It’s been a busy October for members of Extinction Rebellion, the decentralized climate activism group with dozens of chapters around the world. Founded last year in London, the group has made it a mission to disrupt daily life with big, splashy protests, hoping to pique curiosity about climate change in the process.
In April, members of “XR” succeeded in flooding a number of key London sites, including Piccadilly Circus and Waterloo Bridge, with noisy occupiers that cheered and waved flags at anyone who would look. Two weeks ago, they shut down roads around Britain’s Parliament Square and threatened to blockade for up to two weeks. A small cadre of supporters pissed off a lot of people last week when they glued themselves to a rail car during the morning rush. (XR leaders apologized on behalf of the fiasco, given that it probably got a bunch of commuters in trouble).
In many ways, this style of direct action advocacy has worked: The group’s protests, in conjunction with school strikes, appears to have significantly raised interest in the climate change crisis in the U.K. While XR’s membership and activity is much smaller in the U.S., more Americans now perceive climate change as an urgent issue, too. XR actions have taken place in Australia, Germany, France and Austria; the philosophy that hordes of young people, committed to nonviolent protest, could spark real change is a tantalizing one.
The goal? To get 3.5 percent of a nation’s population directly involved in advocacy. That, the group says, is the tipping point for a movement to enact revolutionary change — like overthrowing a government.
“What you have to do is create a massive load of shit nonviolently,” XR co-founder Roger Hallam told Vice in July. “Basically, the critical authorities don’t have the physical or moral resources to deal with that, and that’s when you get the structural change.”
This isn’t Hallam’s own theory. It’s based on widely discussed research conducted by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. The duo looked at conflicts stretching from 1900 to 2016, comprising 323 major movements, both violent and nonviolent. They excluded incidents that resolved with help from a foreign power, and set strict criteria on the definition of nonviolent — if a building was bombed or anyone got hurt, it didn’t make the cut, no matter the spirit of the organizing.
Chenoweth, for one, has admitted she used to believe that violent intervention would have a higher success rate, despite our moral attraction to nonviolence. The data proved her wrong. Nonviolent campaigns had twice the success rate of violent ones. More curiously, a campaign seemed fated for success if 3.5 percent of the populace joined in demonstrations or other forms of civil disobedience. Maybe not coincidentally, nonviolent movements historically attract about four times as many participants.
“Compared with armed struggle, whose romanticized allure obscures its staggering costs, nonviolent resistance has actually been the quickest, least costly and safest way to struggle. Moreover, civil resistance is recognized as a fundamental human right under international law,” Chenoweth argues in a Guardian op-ed.
The 3.5 percent figure has come to fruition in the overthrow of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, Georgia leader Eduard Shevardnadze and the presidents of Sudan and Algeria respectively. Remarkably, it even folded the violent, repressive Marcos regime in the Philippines in 1986.
It seems, at first, like brilliant news — after all, two-thirds of Americans believe that something needs to be done about climate change right now, per a September poll. But the problem with the 3.5 percent figure is that it requires a massive number of people to get actively involved, not just passively opinionated. As the expert who helped fund Chenoweth and Stephan’s research put it: “It’s sort of the tip of the iceberg rather than saying, ‘Well, if we just get 3.5 percent support we’ll win.”
For context, 3.5 percent of the American population is 11.5 million people — roughly the population of New York City and Houston combined. If you take a state like California, that would be 1.3 million people; the largest recorded protest in the state to date is the 2006 immigration protest in L.A., with an estimate of more than 500,000 people.
This seems bleak. Yet the minds behind XR, and the researchers themselves, see optimism amid the math. There are tactics that can stimulate more activity — Chenoweth has said that general strikes “are probably one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, single method of nonviolent resistance,” even if it comes at a (literal) cost to the worker who chooses to hold out. On the flip side, even something as passive-sounding as a boycott of consumer products still constitutes as direct action; if hashtag activism and Twitter mobs can sustain energy around climate issues, it’s not hard to see a future in which the mood for boycotts grow.
The darkest silver lining of all is that, if the projections are true, climate change will come for us in slow and agonizing fashion. Insect-borne diseases, extreme weather events and mass crop deaths will suffocate our health and nutrition. The displacement of coastline communities will permanently reshape interior lands; the stagnation of economies would lead to extreme poverty. Amid this reality, it’s easy to see how 3.5 percent of a national population could rise up together. It’s almost impossible to predict otherwise, given our natural human inclination to lash out and fight when cornered.
But, ignoring the existential gloom for a sec, there’s plenty of reason to stay motivated. Protests have gotten bigger and bigger in the 2010s; the five biggest recorded protests in U.S. history have happened in the last two years. From South Korea to Hong Kong to Hawaii, direct action is working because of the alchemy of persistence and youthful energy, regardless of the total size of the movement.
Consider it a small kind of mantra: It isn’t about reaching 3.5 percent, but finding joy and energy in the work of getting there. The percentage isn’t important. We’ll know it when we see it. Oh, and maybe try and be patient when a bunch of activists block your commute to work, too.