Pleasure Activism: Finding Joy in Doing the Work

Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist

At a time when the news is filled with doom and gloom headlines, it can be difficult to prioritize joy as a fundamental part of activism. Concentrating on individual pleasure can seem trivial amidst the urgent work that needs doing. However, finding ways to incorporate joy into justice work can have profound effects for envisioning and creating a future worth having. As the importance of incorporating emotions into the environmental movement becomes more popular, emphasizing positive experiences and feelings serves as a reminder of all that is worth saving and fighting for. 

In her book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, author adrienne maree brown* introduces a politics of joy and healing that centers pleasure as a necessary component for changing oppressive social structures. These ideas are based on the belief that tapping into pleasure can help challenge the narrative of scarcity as promoted by the current systems in place, as well as generate justice and liberation for those who have been most adversely affected. Brown writes, “Pleasure activism asserts that we all need and deserve pleasure and that our social structures must reflect this. In this moment, we must prioritize the pleasure of those most impacted by oppression.”

Brown’s work was influential for Sarah Ray, author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, which also examines the role of emotions in activism and the importance of creating a movement of desire instead of sacrifice. By exploring the negative impacts that can result from using guilt and fear as strategies in many past and present environmental messages, Ray demonstrates that prioritizing a movement guided by pleasure is not superfluous but necessary. While the intention of negative messaging is to make those with privilege wake up and recognize their role in the current crisis so they may take action, this messaging often has the opposite effect on its intended audience, leading many to feel powerless and hopeless. In her introduction to the book, Ray writes “…guilt, one of the dominant environmentalist emotions [is] destructive and pointless. Rather, as the traditions of “misery resistance” tell us, pleasure, humor, desire, and a critical view of hope are better motivators of long-term commitment. We can find joy in manifesting the world we desire, not just outrage in opposing what we fear.” 

This kind of activism doesn’t mean denying hard feelings or difficult truths, instead, it redirects focus toward creating the world that is desired, rather than wasting precious energy continuously concentrating on the one that isn’t. Pleasure activism is not toxic positivity, but a tool for resilience in the midst of various crises. Importantly, pleasure doesn’t equate with wealth or money. When perceived through the lens of material excess, it can become easy to demonize and classify pleasure as justification for overconsumption. However, brown is quick to point out that pleasure activism is not about overgenerating or overindulging, but instead about cultivating moderation and shifting into a mindset of abundance. “Pleasure activism is about learning what it means to be satisfiable, to generate, from within and from between us, an abundance through which we can all have enough. Part of the reason so few of us have a healthy relationship with pleasure is because a small minority of our species hoards the excess of resources, creating a false scarcity and then trying to sell us joy, sell us back to ourselves.” Ray echoes this sentiment in her book when she writes,  “…reframing environmentalism as a movement of abundance, connection, and well-being may help us rethink it as a politics of desire rather than a politics of individual sacrifice and consumer denial.” 

Reframing pleasure outside of consumerism can be difficult for many, but both books offer some tangible actions that can help reclaim a narrative of joy and healing. Through Ray’s experience as a professor in the Environmental Studies department at Cal Poly Humboldt, she began to see patterns in students’ emotional responses to the subject matter, resulting in her creating a visual diagram of “the affective arc of environmental studies curricula.” In this diagram, before a student can move from nihilism to hope, they move through the phase of self care, also labeled “rediscovering pleasure and baking cookies”. This step is essential, as it allows space for metabolizing difficult feelings while also creating incentive to move beyond apathy. This changing of the story is important both individually and collectively, and could prove immensely beneficial when integrated into the environmental movement. 

As a source for information about the environment, EcoNews is striving to focus on “solutions journalism” in order to highlight stories of problems actively being solved through the immense effort of local and global activists, organizations, and community members. Ray points out that the lack of positive stories makes the apocalypse all the more likely, as that is the only end scenario that is given any credence by many people. One of brown’s core pleasure principles is that “what you pay attention to grows”, meaning that tuning into the goodness of what is and what could be amplifies its potential. Check out the regular “Solutions Summit” section of the paper to get a monthly dose of active hope. 

Brown summed it up concisely when she wrote, “Ultimately, pleasure activism is us learning to make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet.” 

*brown chooses to not capitalize her name because she enjoys how the design appears visually and considers automatically capitalizing the self as part of how capitalism stratifies and commodifies us.