Can a Rachel Carson Introvert Succeed in the Climate Movement?

As much as I love climate advocacy, there have been several moments throughout my young adulthood when I have genuinely asked myself, did I pick the wrong career?

The question would pop up in unexpected places, such as protests, when I realized the only thing I dread more than climate change is being handed a megaphone to talk about climate change in front of a large crowd. It haunted me at conferences, when I hovered nervously by the food table or slipped off to an unoccupied hallway, desperate to recharge. Every frenzied happy hour I attended, every cameraless microphone-muted Zoom call, and every activist I guiltily dodged past on the sidewalk taught me a stark lesson: climate advocacy isn’t the most welcoming place for introverts.

We tend to envision an “activist” as a peppy, caffeinated, tenacious networker whose power rests in a pocket of people skills. A facilitator—a persistent asker of questions—a people’s champion—a spunky Bill Nye or charming Stewart Udall. Someone who would seize the megaphone rather than duck away from it.

Leonardo Che Ritrae la Gioconda (Leonardo Painting the Mona Lisa), by Cesare Maccari (Corbis Historical / Getty)

For the longest time, I feared that charismatic archetype was who I had to pretend to be. It felt wrong to seek any form of solitude in an activist movement that is truly—and rightfully—about people, collaborative intersectionality, and humanity. It was Da Vinci, a master of humanism himself, who warned that “nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.” And so, sitting down to silently write, draw, brainstorm, or reflect at the end of the day, cozying up into a liminal space that felt like the outskirts of the environmental movement, the silent activists fretted.

It has taken me several years to debunk the myth of the caffeinated activist. It turns out, not everyone has to fit that picture—and most people probably don’t. Almost 57% of the world’s population leans towards introversion, and the surging popularity of the Myers Briggs personality test has sorted employees fairly widely across the introversion-extroversion spectrum. A survey of lawyers in the U.S. found that 56.4% were introverts and the remaining 43.6% were extroverts.

From the invention of “craftivism” (thought-provoking political commentary and “gentle protest” through knitting and crafting ) to the publication of Susan Cain’s “Quiet”, a book highlighting the power of introverts “in a world that can’t stop talking,” society has begun to celebrate introverted people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone was essentially forced to live like an introvert to unhealthy extremes, the world gained a newfound empathy for a close-knit lifestyle—while even stir-crazy introverts gained an appreciation (and a craving) for group interaction.

My self-doubt began to alleviate when I started working for the Rachel Carson Council, where I quickly learned that Rachel Carson herself was as introverted as it gets. Rachel Carson brought a quiet, subtle power to the environmental movement. She grew up absorbed in books and wandered East Coast seashores in solitude for hours, contemplating the ecosystem in a way that was equally analytical and artistic. At public events, it was her extroverted colleagues who took her under their wing and introduced her to politicians and big-names. When she had the chance to sit down alone with an empty page in front of her, she wrote, rewrote, and mulled over words that would ultimately change people’s minds for decades.

Carson was well aware of a truth that lingers in modern workplaces:  it’s impossible to disentangle being “quiet” from being a woman. Qualities as subtle as the volume and tenor of a voice, or the height and build of a person entering a room, determine who gets listened to from the beginning, and who has to assert their presence. (Extroverted women have their own qualms to face in male-dominated workplaces, as, alongside their successes, they face accusations of being overbearing, micromanaging, or being labeled a certain five-letter-word that is often directed at assertive women.) But it is truly exhausting to be seen as “the quiet woman in the back.” There are many days when I just want to sit down and write my voice onto paper. How many more times can we be told, “Use your voice!” when, each time we use it, we get talked over?

Because Carson rarely touted her personal accomplishments and scientific expertise, critics of her work were quick to launch personal attacks, calling her unscientific, a communist, or, in a more overt display of gender bias, a hysterical woman. She, and other female environmentalists, had to pave their own careers, some as loud as Lois Gibbs, and some a quieter influence. They published books and journals, opened natural history museums, taught children and the public about the environment, founded organizations, wrote commentaries, and changed legislation. In Rachel Carson and Her Sisters (2016), Bob Musil writes of Carson’s environmental foremothers, “Across more than a century and a half, all with very divergent personalities and pedigrees, they all refused to accept that their dreams and deeds were illegitimate, unladylike, or irritating.”

Rosa Parks. Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica.

We all have something to learn from behind-the-scenes leaders, advisors, writers, and thinkers. Some of the most striking displays of activism in human history have been wordless refusals of injustice. Rosa Parks (known to be an introvert) is a famous example, with a simple, stubborn refusal to leave a bus seat.

Stanislav Petrov, a military officer on duty during the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident, received reports of incoming U.S. missiles, judged them himself to be a false alarm, and disobeyed orders to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike. They were indeed erroneous, and Petrov, a young individual sitting behind a desk in the basement of a command center, is credited with “saving the world.”

This is not to say that extroverts slack in climate advocacy. Extroverted activists have brought talent, passion, and relentlessness to the movement for centuries. The bulk of visible activism has rested on their backs. They face their own challenges, carry heavy conversational topics, communicate tirelessly, and offer introverted folks an “in” to the crowded rooms, board meetings, and late-night receptions in Washington, D.C. “Secret introverts,” comically prevalent personality types, so often masquerade as extroverts out of genuine admiration and awe toward their work.

So, what does it really mean to be an introvert in the field of climate activism? I think it means redrawing our mental image of what activism really is. Activism, at its core, is action. Action takes a lot of forms, whether in a flurry of photographers and picket signs, or behind a quiet desk when the world is about to end. One of my favorite quotes is one that directly refutes the accusation that silence strengthens authority: “The activist is not someone who says the river is dirty. The activist is someone who cleans up the river.”

And so, when it rolls around, I will celebrate the next World Introvert Day. It’s a nice regenerative pause for everyone after the chaotic welcoming of the holidays and New Year. How will I celebrate it? Staying inside and reading a book, probably. Introversion is something I embrace nowadays. After all, some of the greatest environmental progress has been birthed in books, by fearless, introverted authors who dared to speak change.

— Joy Reeves, RCC Presidential Fellow

RCC Presidential Fellow – Joy Reeves – Duke University

RCC Presidential Fellow Joy Reeves is completing a Master’s degree in Environmental Management at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Passionate about climate advocacy and scientific communication, she is the author of Growing Up in the Grassroots: Finding Unity in Climate Activism Across Generations (2020). Joy was previously an RCC Stanback Fellow and has held positions at the League of Conservation Voters, the Student Conservation Association, and the Wright Lab at Duke University, where she conducted research on the effects of saltwater intrusion and sea level rise on the coast of North Carolina. During her undergraduate career at Duke, she received her degree in Environmental Science & Policy with a minor in Visual Media Studies, as well as a Udall scholarship for environmental leadership and public service.