Is civil disobedience enough or do we need a climate revolution?

Social transformation is slow. It can take decades to change hearts and minds. But that is time we no longer have.

Australia Bushfires (FILE)
Nancy Allen and Brian Allen stand outside as high winds push smoke and ash from the Currowan Fire towards Nowra, New South Wales, Australia on January 4, 2020 [File: Tracey Nearmy/Reuters]

We are living in an age of climate crisis, with its resulting fires, floods, warming oceans, ecological breakdown, mass extinctions, epidemics, and political and social unrest, which must make us ask: Are we the first generation to witness the beginning of the end?

In Australia, despite devastating bushfires and species loss, Prime Minister Scott Morrison blithely disregards renewable energy as an option and laughs openly at carbon emissions targets.

So is it time to do more than simply march in the streets with placards and sign petitions?

Recent research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard, confirms that peaceful civil disobedience can not only be a moral choice but an effective one. She studied hundreds of grassroots resistance groups and concluded that non-violent campaigns were twice as likely to succeed as violent protests: 53 percent compared to 26 percent.

The number 3.5 percent has also been bandied about since Chenoweth’s findings. The formation of Extinction Rebellion (XR) was inspired by this statistic, advocating that if 3.5 percent of a given population actively participate in civil disobedience, then they may succeed in mobilising political change. It can be argued that XR’s tactic of mass arrest is more effective than their other, less radical methods. XR co-founder Roger Hallam claims that “letters, emailing, marches, don’t work. You need about 400 people to go to prison. About 2,000 to 3,000 people to be arrested.”

As Chenoweth admits, the success of non-violent resistance is partly due to strength in numbers. These campaigns are more likely to be successful because they can involve people from a wider base, from all walks of life, who are not seriously risking their livelihoods or indeed their lives to participate. They can be old, young, middle and working class. They can be fence sitters. If they are young, they can be lukewarm in their political convictions and go along because their friends are.

Yet, for civil disobedience to work effectively, it must be able to disrupt the normal functioning of cities and infrastructure, over and over again, for long periods. For this, we need hundreds of thousands to participate in concert, not merely the hardy few, who are then lambasted by the mainstream media and the majority for creating traffic jams at peak times. The other downside to this form of civil disobedience is the tendency of governments to increase anti-protest legislation in response.

One of the flaws in Chenoweth’s study, as far as I understand it, is that it does not take into consideration the concepts of above ground and underground resistance. A successful campaign of above ground resistance may also contain a committed group of activists who, by their very nature, are not overt. Their modus operandi is to stay out of the limelight and bring down structures by stealth. This is not an either/or situation. Both modes of resistance aid each other in their common goals. In fact, the extremism and radicalism of underground acts of resistance can also soften the public and policymakers towards those with demands seen as more reasonable.

Chenoweth’s findings end on a gloomy note, however. Despite being twice as successful as violent resistance, peaceful protest still failed 47 percent of the time.

Still, as Christopher Finlay from Birmingham University cautions: “For current protest leaders to encourage violence would be both morally unjustified and a serious tactical mistake. The outcome of any struggle between them and the government will be decided in large part by public opinion: if protesters can be blamed for starting violence, that will elevate the administration and its supporters. And worse yet, it might also help legitimise harsher methods by the security forces in response. But it’s also a mistake to overstate the case against violence.”

Social transformation is slow. It takes decades to change hearts and minds. It will take even longer to implement an alternative, post-carbon society which intrinsically wants less, consumes less and is based locally rather than globally. This is a complex, ambitious, multigenerational goal. A radical revolution, on the other hand, while initially polarising, can move fast and eventually gain widespread support.

The risk we face right now is that more global citizens may reach a point where old moral imperatives no longer hold water. As our situation becomes more dire, it may be a case of whatever gets the job done. Defence of Earth and self-defence are two concepts which cannot possibly be seen as controversial by even the most peace-loving and law-abiding among us.

If we need both modes of resistance to succeed in our goals of saving ourselves and the planet, perhaps we are being naive if we summarily dismiss the reality that certain forms of violent revolution may arise. Instead, it may be time to acknowledge that the corporatocracy, corrupt politicians, oppressors, exploiters and all supporters of environmental genocide, are the common enemies who stand in our way.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.