I’ve taken part in a few protests in my life so far. I attended the first Women’s March in 2016 in Sydney and I recently I took part in a Stop Coal protest on a freezing cold winter Saturday in Berlin. On my platform I promote activism as one of the most effective things you can do in terms of helping to change the fate of our planet. I’ve preached about joining local grassroots movements, attending protests and, of course, making sure you vote for parties whose values align with yours. Whenever I attend a protest my passion for change is invigorated. I love being surrounded by like minded people and in that moment it really feels as if people have the power to make a difference.
The last six months have been pretty groundbreaking in terms of environmental activism. Thanks to the incredible Greta Thunberg, climate school strikes have taken off around the world in the form of Fridays for Future. Seeing the youth of today passionately demanding climate action is inspiring to say the least. Then there’s Extinction Rebellion, a social movement uniting people around the world who have grabbed headlines by engaging in non-violent protests demanding governments act on climate change. On the surface, it seems the world is waking up to the reality of impending climate disaster. And our governments excuses for not taking drastic action are looking increasingly weak.
Beyond debating whether or not its OK for the Fridays for Future participants to skip school and complaining about Extinction Rebellions disruption of London traffic, there’s been little to no response from our governments on the actual demands of recent protesters. After the protest I attended in Berlin with 36,000 others, there was radio silence from the German government. On March 15th, 1.5 million students from 112 countries around the world took part in a global school strike. I’ve seen no official responses, let alone action, from global leaders.
This gets me thinking about whether protests are actually an effective form of activism, and makes me feel as if our current governments don’t care at all what its citizens want. I look back at the achievements of the 1960s environmental movement with admiration. Have things really changed so much since then that protests are no longer effective?
Luckily, many people are asking the same question and someone has already done extensive research into this topic. According to the report World Protests 2013-2016, which analysed the effectiveness of global protests during that period, as of 2013, “63% of the protests covered in the study achieved neither their intended demands (when demands are stated) nor results toward alleviating the expressed grievances”. This statistic is pretty demotivating. However, it’s worth noting that this means 37% of protests did result in some sort of measurable achievement.
The report goes on to state: “Research found that achievements related to political, legal and social rights—including the right to information and government transparency—made up almost half of the 37%; these include for example, a change of government (eg. revolution in Tunisia, 2010), adoption of a new constitution (eg. Iceland, Morocco), changes to law or policy (eg. the French government repeals a regressive law on new work contracts for youth, 2006), the resignation of presidents/ministers, new elections, the creation of a new political party or movement, the legal recognition of political or social rights and the exposure of government or corporate secrets (eg. Manning/Wikileaks, United States). Findings also include symbolic and other less tangible achievements, like changes in public discourse (eg. Occupy Wall Street makes income inequality an issue in both national [US] and international debates, 2011). These kinds of achievements are especially difficult both to identify [and] quantify; they represent roughly 10% of achievements noted.”
OK, so it’s clear protests do make some difference then. As you can see, there are a number of examples from around the world that protests in the 21st century do achieve something. What are some other benefits of protesting?
Drives intervention of public representatives: Across the UK and US, we’ve seen constituency and state leaders stand up in support of climate action, in part due to the support and demands of local residents. For example, the mayor of London has recently declared a Climate Emergency and the American states of California, New York and Washington formed an alliance dedicated to fighting global warming, despite Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Raises awareness and encourages political involvement: Protests will of course raise awareness of social issues, to an extent. In addition, an analysis by economists from Harvard University and Stockholm University found that protests have an influence on politics, mainly by getting people politically activated. The researchers argue that this was not the result of the actual protest, but of the way it motivated attendees. “If the protest itself made the difference, they point out, then the effect of a larger protest would dissipate over time as policymakers forgot about it. What actually happened was the opposite: The difference in political outcomes actually increased over time. Larger turnout for the initial protest had lasting effects on voting, political contributions, ideology, and future participation.”
What makes a successful protest?
Now we know what sort of difference protests can make, let’s look at what can increase their impact. There are a number of factors which, according to research, make a protest more effective in achieving fundamental changes.
The most widely cited factor that contributes to an effective protest is having clear demands. There’s little use in protesting about, say, veganism, if you aren’t asking for specific policy changes. It’s important to define exactly what you want to happen, and this is a consistent theme in successful movements. For example, the civil rights movement wanted specific legislation passed. Women in Poland wanted a specific bill making access to abortion more difficult to be scrapped. The Icelandic Financial Crisis Protests demanded government officials resign. These were all tangible goals that activists could build a strategy around. A lack of clear demands is generally what people point to as being the reason why Occupy Wall Street failed.
Strategy and organisation
Digital-age movements are effective at gathering large numbers (thanks to social media) but tend to be disorganised. Modern day protesters are good at making a lot of noise but bad at forcing ultimatums or navigating complex negotiations with politicians. Political activism needs to go beyond turning up for a few hours and taking to the streets. It needs to be a well organised movement, of which protests are only one component. There should be a clear and concrete strategy from the outset and a set of steps that will follow a protest, in order to be effective at securing demands.
Very often nowadays, protests don’t work by themselves. They need political support. Successful activists will identify their allies in government or the public sector and garner their support. If there is someone in government who is on your side, they can use the movement as fuel for implementing policy change.
Entering the 21st Century dramatically changed how effective protests are. In the age of social media and mass media, protests rely heavily on press coverage which is increasingly controlled by corporate interests. Protests very often do not receive the media coverage they deserve by large media outlets, due to vested corporate interests. Successful political activism needs to receive significant media coverage by major news outlets, or much of the population won’t know it’s happening.
So, where should I devote my energy?
Most environmental activists will agree that in order to truly tackle climate change we need to change our economic system. Accepting this means accepting that protests alone are simply not going to solve all our problems. But, as we’ve seen protests are an important element of social movements and at the very least, encourage others to become more politically active. So, keep attending protests.
Get involved with local politics
Looking at previous environmental wins, you’ll find these are focused around preventing specific environmentally destructive projects, such as Keystone XL in Canada and Stop Adani in Australia. These campaigns have all the factors discussed above that make an effective political movement and have generally had more success at preventing, or at least putting off, these projects. What campaigns are going on in your local area that you can get involved in? In addition, write to your local representative and tell them how important it is to you that climate action is a priority and list specific demands. The more public representatives we have on our side, the better.
Painting a picture of the future
The environmental movement has so far done a poor job at painting a picture of how the world could be improved if we tackle climate change. Surely people would be motivated to join the political fight if they knew the outcome would be fairer, healthier and more prosperous world for all? At the moment we don’t have a leader (perhaps the closest we have is Bernie Sanders) who is standing up and defining the world we could create. This is going to be crucial in the climate change fight, as it would foster hope rather than despair over impending environmental disaster. After all, Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech was so effective because it provided a vision for the future.