I don’t think there are inherent problems with having conversations with people like Payton and Skye and guiding them to do better, but I do think there is an inherent danger in becoming so focused on perfection and judgement. At no point in the show does Infinity discuss the role of privilege and how it affects her ability to make sustainable choices. To me that suggests she is not an intersectional activist, she’s just another privileged white girl who thinks anyone can be completely, perfectly sustainable. That thinking is not only flawed, it is also dangerous and exclusionary. Here’s why.
The most effective change is systemic
If our activism isn’t intersectional, we will never achieve solutions that help the most marginalised and vulnerable in our society. If dismantling systems that perpetuate privilege isn’t core to changes people advocate for, said changes will continue to prop up oppression. There is no climate justice without social justice, which includes a commitment to anti-racism and Indigenous rights alongside dismantling ableism, LGBTQ+ oppression, sexism and other factors. To be intersectional is to hear views from members of many communities, with many intersecting identities, to find ways to progress that will uplift and benefit everyone. Activism becoming exclusionary removes this possibility.
But, beyond this, we must recognise that individual behaviour can only achieve so much. After Payton ultimately wins his election, his first two years see him implement an all-electric city bus fleet, co-write a new bill requiring every new building in Manhattan to use a combined-heat-and-power source and solar panels, add 300 charging stations for electric vehicles across the city, and fast track permit approval for offshore wind for New York which will deliver 3000 megawatts of energy (almost twice what was promised and providing 250 new jobs). If Payton had been cancelled because of his dry cleaning habits these changes wouldn’t have happened at all, because he was running against an incumbent who wouldn’t have prioritised these policies in the same way. The climate isn’t completely fixed because of these policies, but ultimately the introduction of mass low-carbon public transport will have a larger effect than one person’s choice of gum.
We’ve seen this same line of thinking play out in the real world, as people tried to delegitimise Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for driving a car. She replied by saying that she has also used air conditioning and taken flights before, because she lives in the world and the world is not perfect. Is she as low waste as she could be? I doubt it. Is her carbon footprint as low as it could be? Probably not. Does this mean she should never have been elected? No! Because if she hadn’t been, I doubt we would have seen the same level of publicity and momentum for the Green New Deal in America, or the paving of the way for wider support for more progressives (Jamaal Bowman for NY16, for example!). This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try and make sustainable lifestyle choices when we can, but to remember that large scale system change will ultimately achieve more. When just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions, what we need is to transform entire energy systems, urban planning and policy. What we need are politicians who truly believe in and are committed to fighting for that goal with everything they have, even if they are sometimes imperfect in their personal lives.
Young people care
But, beyond everything else, what I think The Politician did a great job of demonstrating is how much young people care. According to Collider:
In fact, perhaps the most impactful episode is the one that focuses the least on the main characters: “The Voters,” Episode 5, instead introduces a mother-daughter pair played by Robin Weigert and Susannah Perkins, whose fights over their individual preferred candidates essentially boil down to a battle that contrasts millennial frustrations with the older generation’s fear that they’ve failed their children by leaving them to deal with a broken world.
I agree that this was a particularly poignant episode. The frustration over climate inaction, and urgent desire to see change, as portrayed through the young daughter Jayne (though I’d argue she was gen z and not a millennial) felt like an accurate portrayal of the current movement of climate strikes and climate activism among young people. These feelings are real and their depiction felt truthful, as more young people are pushing for climate action, and liveable futures, than ever before.
There’s also a particularly interesting moment when Jayne comes face to face with Payton himself and asks him whether he cares at all. He gives an answer that’s typical of a politician, but one that is ultimately optimistic. He admits that, yes, he’s running on a climate platform because it’s a popular issue for voters. However, he also states that, even if he was running on another platform, he would still push for climate policy once elected because it’s the right thing to do (and we see this followed up in the policies he implements once he wins).
In the entire series, this is the moment that gives me the largest sense of hope. Politics is a strange beast and, while I don’t understand the appeal of the race, if we can find more candidates who are truly committed to large scale change for climate and social justice, then I don’t think that would be a bad thing at all. The Politician is larger-than-life fiction, and I doubt any real political campaigning looks as flashy. However, if we can find real-life counterparts to Payton who care and implement real change, then that’s something I’m behind. Even if they do buy the wrong brand of gum now and again.