On December 31, 2022, Extinction Rebellion (XR) — a UK-headquartered global environmental movement founded in 2018 known best for acts of civil disobedience — posted a piece on their website with the headline “WE QUIT.” That’s a good thing.
To be clear, XR isn’t quitting in the sense of shutting down. Rather, they’ve learned an important lesson: climbing oil tankers, gluing themselves to famous paintings, and tweeting that hardworking climate writers such as myself are trying to “delay meaningful action” will not inspire a single person to think more favorably about climate action. To their credit, their webpost outlines a new strategy for the organization, one which “prioritizes attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks.”
It’s certainly frustrating that it took this long for XR to adopt these values. But — and I do mean this sincerely — better late than never.
XR’s original tactic of “civil” (but expensive, annoying, and sometimes illegal) disobedience hinged on their belief that a very small minority of a population could single-handedly effect change just by being loud enough. Their website reads, “Historical evidence shows that we need the involvement of 3.5% of the population to succeed – in the UK that’s about 2 million people.”
Other environmental groups have referenced that 3.5% number too. It originates from Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth, who studied over 300 movements from the past 100 years, and found that if a movement mobilized 3.5% of the population, it never failed. If that’s the case, these groups contend their environmental protests need only inspire a tiny fraction of the population to succeed, leaving them free to alienate the rest of us.
But there are a few problems with drawing that conclusion from Dr. Chenoweth’s research. First, their data was limited to “maximalist” campaigns such as those which aim to overthrow dictators or achieve territorial independence, and because of their black and white nature, it’s much easier to classify them as successes or failures. Issues such as civil rights, women’s suffrage, or animal cruelty were not included because the definitions of success and failure within those movements are too broad and complex to measure concretely. As such, applying the 3.5% rule to environmental movements would be premature, to say the least.
Second, the 3.5% rule has been broken before, and Dr. Chenoweth expects it to be broken even more in the future. With technology and social media, it is a lot easier to mobilize 3.5 percent of the population now than it was 50 or 100 years ago.
But third and most importantly, the 3.5% rule refers to 3.5% of the population protesting, and not everyone chooses to express themselves via protest. For example, in the summer of 2020, about 6% of Americans participated in Black Lives Matter protests, but 67% of Americans supported the cause. That means less than 10% of supporters physically mobilized. And that’s not a bad thing for a movement — supporters can vote, donate, write, talk to friends and family, call representatives, post to social media, and a number of other actions that don’t involve taking to the streets. Without that large swath of the population engaging in other ways, disruptive protesters quickly become a fringe minority. In fact, only 19% of people in the UK hold a positive view of the Extinction Rebellion according to a 2021 YouGov poll.
Due to these fundamental misunderstandings about the 3.5% rule, XR has struggled not just with favorability, but also with positive impact. According to polling data from University of Pennsylvania researchers Shawn Patterson Jr. and Michael Mann, 46% of respondents felt that non-violent disruptive actions decrease their support for efforts to address climate change as compared to 13% whose support increases. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, they found learning about the protests did not have a statistically significant effect on respondents’ views about fossil fuels.
The idea that annoying people into obedience was ever an environmental movement tactic is baffling. No rational person would disagree with the notion that, all else equal, a world with clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment is a better world to inhabit. Furthermore, climate solutions far more often than not have synergies with economic, health, justice, and national security goals. There is plenty of room to disagree on policy, but an environmental movement that follows science, embraces nuance, and fosters common ground could captivate all of humanity.
XR may have a difficult road ahead as they attempt to form new relationships and, perhaps, earn back the trust of those they’ve antagonized. But as a climate writer whose calling card is cultivating common ground, I am excited to see XR join our effort. I imagine building a larger coalition and not getting arrested all the time will be a welcome and rewarding change.