What the ‘Storm Area 51’ and ‘Climate Strike’ movements tell us
Americans face an important question: to walk out of your office to protest climate change or join the movement to storm Area 51?
On Friday, activists have an unprecedented opportunity to rally behind either 21-year-old vape salesman Matty Roberts, who launched the Storm Area 51 movement out of “boredom at 2AM,” or 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate change activist who has earned international attention.
Choose your fighter! There is something to be said for the importance of both movements, one steeped in ironic humor and the other in virtuous panic. Both #Area51Storm and #ClimateStrike offer two competing versions of reality in American life, but they also have something in common.
Roberts and his band of alien truthers are living it up at “Alienstock,” a related music festival happening both in and around Las Vegas. There were raves all Thursday night with dancing stuffed aliens, and this morning the tin-foiled crowd is surrounding access points to the Area 51 site for congregation, Naruto runs, “protest,” and most importantly, selfies.
Sheriffs, police, and helicopters are present, holding the line on access to the restricted site and finding themselves used as props in photos for social media. It’s the act of living out the Storm Area 51 meme.
There’s a pleasant dopiness to the gathering, a sort of acceptance that it’s all a joke. The world has to be at least a pretty decent place for these adventurers in search of “alien booty” to have time to kill dancing in the desert. This is in stark contrast to climate activism, which is apocalyptic in its rhetoric.
They’d say you can’t just take time away from life to party with strangers from Reddit in an America where the air is toxic. The cult of Greta Thunberg would think you should be ashamed for such nihilism in the face of scientific consensus on our coming extinction.
The much larger climate strike, culminating today in walkouts from schools and offices worldwide, is something of an opposite to the smaller movement in favor of storming Area 51. The climate movement is a movement of frustration, anger, and, in some cases, grieving. People, trees, plants, and animals are dying, so they say. The general position of the climate activists are that our days are numbered — and we may only have 10 years to save ourselves.
So is life boring and the stakes incredibly low? Or are we in a fight for our lives?
These competing attitudes define much of our political discourse. There’s an enduring disagreement in this country about whether things are actually pretty good or totally awful. Then-candidate Donald Trump played the dystopian card in 2016, when his competitor Hillary Clinton made the timid status quo case for continuing onward.
Now, presidential aspirants Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke, and even sometimes Joe Biden now make the case that we live in a hellscape. And guess who now says things are pretty great? Incumbent President Trump, touting his jobs numbers, of course.
What these two movements share, however, is more important than the mentalities that divide them. It’s the selfie.
The act of taking the selfie, getting the right angle, smiling and showing off your sign, it’s all part of the package when it comes to modern activism. The selfie is a statement that you are part of something and implies a question for your social media audience: Why aren’t you here?
Looking at the #ClimateStrike, it’s hard to not ignore the jovial spirit of a movement with dystopian overtones.
The world is on fire, we are all going to die because of Trump’s environmental policies, but be sure to pose with your girlfriends and go full duck-lips for Instagram. Greta Thunberg is serious as a heart attack about the longstanding story of our climate’s demise, but the bulk of her followers may not be.
Everyone wants to be part of something. Just ask Matty Roberts and his glow-in-the-dark, floss-dancing army of meme lords. This is the best, safest, and most prosperous time in human history to be alive. The dirty truth might be that everyone knows it, and they just don’t want to accept a world where there’s little left to fight for.
Stephen Kent (@Stephen_Kent89) is the spokesperson for Young Voices, host of Beltway Banthas Podcast, and an entertainment contributor for the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog.