05:18, May 01 56 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-01 05:18:06
Now we know: conventional campaigning won’t prevent our extinction

The fact of the matter is finally settled. Not the fact that if we do not stop putting carbon into the atmosphere our children will starve. That was settled three decades ago. Rather that the only way to prevent our extinction is through mass participation civil disobedience – thousands of people breaking the laws of our governments until they are forced take action to protect us. In less than a year Extinction Rebellion has gone from 15 people in a room to creating the biggest organised civil disobedience campaign in British history. In the past two weeks more than a thousand people have been arrested and as a result the climate and ecological crisis is finally on the political agenda. Everyone from the Labour party to the Sun newspaper is accepting we are right – we face the destruction of the next generation unless immediate emergency action is taken. For millions of people this week the penny has finally dropped – this is real and it’s terrifyingly serious. Even Michael Gove says he is hearing the message and held a meeting with XR on Tuesday.

None of this was unplanned. Extinction Rebellion didn’t come out the blue. Two years ago a group of researchers and activists started to meet to seriously consider two questions – why has campaigning failed so catastrophically over the past generation and how can we make it work. There are no more important questions facing our society and the global community.

Drawing on the groundbreaking research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (Why Civil Resistance Works), we came to the conclusion that the only way to overcome entrenched political power is through extensive campaigns of large-scale nonviolent direct action. In January this year I produced a 30-page paper for XR which formed the basis of the strategy of the past two weeks of mass disruption in London. The document has now been made into a booklet. The strategy is based upon three observations. Firstly that only through disruption, the breaking of laws, do you get the attention you need. Secondly only through sacrifice – the willingness to be arrested and go to prison – do people take seriously what you are saying. And thirdly only through being respectful to ourselves, the public and the police, do we change the hearts and minds of our opponents, which makes it easier for them to negotiate with us.

Specifically the strategy – the “civil resistance model” as we call it – needs to involve several key elements in order for successful outcomes to be optimised. Firstly you need a lot of people – thousands need to be involved. You need to go to the capital city because that is where the rich and powerful are – the government, big business and the media. You need to break the law – sit in the road or glue yourself to the entrance of a building and such like. Unlike A to B marches this is what gets attention. You have to stay strictly nonviolent. Indulging in violence and aggressive language excludes vulnerable groups – the old and young – from participation. Crucially it has to go on day after day. Like a labour strike you have to impose economic and reputational damage on the opponent over an extended period. Finally it has to be fun – many more people are attracted to celebratory cultural spaces than narrowly political ones.

Of course, this does not always guarantee success but it is vastly more likely to do so than the alternatives. In the real world you have a limited number of options to choose from and a limited amount of time in which to choose. Conventional campaigning – sending emails, payments to NGOs and more reports – is not going to stop the outrageous destruction of our natural world. It is not going to stop our children entering the hell of social breakdown. It’s time to get real. We need agreement on what works on the basis of the social science – just as we insist on following the natural science on the climate crisis.

Nothing written here is new. Extinction Rebellion is humbly following in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. We are simply rediscovering what people do when they have had enough of failure and really want to make a difference.

Dozens of people have come up to me to tell me they have just had the best week of their lives. And that highlights maybe the most important finding of social science – that after covering basic material needs humans beings are not made happier through consuming more stuff. Meaning and happiness – a sense of wholeness and calm – come from engaging with others as a community in making the world a better place. Instead of living the lie that there is nothing we can do we now have a pathway to effective action. Go out with others and break the law. Let’s get on it while there’s still time.

Roger Hallam is a founder of Extinction Rebellion and is standing in the European elections as a Climate and Ecological Emergency independent candidate

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