Written by Aysenur Ozmen
On July 30, 2022, members of the “Ultima Generazione” group glued themselves to Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture, “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (Hughes, 2022). On October 14, activists from the organisation “Just Stop Oil” threw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the London National Gallery (Braun, 2022). Nine days later, activists from “Letzte Generation” thrust mashed potatoes at Monet’s Haystacks in the Museum Barberini (Jones, 2022). Such acts of civil disobedience have become widespread among activists who claim to raise awareness of the effects of climate change and the inability of governments to take action on the issue (Hughes, 2022). However, these actions have been met with public outrage. Museum directors have condemned activists for attacking pieces of great cultural significance (Adams, 2022) while activists justify themselves by emphasising the grave impact of climate change and maintaining that they ensured the protection of artefacts while planning their performances (Hughes, 2022).
Thus, a debate has erupted about whether actions labelled as “radical” are effective ways of raising awareness and generating change (Lu, 2022) or whether they endanger the movement and have overstepped the line to criminality (Schumacher, 2022). This article seeks to examine whether civil disobedience is an effective tool for environmental activists regarding two outcomes: their ability to increase public support for the movement and whether pragmatic change is achieved. Throughout, the term “civil disobedience” can be understood as acts of mobilisation that involve some level of legal violations but are not intended to be violent, examples being sit-ins or blockades (Thiri et al., 2022). These actions will be analysed in comparison to more traditional protest tactics, like street protests or lobbying, to assess whether they are more effective than peaceful manifestations.
The activists’ dilemma
Firstly, civil disobedience can be effective as it garners media attention, thus it legitimises the movement and attracts support. Research has shown that the media is more likely to focus its attention on sensational actions that “violate social norms” (Lu, 2022), allowing activists to reach a wider audience (Bugden, 2020). This increases awareness of the movement, which is increasingly valuable given the competition for public and media attention among activists (Feinberg et al., 2020). The power of radicals to gain attention is evidenced by the fact that 27% of the UK’s residents consider the environment as one of the country’s top three issues, a rise from 17% just months earlier, likely triggered by the awareness raised by groups as Extension Rebellion that organised manifestations throughout the country (Smith, 2019). Consequently, radical protest actions can result in increased pressure on leaders, constraining them to give in to demands (Feinberg et al., 2020). Contrastingly, peaceful protest acts that do not cause disruption often go unnoticed and are less likely to achieve change (Brändlin, 2022). Thus, civil disobedience seems to be an effective tool for gaining public support and pressuring officials to take concrete actions.
However, civil disobedience might also alienate the public. Actions can result in the ‘activist’s dilemma’, which forces protesters to trade off media attention for popularity (Feinberg et al., 2020). Civil disobedience, combined with negative media reporting, can result in the public perceiving acts as immoral, thus decreasing their emotional connection and support for the movement. Faced with this dilemma, activists might decide that the benefits of gaining media support and legitimising their ideas outweigh the diminished support (Feinberg et al., 2020). This can result in a change of tactics in order to become more inclusive, like the case of Extinction Rebellion, which recently vowed to clamp down on radical protests (Paddison, 2023). Hence, while civil disobedience can increase media coverage of movements, protesters must ensure that their aims are accurately portrayed in order to effectively reap the benefits of the exposure.
A means of expression
Civil disobedience can effectively allow individuals to overcome political barriers when expressing themselves. Activists who have found attempting to challenge the status quo to be futile might engage in disobedience as a means of self-expression, simultaneously ensuring that their actions will not be in vain (Feinberg et al., 2020). Pressed by the ticking bomb of climate change and angered by the inaction of previous protest tactics, activists are drawn to radical tactics to make their voices heard (Lu, 2022). Moreover, civil disobedience can have the power to spark debate which makes “spaces for new actors and issues”, generating momentum for change (O’Brien et al., 2018). As dominant economic and political interests that shape the status quo become ‘change-resistant’, contrasting voices are marginalised, leading participants to stand out through the use of civil disobedience (Stoddard et al., 2021). This can also explain why actions of civil disobedience are common amongst young activists whose voices have historically been excluded from formal politics, thus pushing them towards dissent. Hence, when ‘traditional’ paths of expression are blocked, civil disobedience can be effective for the climate issue by providing a backdoor for expressing oneself against an unequal system (O’Brien et al., 2018).
Nonetheless, it is important to back civil disobedience with concrete data provided by professionals who demonstrate expertise and increase the legitimacy of movements. The use of factual evidence is more likely to result in long-lasting change (The Lancet Planetary Health, 2022). For instance, although Germany’s President has condemned the organisation of what he perceived as “angry protests”, he has supported the idea that climate legislation should be built on a knowledge base created by scientists in order to ensure its effectiveness (Steinmeier, 2022). Thus, civil disobedience can effectively create space for previously-silenced groups to express themselves, yet it is important that their requests are backed by concrete evidence in order to increase credibility.
