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Power in Rebellion's civil disobedience



You either love what they're doing or you hate them — Extinction Rebellion is not shying away from polarising the public. They have been shutting down city streets, creating chaos, and getting themselves arrested — all to highlight the climate emergency. In the last few weeks we've seen a huge ramp up in the group, and with that comes more opinions on their actions.

Extinction Rebellion protestors block the streets of Brisbane on 6 August 2019. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)Adrian Schrinner, Lord Mayor of Brisbane, where there have been a number of demonstrations to shut down city streets, has said they should be ashamed of themselves. Brisbane's Courier Mail has published stories calling them 'ferals', 'ratbags', and 'unemployed thugs'.

When it comes to climate change, where the stakes are so incredibly high, is it wise for climate change activists to be getting people offside?

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is focused specifically on civil disobedience (also known as civil resistance). This is non-violent but illegal protest, and XR is far from the first to incorporate it into rebellions. Civil disobedience was a large part of the US civil rights movement, including the sit-ins and peaceful protests, and there has been a long and varied history of the practice in Australia.

Civil disobedience traditionally has been used to highlight unjust laws by breaking them — think an African American sitting in a whites-only restaurant. XR isn't breaking unjust laws — instead it is trying to get more and more people involved in protests to create both economic and civil disruption. But does it work?

Political scientist Erica Chenoweth says yes. After studying hundreds of rebellions between 1900 and 2006, she found that not only are non-violent campaigns effective, those that engage such strategies are twice as likely to achieve their goals than violent ones. She also found that depending on a number of factors, it can take only around 3.5 per cent of the population participating in this protest to create political change. 

Policy researcher Oscar Berglund points out that the comparison may not be as relevant as it first appears, given that the research was based on toppling dictatorships rather than on democratic issues. Also it's worth noting that in Australia, 3.5 per cent of the population still means nearly 900,000 people — so Extinction Rebellion is falling well short.


"Joining or supporting a group like Extinction Rebellion can help ease the overwhelming dread of climate change."


Nonetheless, XR is one of the biggest environmental movements we've seen in Australia in a number of years, and the group is well aware of the disruption they are causing — it's baked into their strategy. The XR website explains that traditional means of action — like petitions and writing to MPs — have failed, and so they are promoting mass 'above the ground' civil disobedience, including economic and civil disruption. This is followed by the line: 'We are deeply sorry for any inconvenience that this causes.'

So, is the inconvenience, disruption, and vitriol worth it? Is it actually going to turn public opinion one way or another?

Although we can't be sure yet, and although they are undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles, there are signs that they might help for the better. Many people are experiencing 'climate despair', and joining or supporting a group like Extinction Rebellion can help ease the overwhelming dread of climate change.

QUT political scientist Erin O'Brien argues further that even if you are being directly affected by the protests and are stuck in traffic, it might still be helpful. Although people are annoyed that they can't get to work, she thinks it's unlikely they are going to suddenly reverse their position on climate change. Instead, they might even be more aware of it.

And maybe, that would help push governments to start listening and take action.



Jacinta BowlerJacinta Bowler is a science journalist and fact checker living in Melbourne.

Main image: Extinction Rebellion protestors block the streets of Brisbane on 6 August 2019. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jacinta Bowler, climate change, extinction rebellion, civil disobedience



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Existing comments

Jacinta, well indeed should our Government take action on climate change because they are paying lip service to the problem. Like her predecessors: 29 Greg Hunt Minister for the Environment 30 Josh Frydenberg Minister for the Environment and Energy 31 Melissa Price Minister for the Environment 32 Sussan Ley the current minister ..... all missing in action. They've done nothing about the water in the Murray Darling despite a good plan to re route the flood waters from the Ross, Burdekin and Palmer Rivers. Nothing about tree plantings like NZ with a plan to plant 1 billion trees by 2028. Nothing about endangered species. Nothing about the Chinese illegally clearing endangered species land and sacred land in WA. Nothing about Fracking by Santos. Nothing about genetically modified seeds and foods. Nothing about carbon emissions. Nothing about the Direct fuel cell. Nothing about the Chinese building military bases in the Australian Antarctic wilderness without permission and clearing away all the snow and ice and its subsequent impact on wildlife. Nothing about Japanese whaling in the Ross sea. So while Sussan Ley fiddles, drinks cups of tea and shuffles paper in Canberra, Australia burns and China sneers at our lack of resolve.

Francis Armstrong | 15 August 2019  

...Yes, the Murray Darling. Which other of the world's richest nations, would neglect such a vital source of Life? Fix it! The time is Now.

The time is Now | 16 August 2019  

I hope the number of protesters grows exponentially. Readers would do well to go to ABC I-view and watch 'climate change the facts', compered by Sir David Attenborough. Look at this documentary and see the devastation already caused by 1 degree of warming, and we're currently heading for 3 to 5 degrees of warming, with the distinct possibility of reaching tipping points that will be absolutely catastrophic for life on earth. Wake up Australia! Our greenhouse emissions are still rising! And our mainstream politicians are hell-bent on opening up new coal mines, while pretending they will meet their Paris agreement targets! Thank God for Greta Thunberg and the school climate strikers. And if Governments don't dump their pathetic climate excuses and start serious action, dump these governments as soon as possible and vote in politicians who are serious about climate action!

Grant Allen | 16 August 2019  

I totally agree with this article and the comments so far published. However Francis, I caution against the plan to divert floodwaters from Tropical North Queensland into the Darling system as the environmental consequences could be worse than leaving it as is but with stringent restrictions on water extractions . It is absolutely idiotic to grow thirsty crops such as cotton, rice and nut crops in the Darling Basin. Bradfield's Plan dating from early last century was visionary but impractical because of the enormous cost and possible environmental issues that could result. Without action on Climate Change NOW, we face disaster!

Gavin O'Brien | 16 August 2019  

The fact that Australians voted in a federal party that supports the coal industry because they could see a few extra dollars coming their way, rather than considering the long term consequence, being that there will be no human economy when the planet fries, does not auger well. If a rich country like Australia does little, and the really big polluters like USA, India and China do little or nothing, then humanity is sleep-walking to oblivion. Even if the powers that be were to suddenly do a u- turn, the inertia in changing our behaviour and our economies is so great that it is now unlikely that we can prevent catastrophe. I fully support XR, but I am afraid that the horse has bolted.

Frank S | 16 August 2019  

XR activists may be well meaning but they are misinformed despite David Attenborough's supposed 'Facts'. Yes, global warming is happening gradually and anthropogenic greenhouse gases add a little towards it but so do perennial natural causes such as sunspots activity, Pacific Decadal Oscillation and volcanic produced CO2. Climate is so complex that no science has yet been able to measure the contribution of each. Human CO2 emissions are a minor part of a minor cause!

Gerard Tonks | 16 August 2019  

Thanks for your article on a very important issue, Jacinta. In your opening statement you state: "Extinction Rebellion is not shying away from polarising the public." My comment would be that the public is already polarised on the issue of climate change. Young people are rightly angry and frustrated at our conservative politicians who have been slow to act or have deliberately hindered important strategies to manage the pollution that is causing climate change. I might add, that pollution is already cutting short the lives of millions because of the refusal to manage it. I think the action of Greta Thunberg - the Swedish school student - to inspire people to take action is terrific Political protest has led to many positive changes in the past and it will do so on this issue if it leads to urgent effective strategies being put in place. Well might our PM and Andrew Bolt criticise those young people taking part, but their actions will lead to more people demanding that our leaders start to act responsibly for the future of humankind and the web of li9fe in which we live..action against On 20 September 2019, my wife and I will join the next round of Extinction Rebellion in solidarity with our grandchildren and other young people who face a very uncertain future.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 17 August 2019  

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