What Poison Ivy Can Teach Us About Fighting Climate Change
Sure, sometimes she went a little overboard, trying to kill the executives rather than merely destroying their empires . . . but she had the right idea.
Thisis, a monthly column by Lilly Dancyger on women coded as villains in pop culture, the power in their badness, and how they shaped fans for good.
The truth is, we could all stand to be a little more like Poison Ivy.
According to the UN, there are only eleven years left to stop climate change before we reach the point of no return. And every day it feels like that timeframe is shrinking. There was just a funeral in Iceland for the country’s first glacier lost to climate change. The Amazon rainforest is burning; and not just because climate change is making everything hotter (like the wildfires in California that are expected to get worse every year), but intentionally set ablaze to further the interests the commercial farming industry. It’s not bad enough that we’re seeing the effects of decades worth of negligence—even as we’re forced to confront how much damage has already been done, pathologically greedy industrialists straight out of a comic book are brazenly making the situation even more dire.
A few articles circulated recently saying that if you’re heartbroken or angry about the fires in the Amazon, you should stop eating meat. It’s long been established that the commercial meat industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change, and concerned citizens should probably cut meat out of their diets anyway. Add in the extreme visual of the Amazon being destroyed to “clear” more land for cattle ranching, and the problem with how much meat we consume is hard to ignore. I was a vegetarian for twenty-one years before I reintroduced meat into my diet three years ago for health reasons, and now I’m cutting it out again. Adding meat to my diet didn’t do much to help my health issues, and I’m desperate for some tangible way I can help slow stop our ever-accelerating tumble toward apocalypse. But changing my diet—and re-training myself to buy things from actual stores instead of using overnight shipping, and finally buying a reusable water bottle I like enough to use—doesn’t feel like nearly enough.
Yes, those of us who care that humanity is destroying the planet need to take personal responsibility where we can, but we also need to think much bigger than that. We need to get angry—comic book supervillain on a mission angry—and demand substantial, large-scale change from the people who are causing the most damage. Just one hundred companies were responsible for seventy-one percent of global carbon emissions between 1988 and 2017. In that context, our paper straws and rideshares are essentially meaningless. We need to go after the people in charge, like Poison Ivy would—maybe not to kill them, but at least to hold their feet to the proverbial fire and demand action.
When the US invaded Iraq, I was in ninth grade. I had been raised to question the government and patriotism—taught the bloody stories behind Thanksgiving at an early age, rewarded with ice cream when I got in trouble in middle school for refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance—and this unjustified act of war, the first I was grown-up and conscious enough to understand, solidified all of my suspicion and disdain. I was furious; that kind of pure fury that’s only possible when buoyed by reckless amounts of hope. I believed that we deserved better—we the citizens of this country, we the citizens of the world.
When I heard about the walk-out happening that day—tens of thousands of high school and college students around the country streaming out of classrooms and into the streets to demand better of their government—I was excited. Excited to take a stand, excited in a way that’s only possible when you believe in your ability to make a difference. If enough of us scream loud enough, I thought, they’ll have to hear us. They’ll have to listen. Power to the people. I marched in the streets, screaming “No blood for oil!” until I was hoarse. I laid down on the cement in Union Square at a “die-in” to make visible the death America was causing. I took a Chinatown bus to DC and screamed right at George W. Bush’s house.
I was furious; that kind of pure fury that’s only possible when buoyed by reckless amounts of hope.
Eventually, it started to dawn on me that the powers that be weren’t listening. That we could scream all we wanted, and nothing would change. The last protest I went to, we stood outside of the Republican National Convention for hours, screaming that Bush was a war criminal. He was reelected a few months later, and I gave up. If nothing we did was going to make a difference, why bother? I think that was the moment I grew up—in the worst way.
In the years that followed, I still read the news; I still cared about what was happening in the world, but I cared in the passive way that so many of us do now. Caring divorced from action. Caring that might as well be not caring for all the impact it makes.
Then Donald Trump was elected president, and the urge to scream returned. I remembered that it’s not about whether one march, one protest, one boycott is enough to change everything—it’s about what we lose when we decide ahead of time that it’s not even worth trying. It’s about making our anger and opposition and passion visible—not only for those in power who may or may not listen, but for each other; so that everyone who’s scared and angry and wants to do something knows they’re not the only one feeling that way. Protests create momentum—it’s so much easier to imagine a movement when you’re marching up Fifth Avenue with thousands of people who are just as pissed off as you are than it is when you’re sitting at home, reading the news and shaking your head in resigned despair.
I’m trying to reclaim the idealistic, insistent anger I had as a teenager—anger with the force of hope behind it. The planet is dying. It might be too late to do anything about it. If it’s not too late already, it will be soon. What would Poison Ivy do in today’s world? Certainly more than retweet depressing, apocalyptic articles and sign the occasional petition. She’d be fucking livid.