The criminalisation of activists
However, the use of civil disobedience as a tool for climate activism also has its drawbacks, like the increased risk of restriction imposition. Civil disobedience is commonly met with repression and criminalisation of activists regardless of whether their actions are violent. Examples of clampdowns had been visible since early climate movements like the British Airports Authority winning a High Court ruling in 2007 that allowed it to prevent certain protesters that engaged in civil disobedience to take part in the Camp for Climate Action manifestation (BBC News, 2007). More recently, officials in the UK argued that previous legislation was “outdated” given the new protest methods (UK Home Office, 2022). Thus, additional measures have been introduced, like a 2022 bill outlining new criminal offences as ‘locking on’ (attaching oneself to the land or an object resulting in disruption) (Public Order Bill HL Bill 61 of 2022–23, 2022), presumably targeted at climate activists who glue themselves to artworks, roads or other goods as a means of protest (Brändlin, 2022). Similar debates have been sparked in Germany following an incident in which Letzte Generation activists blocked a street in Berlin, delaying the time it took for first responders to reach a bike accident site, leading to the death of the cyclist. A politician of the conservative CSU party, Alexander Dobrindt, labelled Letzte Generation “climate anarchists”, promoting harsher legislation to presumably prevent further radicalisation (Schumacher, 2022). The leader of the German Police Union has also compared activists to terrorists that aim to destabilise democracy rather than protect the climate and whose acts lead to extremism and terrorism (Gewerkschaft der Polizei Bundesvorstand, 2022). Therefore, the effectiveness of civil disobedience can be restricted by the clampdown of authorities who perceive them as dangerous radicals.
However, the criminalisation of activists can be viewed as an unjustified way of silencing protestors rather than as a means of ensuring public protection. Expert in protest movements Lena Herbers argued that conservative lawmakers are pushing for a “delegitimisation strategy”, categorising protesters as “criminals” and creating a pretext for their own environmental inaction (Schumacher, 2022). Such laws are also making it difficult for groups to promote their demands, further impeding the movement as a whole. In a statement announcing their decision to back down on disruptive protests, Extinction Rebellion cited that they found it difficult to operate in a landscape plagued by anti-protest laws that seek to criminalise activists (Paddison, 2023). Hence, while the actions of authorities are not justified, civil disobedience might be ineffective as it incentivises leaders to create an environment that prohibits further protest actions.
The radical flank effect
Finally, it can be argued that the use of civil disobedience tactics is futile as it might lead to a negative reputation of the whole movement. Researchers argue that disruptive actions can result in the “radical flank effect” through which the behaviour of “radical groups” can either benefit or hinder the progress of “moderate actors” and the entire movement (Haines, 2013). When audiences outside of the movement cannot distinguish between the actions of radicals and moderates and feel threatened by all participants, a “negative radical flank effect” develops, reducing support for the whole movement (Haines, 2013). Disruptive acts are seen by the public as being “less legitimate than conventional tactics”, further reducing support for the cause (Lu, 2022). Hence, civil disobedience in support of the environment can backfire, not only minimising support for the movement, but making audiences indifferent to environmental protection (Feinberg et al., 2020). Moreover, Extinction Rebellion, a group that has greatly relied on civil disobedience, has further stated that a reason for their decision to change tactics was their new aim becoming more inclusive as they try to attract people who felt alienated by their previous acts (Paddison, 2023). Therefore, civil disobedience might not be effective as it can damage not only the reputation of radicals but the whole movement.
Contrastingly, civil disobedience may also have the opposite effect of increasing support for the movement. Apart from negative flanks, the actions of rebels might also lead to a “positive radical flank effect”, as radical groups garner media attention. This can result in moderates portraying themselves as “responsible”, thus increasing their likelihood to attract funds, resources or generate concrete change (Haines, 2013). Some have further argued that civil disobedience and peaceful activism should not be seen as contradictory but as complementary, since movements often adopt a range of tactics, each appealing to different groups and goals (Bugden, 2020). For instance, movements against hydrocarbon projects have relied on civil disobedience in the short-term but fuse multiple strategies to achieve their long-term goals (Thiri et al., 2022), proving that it is the combination of tactics that results in the effectiveness of a movement. Thus, depending on how it is perceived by the public and authorities, civil disobedience might potentially discredit or popularise the entire climate movement.
In conclusion, civil disobedience has undeniable advantages in the new protest environment. It effectively manages to gain media attention and gives marginalised voices a chance to express themselves. In turn, this increases support for the issue and results in the introduction of pragmatic change. However, if not conducted effectively, civil disobedience has drawbacks that limit its effectiveness. The prestige of the entire movement might be tainted and activists’ actions risk being criminalised if activists’ aims are misunderstood. With the effects of climate change becoming more pressing every day, it is undeniable that concrete actions must be taken for adaptation to and mitigation against the effects of climate change. Yet, the lack of consensus on the issue has led activists to take matters into their own hands, often viewing disobedience as the only effective way to make their voices heard. Thus, when examined as to whether it increases public awareness and promotes change, civil disobedience can be viewed as effective for environmental activism if these actions do not endanger others or cause disruptions, thereby hindering the process of change.
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