Don’t let the thing that stops our climate uprising be us

By Christian Climate Action’s Holly-Anna Petersen

I have been working in the field of psychology now for a number of years. The primary reason why I decided to make the transition into the field was because I was frustrated with watching social justice movements rise-up, only to see them cave in on themselves. It seemed to me that this is not an issue of strategy per se, but more due to the social psychology involved in movements as they grow. I decided that I wanted to become equipped in how to navigate and alleviate some of these interpersonal difficulties. The hope being that this would help justice movements to persevere in order to change our world for the better. This post is one such which aims to address this.

Non-violent uprisings will have tension

Pushing to tackle an injustice such as this climate emergency can be a very meaningful and life-affirming thing. We can put a lot of our energy, time and love into making it thrive and we can hold it alongside our hopes and dreams of a just world. However, this level of emotional investment can also make it difficult when the movement does not go quite as we would have hoped. When we also consider that there are added pressures such as exhaustion, press commentary and the intensity of actions, it’s easy to see how being part of a movement can be quite the emotional storm.

In the heights of frustration, we can focus on the elements we wish were different and forget all that is beautiful and inspiring about the movement. Tensions can rise between members of the group and communication can break down. It can feel tempting in these moments to walk away, self-sabotage the movement or allow infighting to prevent us from taking steps towards our aims.

It is important to acknowledge that tension is inherent to non-violent uprisings. At its most basic level, uprisings are made up of people – who will naturally have different ideas about the best steps forward, will work in different ways and have different personalities. However, further to this, the process of growth in a non-violent uprising naturally gives rise to tension.

Successful movements are not ones which do not contain tension, but ones which are able to move forward together holding this tension. This post highlights some of the principles and processes that nonviolent uprisings go through and where common areas of tension lie. The hope is that it can be used to normalise some of the frustration people experience and help facilitate communication between different group members.

Principles of a non-violent uprising

The environmental theory of change for many years has been a straightforward one. The goal has been to appeal to peoples’ better nature through methods such as campaigns, petitions or marches. This could be appealing to members of the public to take up a green lifestyle or appealing to those in power to create green policies. We need to acknowledge that while this strategy may seem intuitive, it has not been effective enough. Carbon emissions are still very much on the rise and we are running out of time. The situation we are in is one where we need large scale changes, fast.

Christian Climate Action was started and joined with Extinction Rebellion because we saw a need for a non-violent mass uprising to tackle this climate emergency. The relative success of the movement has been underpinned by certain principles – the core ones being sacrifice, disruption, non-violence and bifurcation.

Why nonviolence: Research shows that active non-violent resistance movements are more effective at achieving their aims than violent ones. A book by Stephen and Chenoweth called “Why Civil Resistance Works” explains this well. It outlines that over the last century, non-violent uprisings have been around two times more effective than violent ones.

Why disruption: Disruption can manifest in many different forms, such blocking roads, shutting down buildings or disturbing a company’s AGM. It is anything which forces people to come away from their business as usual. Disruption is important for three reasons. Firstly, it gets peoples’ attention, which is always the first step in creating change. Secondly, it forces someone to emotionally grapple with what is being protested against. Finally, it pushes those in power to make the necessary changes. The way that it does this is by imposing economic costs to inaction. When the costs of the disruption exceed the costs of doing what is being demanded, those in power often give in. Sadly, actions which do not contain the principle of disruption, such as marches, have been shown to be much less effective – even if participants are numbered in millions as they were for the anti-Iraq war march of 2003.

Why sacrifice: Sacrifice is the willingness to suffer for what is right, which can be embodied through many different ways, such as striking from school, being arrested or going on hunger strike. Sacrifice is an inherently Christian principle and so we intrinsically understand the power that it holds to transform the world. However, more broadly, a willingness to suffer for a cause convinces people of the sincerity of the one who is willing to suffer and emotionally engages people with a cause.

Why bifurcation: For non-violent uprisings to be effective, they need to grow through a very different way to the previous environmental campaigning strategies that we are used to. For example, it’s important to acknowledge that this theory of change does not have the aim of having everyone support or agree with us. The aim is getting a small proportion (often quoted as around 3.5%) of people on the streets causing disruption.
We do this through a dynamic process. Its starts with a small proportion of people telling the truth about the crisis and acting as though that truth is real by taking high intensity actions. This causes a sub-proportion of the wider population to take notice and realise the intensity of the issue at hand. This new group is moved by the sacrifice that protestors are willing to take and are given hope that there is a solution proportional to the crisis.

While these intense actions activate some people to take action themselves, they also deter large numbers of the population – a process known as bifurcation of the population. While it might intuitively seem unhelpful having large numbers of people turned off from the movement, these people were probably never going to be the ones making up the 3.5% of the population that we need. It is through a repeated rhythm of escalating actions, bifurcation that the uprising grows.

Areas of tension
At its most basic level, uprisings are made up of people – who will naturally have different ideas about the best steps forward, will work in different ways and have different personalities. However, because of the dynamic nature of nonviolent uprisings outlined above, tension often also arises between different members taking part at different action levels. When experiencing feelings of tension or frustration, it can be helpful to understand that this is a very normal thing. Tension has inevitably come up time and time again in resistance movements. Its presence does not dictate whether a movement is successful. The success and longevity of a movement rests on whether members are able to communicate and sit with these tensions while moving forward with their aims. Some of these tensions may include:

Difficulties with bifurcation: One area of tension can be at times of intense bifurcation – meaning that as a natural by-product a lot of people are turned off from the movement. People or the press expressing their disapproval can feel hard and this can be difficult for group members who feel less comfortable with the bifurcation process. Movement members also may have different ideas about how much support a movement can lose and still be effective in achieving its aims.

Difficulties with disruption: Disrupting someone’s day by its very nature causes people to become unsettled. Causing someone to feel unsettled, irritated or even angry can be a difficult experience emotionally and can lead to feelings such as guilt or fear. This is especially true when the disruption is being depicted unfavourably in the press. As campaigning, a method of change that is more well-known, has the aim of appealing to as wide an audience as possible, this can make it feel especially unsettling when disruption means that we don’t get positive feedback from the majority of people. There can also be different views amongst individuals as to what form disruption should take and who it should target.

Unequal sacrifice: The level of sacrifice attached to an action is inherently higher for some people in society than others. For example, an individual with health difficulty would be risking more taking part in a hunger strike compared to those with a full bill of health. Alternatively, individuals from BAME communities are risking more putting themselves in a situation of arrest. How this inherent unevenness is communicated, understood and managed in a group can be a source of tension between group members.

Difficulties with escalation: While all people getting involved in actions are accepting some level of risk, there are greater levels of risk involved for those taking part in escalating actions. As these people are taking action to escalate the protest, they are by their nature in unchartered territory. Therefore, it can be less easy to predict how the actions will plan out. For example, whether the action will be executed safely, or whether it will receive a positive response from the press.

Individuals who are willing to carry out these high intensity actions are often low in number and so people may feel a burden to have to carry out escalating actions themselves even when they do not feel comfortable doing so. These individuals may feel anxiety about the level of risk they are holding – which involves potential risks to their own safety, reputation and relationships. This can cause difficult emotions towards others in the group not participating in escalating actions. In a situation where an escalating action maybe did not receive very good press coverage, this can be very emotionally difficult for those who took part. This is especially true if other group members are unsupportive at this time.

On the flip side, individuals not carrying out escalation actions may feel as though the escalation process is moving too fast and they may feel distressed that they don’t have control over what these actions entail. While it is inherent to grass roots movements that there is not a centralised decision-making structure for actions, this lack of control may seem particularly difficult with regards to escalation actions as these are naturally ones which receive more press attention and contain more risk. Those not involved in escalation actions group may become aggrieved when escalating actions get a negative response in the press and feel as though they have no way to stop this from happening again.

Difficulties with low level actions: Individuals may also become frustrated with individuals who are carrying out low intensity actions – feeling as though these take up time and resources without creating disruption or having an impact. However, others perceive this as being a helpful first step into taking action, which may later lead to people taking up a support role or taking part in civil disobedience.

Doing vs debating: There is usually an imbalance in resistance movements – that while the issue is something that members care a lot about, it is generally something that people do not have a lot of time to contribute to. These dynamics can lead to a tension between debating and doing. While some members may want to spend a lot of time debating aspects of the movement such as theory or strategy, others are keener on ensuring that things are getting done in order for progress being made towards the movements aims.

Going forward
While the above is by no means an exhaustive list of tension areas which may arise, they are perhaps some of the more common ones. Hopefully outlining these potential areas of tension will lead to less confusion and frustration for those involved. If this greater understanding can lead to honest and open communication between group members, this is the first step to fostering compassion and empathy between group members – nurturing group cohesion even in emotionally turbulent situations.

3 thoughts on “Don’t let the thing that stops our climate uprising be us

  1. Stuart McIlroy says:

    Good introduction to ‘bifurcation’ as a sign of successful action. Got me thinking more like an arrestable than a non-arrestable, as I was being put off by peer judgement.

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