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COLUMN: Fake obituaries threaten environmental activism

The Great Barrier Reef allegedly died in October. The United States met its demise on Election Day and experienced an unexplained resurrection before a second wave of obituaries on Inauguration Day. The National Endowment for the Arts became this month’s subject of collective grieving.

Pessimism in the age of Trump has ushered in a trend of obituaries for things not yet dead. These fake obituaries represent a particular variety of difficult-to-distinguish satire: creative activist responses that paradoxically threaten environmental 

Rowan Jacobsen, an author and journalist who wrote the Great Barrier Reef’s obituary, engages directly with environmental concerns and activist responses in his other writings. His recent investigation of the honeybee crisis, “Fruitless Fall,” even borrows its title from an image in Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” aligning itself with the revolutionary 
environmental work responsible for exposing the effects of the chemical Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, 
commonly known as DDT.

The reef’s obituary describes the cause of death in significant detail, explaining how warming ocean temperatures have increased the rate of coral bleaching. Recent research reveals this bleaching to be more extensive than previously thought. In a study published March 16 in the science journal Nature, marine biologist Terry P. Hughes and his team of scientists report that more than 90 percent of the 1,153 reefs surveyed have 
experienced bleaching.

The publication of Jacobsen’s obit in Outside magazine was met with outrage from the scientific 

Hughes’ earlier comment published in the Huffington Post summarizes this sentiment: “The message should be that it isn’t too late for Australia to lift its game and better protect the GBR, not that we should all give up because the GBR is supposedly dead.” As Hughes suggests, the sense of inevitability that a death notice conveys compromises efforts to expand global environmental 

This month’s obituary for the supposedly deceased National Endowment for the Arts, published by The Hill, offers IU Professor Michael Wilkerson’s eloquent tribute to the organization and its artistically provocative past. However, the NEA remains intact and funded, at least for the moment.

Trump’s proposed budget plan, released nine days after the obituary’s publication, confirms his intent to eliminate funding for the arts, along with funding to 18 other federal agencies. Yet, the defunding of the NEA is still far from final, especially amid growing Republican resistance to fatal cuts to the arts.

While it’s easy to discern that obituaries for the U.S. mourn a figurative loss of values and the end of a political age, the decimation of an already fragile environment or the dismantling of federal programs under the Trump administration requires a layer of fact checking.

In the age of Trump, we could write pre-death obituaries for former President Barack Obama’s health care law, erect memorials for the other 18 agencies targeted in Trump’s budget plan and mourn the putative loss of Big Bird and the Muppets. But lamenting the loss of things not yet gone takes time, energy and focus away from activist efforts.

With fake obituaries, the boundaries between life and death, activism and passivity are up for debate. If we declare our environment dead prematurely, we’ll have fewer attempts to really save it. Writers need to keep 
activism alive —literally.

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