In Batman and Robin, the 1997 disaster starring George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell as the titular characters, plus Arnold Schwarzenegger as a one-liner slinging Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy (in disguise as her former self, Dr. Pamela Isley) approaches Bruce Wayne at an event, presenting him with a detailed proposal for how Wayne Enterprises could “immediately cease all actions that toxify our environment.” She shoves past several armed guards and presents her proposal to him proudly, insisting that the earth “deserves your loyalty and protection.” Wayne gives it a casual glance and then brushes her off, claiming that such changes—like cutting out diesel fuel—would be impossible. So she sets out to destroy him, warning “a day of reckoning is coming.” She’s not dissuaded by the condescending rationalizations of those in charge.
It’s not about whether one march, one protest, one boycott is enough to change everything—it’s about what we lose when we decide ahead of time that it’s not even worth trying.
Truly, Poison Ivy is the hero we need in 2019—full of bold ideas to save the world, and the gall to demand that they’re put into action, no matter how much the powers that be insist it would just be “too hard” to make such big changes. Of course big corporations aren’t going to overhaul the way they produce and ship goods, or switch to more expensive but more eco-friendly products. Coal lobbyists will never throw up their hands and say, “You know what, you’re right, let’s give solar a try.” Someone has to demand change, and refuse to take no for an answer.
And there’s no bodysuit-clad vixen here to do it for us—we have to do it ourselves, collectively.
The problem with a challenge as huge and daunting as stopping climate change is that no single small thing we do will be enough, and that makes it easy to feel like we shouldn’t bother trying. The amount of meat that won’t be bought or eaten if one person goes vegetarian is not going to make a dent in the global industry—it’s certainly not going to stop the Amazon from burning today or tomorrow or next week. The oil and coal lobbies are so deeply entrenched in global politics that one march isn’t going to convince them to change their ways. You remembering to bring your canvas tote bag to the grocery store won’t stop the oceans from being flooded with plastic. A few people boycotting the biggest polluters won’t put them out of business. No one of these things will make a difference. But if we do all of these things, individually and collectively, maybe we can create enough momentum to make a dent.
And maybe the most important part of making these small changes in our lives isn’t their direct impact, but the fact that they keep the issues at the forefront of our minds. Every time I crave a burger and decide not to eat one, every time I go back up four flights of stairs to grab my tote bag for the grocery store, every time I go out of my way to pick something up at a store instead of ordering it online, I’m reminding myself of the larger fight. If we decide ahead of time that there’s nothing we can do, it’s all too easy to stop thinking about the problem altogether, to shrug and go about our lives as the world literally burns. But if we’re putting in that extra effort in our own lives, the larger goal of real change will always be present in our minds. Then when there’s an opportunity to demand real action from corporations and politicians, we’ll be primed to stand up and scream. Caring is a muscle, it requires exercise. The small changes we can make on an individual level are just helping us train for the larger changes we all need to make together.
Look at Greta Thunburg—at sixteen years old, she could easily decide that the damage past generations have done to the planet isn’t her responsibility. But instead, she’s inspiring people around the world with her passionate and wise pleas for action, leading by example, most recently by sailing across the Atlantic in a zero-emission yacht in order to attend two important meetings in the fight against climate change. She opted to skip the emission-heavy long-haul flight and instead make a statement about how much bigger we need to be thinking when we talk about change. She’s asking all of us to wake the hell up and fight. One teenager skipping a flight didn’t save enough jet fuel to decrease the carbon emissions of the commercial air travel industry—but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to show the level of commitment we’ll all need to rise to if we’re going to stand a chance. The point was to demonstrate how not to be discouraged by the immensity of the challenge—to keep the issues at the forefront of her own mind, and of ours.
When I feel overwhelmed and hopeless, tempted to resign myself to the fact that the world is ending and that’s just the way it is, I try to remember real-life heroes like Greta, and fictional heroes like Poison Ivy. I try to stand firm in my convictions, to make changes to my lifestyle that might feel insignificant, but that are certainly better than doing nothing; that allow me to exercise caring. I try to find that old anger—not the anger that comes in quick, desperate flashes every time I read the news—the bigger, deeper anger that propels me into the streets to scream, whether or not the people in charge are listening. (I plan to scream until I lose my voice at the Global Youth Climate Strikeon September 20.) And I remind myself that we’re not screaming for them, we’re screaming for each other—to remind each other to keep fighting, to think bigger, and to stay fucking furious.
Lilly Dancyger is the author of Negative Space, a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as one of the winners of the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards, and the editor of Burn it Down, a critically acclaimed anthology of essays on women's anger from Seal Press. Lilly's writing has been published by Longreads, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, Glamour, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and more. Find her on Twitter here.