Editor’s Note: This is the last of four posts by Think Green columnist Robert Gardner exploring the stories of the young activists profiled in Emily Hunter’s book, The Next Eco Warriors. Hunter will speak at Montgomery County Community College on Monday, Feb. 25 from 12:30-2 p.m. in the Science Center Theater at Central Campus, 340 DeKalb Pike, Blue Bell. A simulcast of the presentation will be shown at the West Campus in the Community Room of South Hall, 101 College Drive, Pottstown.
The first time Whitney Black wore the suit, she stood in the downtown Manhattan Whole Foods. She belonged to a flash mob of activists that was protesting the grocery chain after its CEO came out against health care reform. With muscles burning and soaked in sweat, she exited the store with a smile.
“I caught a glimpse of one of the security guards trying to manhandle Rocco, who was also in a suit…the poor guard got bowled over in slow motion ten seconds later.”
The SurvivaBall is a large, orb-shaped costume affixed with corporate logos. The inflatable ball looks like a fat tick and could not be more different than the typical poster board-on-a-stick protest signs. Playing the SurvivaBall stood in sharp contrast to Black’s day job, where she donned goggles and a lab coat and played an oceanic biogeochemist. Her love of performing made for a smooth transition.
Black began work on a climate change documentary soon after graduate school. Through a mutual friend, she was introduced to The Yes Men—themselves making a similar documentary. The Yes Men is a well-known activist team who employ a multi-media approach to raise awareness of social issues. They are known to impersonate large corporations for the purpose of public embarrassment over their practices. SurvivaBall represents one of their many satirical methods; in essence, it serves to mock the absurdity of corporate and governmental blindness to real issues.
Though the costume certainly qualified as absurd, Black found the suit “artificially comforting” because it proved there were others out there with similar ideas: Comedy and satire could be effective forms of activism.
“Most of the campaigns and messaging in environmental activism encompassed the doom and gloom approach,” Black lamented. “I had grandiose ideas of using comedy and satire to help solve the world’s problems.”
As the September 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference kicked off in New York City, Black joined the rabble-rousers, which included twenty-five SurvivaBall-wearing colleagues approaching the UN while floating down the East River. The group claimed to represent Halliburton and posed as a self-contained living system that could survive the disasters created by global warming. For her part, Black dressed as a corporate bully and handed out “informational brochures.”
When The Next Eco Warriors went to publication, Black and others were awaiting trial for the impersonation of the US Chamber of Commerce. Along with the Yes Men, Whitney Black continues to raise public awareness—as well as the ire of corporate giants.