“Tell the truth and act as if the truth is real” – so goes the slogan of Extinction Rebellion (XR), a new international movement started in London in October 2018. The statement points to a discrepancy between the dire state of our environment and the lack of a real sense of emergency.
While the majority of Australians’ understanding of the urgent need for action against climate change is reflected in their various every-day behaviours, there is still a lack of engagement in collective action for the environment. Despite the rise in individuals’ environmentally friendly behaviours, emissions continue to rise year after year. With 82% of all government subsidy still concentrated in ‘Clean Coal’, it’s clear that public policy still doesn't go far enough. While it might be more appealing to focus on improving our every-day behaviour as individuals, some argue that the pervasive messaging to get us to live our ‘best green life’ is actually a distraction designed to keep us content and away from collective action. However, there is a recent collective awakening about the need for systemic change over just changes in individual behaviour.
These desperate times see the rise of more desperate measures of collective action such as non-violent civil resistance. Its practices and successes can be traced back to the Suffragettes, the American Civil Rights Movement, and LGBTQ movements. The specifics and strategies of civil resistance movements vary depending on their purpose and contextual factors.
In this post, we’ll focus on civil resistance in the context of climate change action. The key principles remain similar across the movements:
Relevant audiences. Disruption is more effective in capital cities, as these are typically where national and international media are based. Just as labor strikes are effective against companies, closing down capital cities may be effective against governments. The inconvenience and disruption to the local populace and businesses is unavoidable. This can be harmful to the movement, so it’s important to inform the public about the urgency of the situation and the rationale behind the disruption. Prolonged disruption should be prewarned so emergency services can be rerouted.
Given the disruptive nature of civil resistance, public opinions can be quite divided. But if the sizes of the recent School Climate Strikes are anything to go by, the public’s appetite for drastic changes is growing rapidly, and this may come with corresponding greater support, or at least acceptance, of civil disobedience for climate change action. Environmental movements have to work to ensure that the political capital from mass mobilization for action isn’t wasted, as policy makers attempt to turn the conversation away from addressing climate change towards the law-breaking. Allies, policy makers, and the public have to be continually reminded that the story is about the science, the urgency of change, and the mass support for that change. Meanwhile, it’s up to the civil disobedience movements to galvanize support by informing the public about the movement’s rationale and considerations, and being inclusive of allies with varying political persuasions and beliefs. Regardless of whether you support civil disobedience or prefer more moderate activism, if there is a time to want more from our political system, the time is now.
- Hannibal Thai
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.