Extinction Rebellion Shifts Away From Public Disruption

Originally published PBS on January 20, 2023

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Ethan Brown for PBS

On December 31, 2022, Extinction Rebellion (XR) — a UK-headquartered global environmental organization founded in 2018, known for acts of civil disobedience — posted a piece on its website with the headline “WE QUIT.” This is a good thing.

To be clear, XR isn’t quitting in the sense of shutting down. Rather, the group has learned an important lesson: Climbing oil tankers, gluing themselves to famous paintings, and tweeting that hard-working climate writers such as myself are trying to “delay meaningful action” will not inspire a single person to think more favorably about climate action. To XR’s credit, its webpost outlines a new strategy for the organization, one which “prioritizes attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks.”

It’s certainly frustrating that it took this long for XR to adopt these values. But — and I do mean this sincerely — better late than never.

XR’s original tactic of “civil” (but expensive, annoying, and sometimes illegal) disobedience hinged on the belief that a very small minority of a population can bring about change just by being loud enough. The XR website reads, “Historical evidence shows that we need the involvement of 3.5% of the population to succeed – in the UK that’s about 2 million people.”

Other environmental groups have referenced that 3.5% number too. It originated with Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth, who studied over 300 movements from the past 100 years, and found that a movement never failed if it could mobilize 3.5% of the population. If this actually is the case, these groups can contend that their environmental protests need inspire only a tiny fraction of the population to succeed, leaving them free to alienate the rest of us.

But there are a few problems with drawing this conclusion from Dr. Chenoweth’s research.

First, their data was limited to “maximalist” campaigns such as those which aim to overthrow dictators or achieve territorial independence. Because of their black-and-white nature, these causes are more easily termed successes or failures. Complex issues such as civil rights, women’s suffrage, and animal cruelty were not surveyed because their rate of success or failure is more difficult to determine. Thus, to apply the 3.5% rule to environmental movements would be premature at this stage.

Second, technology and social media have made it a lot easier to mobilize 3.5 percent of the population as compared to 50 or 100 years ago. Take for example the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was considered a remarkable organizational success. Back then organizers managed to mobilize 250,000 people in Washington D.C. — a city whose population was 800,000 people at the time – by using only telephones and party lines. Compare that to today when a mid-level influencer can reach 250,000 people within an hour of posting a video on TikTok.

But third and most importantly, the 3.5% rule refers to 3.5% of the population protesting. Not everyone chooses to express themselves via protest. For example, in the summer of 2020, 67% of Americans supported the Black Lives Matter movement, but only 6% of the population participated in demonstrations. This means less than 10% of the movement’s supporters mobilized for public protests. And that’s not a bad thing for a movement — supporters can vote, donate, write, talk to friends and family, call representatives, post to social media, and take action in many other ways than taking to the streets. Without that large swath of the population engaging in alternative actions, disruptive protesters quickly become a fringe minority. (In fact, a 2021 YouGov poll indicates that only 19% of people in the UK hold a positive view of XR.)

Due to these fundamental misunderstandings about the 3.5% rule, XR has struggled not just with favorability, but also with positive impact. According to polling data from University of Pennsylvania researchers Shawn Patterson Jr. and Michael Mann, 46% of respondents reacted to non-violent disruptive protests by decreasing their support for efforts to address climate change. Increased support was the response of only 13% of those polled. Moreover, learning about the protests did not have a statistically significant effect on respondents’ views about fossil fuels.

The idea that annoying people into obedience was ever a legitimate tactic for the environmental movement is baffling. No rational person would disagree with the notion that a world with clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment is a better world to inhabit. Furthermore, climate solutions often have synergies with economic, health, justice, and national security goals. There will inevitably be disagreements on policy. But an environmental movement that follows science, embraces nuance, and fosters common ground could potentially inspire all of humanity.

XR may have a difficult road ahead as they attempt to form new relationships and, perhaps, earn back the trust of those they’ve antagonized. But as a climate writer whose calling card is cultivating common ground, I am encouraged to see XR joining our effort. I imagine building a larger coalition and not getting arrested all the time will be a welcome and rewarding change.

For more information, see the companion “Tip of the Iceberg” podcast episode here