Environmental activists kicked off two weeks of protests on Monday in London, Berlin and other cities to demand that governments adopt a more radical approach to climate change.
Alexander Livingston is a professor of government at Cornell University. His upcoming book Inventing Civil Disobedience looks at the theory and practices of civil disobedience and contemporary protest politics.
“Extinction Rebellion (ER) has done an impressive job of wielding creative disruption to seize public attention and demand action on the urgent issue of climate crisis. Nonviolent direct action is a powerful tool for forcing issues like this into public and demanding action, but also a difficult one for social movements to sustain over time.
“What is so impressive about ER is the ways it has spread rapidly across the globe, leveraging public attention to the climate strike to escalate the sense of crisis. At the same time, these protests are in competition with other urgent political crises for public attention – Parliamentary crisis surrounding the impeding Brexit deadline in the UK and the rapidly unfolding Trump impeachment in the U.S.
“Whether it will be able to not only keep up this level of disruptive action but extend it further in a congested media atmosphere remains a major question.”
Elizabeth Sanders, professor emerita of government at Cornell University, studies social movements and their impact on policy.
“Protests are very useful at raising issues to which those in power are insufficiently attentive. But to be effective, groups/movements must go beyond protest (recall the ineffectiveness of Occupy Wall Street). They must organize electoral coalitions. That entails, inevitably, some compromise to reach out to others, finding common denominators that mobilize large coalitions who will communicate with the powerful, and not completely demonizing one’s targets.
“Talking to people who don’t completely agree with you, working out a common strategy, is more liberating, more empowering, than most people know. Alas, the hard work of talking, organizing, and building alliances is not as much fun as marching, shouting slogans, and – for some – fighting.
“But the use of violence weakens legitimacy, shrinks coalitions, and invites governments to crack down. All protesting groups - democratizers, climate activists, and others – should review the strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil rights movement, and read Gene Sharp’s books on how to organize effective social movements. Nonviolence is essential. And that extends to violent language - avoidance of hateful labeling of perceived opponents.”