One could say it started with Greta Thunberg. Sitting on the parliament square in Stockholm, with her homemade sign. The girl with the braids and the serious facial expressions began her weekly school strikes when she was set to return to school after summer, which had been one of the hottest ever. After a few weeks she started getting attention, both from the media and from her peers. You probably know the rest of the story. Now, hundreds of thousands of youth have participated in school strikes all across the world.
Or maybe it started with the group of 1500 people that had shown up for a protest organized by the newly formed Extinction Rebellion in late October. They were outside the parliament to draw attention to the ‘unfolding climate emergency’, and decided to sit down, lock themselves to each other and put a standstill to the traffic for two hours. 15 people were arrested. Further protests, such as the collective blocking of five major bridges, burying a casket as a part of a “funeral for our future”, gluing themselves to the doors of a petroleum conference ensued, and the movement has now spread throughout the world.
Regardless of which exact event was the first, it is quite clear that there is a new wave of civil disobedience focused on environmental issues that has started washing over our society, and it is rooted in a dissatisfaction in the authorities’ handling of the climate change problem. In this blogpost I will consider the concept of civil disobedience and discuss the potential impacts it could have in a climate change context.
Firstly: what exactly is civil disobedience? Britannica.com states that it is “a ritual symbolic rejection of the law”, based on some extra-legal principle or obligation to break some specific law. Important to note is that the protester has already found the legitimate routes of change blocked or non-existent – civil disobedience is therefore seen to be sort of a ‘last resort’. This a common argument for people in the climate movement – that our governments have failed us in the decades they had to negotiate and cut emissions.
There are some downsides to this type of action. Firstly, it leads to some undesired effects on the public, such as economic losses through for example being blocked from going to work. Second, it might also not work for it intended purposes, being a waste of resources for all parties involved. It could also be a way for the majority to force their view on the majority, as it is a bypassing of democracy.
In this case, though, people are protesting for a cause they see as essential to the survival of our species and the world as we know it, something that they believe outweighs all of these cons. Therefore, Extinction Rebellion has an entire section in their lectures that are meant to invite and motivate people to join the rebellion, about the movements and people they draw inspirations from. This includes Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement, as well as Gandhi and the Indian movement for independence, and the suffragette movement seeking equal rights for women. Undeniably, these are people who through civil disobedience inspired real change in society, both cultural and legal. Additionally, they base themselves on a remarkable study which finds that only 3.5% of the population needs to mobilize in a peaceful movement for it to be able to change public opinion and ultimately have an impact. This is also the reason they often have the goal to be arrested, so as to get attention from the public and spread their message.
This is by no means the first time people have come together and decided to break the law for the environmental reasons. For example, the reader can probably recall the controversies around the Keystone XL pipeline between Canada and the US in 2014. Here, hundreds of people in Washington DC got arrested protests and sit-ins in front of the White House. Personally, I remember learning about the conflict in Northern Norway in the early 80s, regarding a dam that was set to be built there – this was met by protest in the form of hunger strikes, as well as camping on the construction grounds. The battle culminated in 800 activists being arrested by police, which had to cut the chains used to hold them together. In the end it was determined by the court that the building was legal, and the dam ended up being made. Regardless of this ‘loss’, these events became part of history, and made an impression on the environmental movement in the decades to come.
However, these are cases of protests on very local grounds – the fear was surrounding damage on specific land by very specific actors. This new wave is a protest against climate change is targeted on the societal structure, and mainly targets the somewhat abstract concept of ‘the government’. This is an important difference, and one can wonder what effect such a wide-spread movement could have – as we all know climate change is not something that can be solved in easily, no matter how much we want to. On the other side, it is clear that the people engaging in this are losing hope in their authorities, after decades of being aware of the problem, as well as negotiating who is responsible for cleaning it up. In other words, they are doing this as a last resort. Clearly, there are many people who agree to this sentiment, like for example the Guardian columnist George Monbiot who published an opinion today, stating that mass civil disobedience is “essential to force a political response”, and that only rebellion can save us at this point.
It is still impossible to predict the efficiency of civil disobedience on climate change action, but there are exciting times ahead, regardless of whether you agree with this type of action or not. Today marks the start of two international rebellion weeks organised by the various Extinction Rebellion groups in many countries, also in the Netherlands. There are also many more school strikes planned in the next months.
Only time will tell if this will be the start of significant change, or if it will just be another wave of protests, while business continues as usual.
Today’s action in the Hague, NL: