Hundreds of Extinction Rebellion activists blocked one of the most important bridges in Amsterdam on October 12, 2019. | NurPhoto via Getty Images

Mass civil disobedience is our only option, argues the climate movement co-founder Roger Hallam.

They’ve glued themselves to trains, blockaded major bridges, and chained themselves to government buildings. They’ve launched street protests that brought parts of London and New York and Sydney to a standstill. And they’ve purposely gotten arrested — thousands of them — all in the name of saving our climate.

Extinction Rebellion, or XR for short, is the movement behind some of the boldest climate protests of the year. It burst onto the scene in the UK in 2018, demanding that the British government achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Greta Thunberg rallied behind it, and soon, thousands of activists around the globe did too. XR has spread to dozens of countries, including the US.

XR’s cofounder, the longtime British climate activist Roger Hallam, has a new book out explaining the rationale behind this global rebellion. In Common Sense for the 21st Century, Hallam argues that nonviolent civil disobedience is our only shot at countering the climate emergency. That means breaking the law by blocking roads and disrupting transit, and getting arrested en masse, until the government agrees to up its game on fighting climate change. And if it doesn’t agree? Then topple the government, Hallam says.

The idea of rebelling against the government might seem silly or extreme. So might Hallam’s plan to replace the government with a Citizens’ Assembly, a group of randomly selected citizens, which he argues would be more democratic and more responsive to the climate crisis than the status quo.

But it’s worth noting that Hallam’s theory of social change is based on academic research, particularly the work of Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth. At King’s College London, Hallam is currently working toward a PhD on how people use civil disobedience to achieve social change.

I spoke to Hallam about his new book, the exact nature of the rebellion he’s envisioning, and what happens once the revolution is over. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sigal Samuel

An underlying premise of your book and of XR is that we can no longer rely on incremental reforms, like those advocated by most environmental nonprofits. Can you explain why you think a full-on rebellion is necessary?

Roger Hallam

If people think what’s happening with the climate is no big shakes, then obviously it may sound a bit ridiculous to be suggesting a rebellion against the government. You’ve got to understand that we’re facing human extinction. It’s like we’ve gone to the doctor and he’s told us we’ve got terminal cancer. We need to reduce carbon emissions in a matter of months and years, not decades. We need to change governments’ actions very quickly.

The most effective way to change society in a rapid way is through mass, nonviolent civil disobedience. We need lots of people going to their capital city and blocking the roads until the government substantially bends to the demands or collapses.

Sigal Samuel

Tell me about the social science research that inspires you and XR. One scholar you cite frequently is the political scientist Erica Chenoweth. What findings do you think we should take from her research and apply in the climate context?

Roger Hallam

XR is broadly based on her research, though it’s not slavishly following it. The core point is that it’s a no-brainer that mass civil disobedience works. There’s ample historical evidence for it, not least Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Just sending letters and emails is not going to work because there’s no cost to the opposition. What Chenoweth’s research shows is that you need to have a lot of people engaging in a low level of civil disobedience — breaking the law — say, tens of thousands of people sitting down in the road in the middle of the city.

Basically, you get the authorities to a point where they can’t cope and then they’ll engage in negotiations. Obviously this doesn’t work all the time. But it has a substantial probability relative to the other options.

Sigal Samuel

XR’s stated goal is “mobilizing 3.5 percent of the population to achieve system change.” That figure comes from Chenoweth’s finding that if you want to achieve system change, you need to get 3.5 percent of the population into the streets, right?

Roger Hallam

Yes, 3.5 percent is the average of what we’ve needed in uprisings since 1900. But sometimes major change starts with a lot less than that. It’s not a linear process where you build up 3.5 percent of the population and then suddenly everything changes. You might get 50,000 and the authorities can’t cope and they start arresting people and that creates a backfire effect — it creates more sympathy for the cause, so next time, 10 times the amount of people come into the street.

Climate change activists in red costume protest during the ongoing Extinction Rebellion climate change demonstration, near the Houses of Parliament in central London on April 23, 2019.Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images
Extinction Rebellion activists protest in red costume in London.

Sigal Samuel

In September, the global climate strikes spearheaded by Greta Thunberg brought an estimated 6 million people into the streets. But that didn’t cause structural change. Why not? Is it because that’s nowhere close to 3.5 percent of the global population?

Roger Hallam

Well, it’s a simple equation: the number of people times the degree of disruption. If you have millions of people but they don’t create any disruption, you’re going to have minimal outcome. You need lots of people causing a reasonable amount of disruption. And the main rubric there is whether they break the law or not.

I’m not trying to be unpleasant toward Greta or [her climate strike movement] Fridays for Future. This is too important for it to be about political ideology or ego. But people have been doing climate marches for more than 30 years. It doesn’t work because no one is losing money or reputation. The most effective way to do that is breaking the law and going to prison.

In two XR rebellion events in the UK, 3,000 people have already been arrested. That’s changed the conversation in the UK. Climate has become a major issue because the politicians are being forced to consider the topic. And the reason you’re talking to me now is because we broke the law. If we’d just done a few nice marches, you probably wouldn’t be on this call with me.

Sigal Samuel

What can we learn from times in the past when civil disobedience has not worked?

Roger Hallam

You have to keep it nonviolent. We train people so they can role-play being dragged off by police and practice maintaining nonviolent discipline. Even more important is to be proactively respectful to the authorities, because that enables the police to save face [when the time comes for negotiations], or allows them to defect.

Sigal Samuel

Plus, the second you start getting violent, you lose moral authority.

I want to clarify something: Is your goal necessarily to topple the government and take power from it? Or is it to do that only if the government keeps refusing to enact needed climate measures?

London police officers arrest a smiling Extinction Rebellion activist.NurPhoto via Getty Images
London police officers arrest a smiling Extinction Rebellion activist on October 8, 2019.

Roger Hallam

XR and a lot of civil disobedience movements around the world are obviously trying to influence the government in order to enact legislation. What I argue is that that’s not going to happen unless you change the whole system. That basically means bringing down the government and replacing it with a new form of democracy that isn’t corrupted by the elites. That form of democracy involves Citizens’ Assemblies.

Instead of having people voted into power (as you know, in America, that works to preserve the rich), you select citizens randomly from the population to take part in an Assembly. So you’ll get refuse collectors from Virginia and computer programmers from California — a cross-section. For the first time ever, black people, gay people, poor people will be represented in proportion to their population. They would then take in evidence on the climate catastrophe.

Sigal Samuel

What makes you confident that the people who make up the Citizens’ Assembly won’t be susceptible to the same things politicians are — corruption, bribery, vested business interests of their own, or simply not caring about the climate crisis?

Roger Hallam

I’d say the big game-changer here is chance. No one will be able to influence in any meaningful way who is selected to join the Assembly. If there were human agency, there’d be corruptibility — someone could pay someone to select whoever they want for the Assembly. But if this is done properly — it’s not that complicated with a computer program; it happens all the time with jury trials — then you don’t just get the rich and powerful, which you do in a normal corrupted democracy.

Sigal Samuel

You said that people will see the objective evidence and not want their children to die. But we know that human beings’ decision-making is often not rational. Even when we’re confronted with all the evidence, there are all kinds of cognitive biases and emotional reasons why we might resist.

Roger Hallam

You’re perfectly right. Human nature is extremely susceptible to pressure. But I think what you’ve said assumes people get their information in small bites and are distracted by other concerns and influences. When people go into a deliberative space, all those things no longer apply. The social context largely determines the outcome.

Just to take one recent example, abortion in Ireland was a massively divisive issue. A lot of conservative Catholics said no way. Then people went into this deliberative Citizens’ Assembly and after looking at the objective facts about what happens to women who are forced not to have abortions, they came out with transformed attitudes. They said to the Irish nation, “In our collective opinion, abortion should be legal.” They had a referendum and the debate was resolved democratically.

Sigal Samuel

One common critique of XR is that it’s not diverse enough. Too white, too middle-class. Not welcoming enough to political conservatives. What can XR groups do around the world to ensure that everyone feels welcome?

Roger Hallam

Many people on the right will think it’s terrible and are not going to join — and a lot of people on the left won’t like it either. But what we’re looking for is 3.5 percent of the population. And the easiest way to get that is to welcome people from many different backgrounds.

The first people who are going to suffer most from the climate collapse are people of color and minorities. So it’s in their direct interest to support a methodology of change that is most likely to succeed, which happens to be mass civil disobedience.

What’s central to XR is having a regenerative culture. People are mobilized when they feel welcomed, supported. It’s small things: like when people come to meetings, they’re welcomed into the room — not judged — and they’re engaged in small talk. You split people into small groups so everyone participates and talks about their concerns and shares their grief.

Environmental activists from Extinction Rebellion march to Parliament Square on the ninth day of protest action, aiming to invite MPs to take part in people’s assembly on climate and ecological crisis as they return to the Commons after Easter break, on 2Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
Extinction Rebellion activists march to Parliament Square in London.

Sigal Samuel

Are you worried that by delaying people’s commutes, XR pisses them off and risks alienating them?

Roger Hallam

It’s worth remembering that when MLK was closing down Birmingham to get civil rights, many Americans thought he was a terrible man because he was disrupting their nice comfortable racist lives. The process of political change involves people getting pissed off. So the key issue is not whether they get pissed off, it’s whether them getting pissed off leads to attitude change. The two determinants of that are whether the issue is just and whether it’s done with respect.

Also — and there’s evidence on this from sales theory — if you give something to someone, it’s almost impossible for them to continue being aggressive to you. I did about 15 roadblocks in London, and in the first five or so people got out of the cars and got angry at us. Then we started a system of having all the old ladies and respectable people going along the cars handing out cake and apologizing for the delay. After that we didn’t have anyone getting out of their cars and shouting at us.

Sigal Samuel

The first principle of XR is “tell the truth.” So let’s tell the truth about the prospects for XR itself. What chance do you think XR has of succeeding?

Roger Hallam

My honest opinion is that the likelihood is very slight, because of the difficulty of bringing about change. But this is the paradox of mobilization: The more people engage in it with an outcome-oriented motivation structure, the less likely it is to happen, because they’ll get disappointed more quickly.

The guys who get the goods are the people who don’t care if they get the goods … who engage in rebellious activity as an end in itself, because they think it’s immoral or outrageous not to do so.

Sigal Samuel

Even if XR fails to achieve its stated goals, could it still succeed by having a radical flank effect — where radical groups make the issue impossible to ignore, so authorities end up working on it with more moderate groups?

Roger Hallam

The radical flank effect is a very effective political mechanism. That’s the rationale behind doing civil disobedience and telling the truth. If you can close down Washington for two weeks, you move the Overton window and everyone actually starts talking about climate change.

Succeeding is a continuum. I’m pushing it along as far as I can.

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Author: Sigal Samuel

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