Throughout history, successful movements for change have had multiple strings to their bow. Among these strings, there has often been a major divergence in ideology between the radical and the moderate. The US Civil Rights Movement bore the militant wing of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party alongside the peaceful protests of Martin Luther King. The British women’s suffrage movement balanced Millicent Fawcett’s non-violent National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) with militant factions like Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). I could go on.
General analysis by historians and contemporaries alike has pitted the radical against the mainstream, arguing that contradictory approaches necessarily impede each other. American journalist and historian Johanna Neuman’s research into the second half of the American twentieth century makes an interesting subversion of this argument:
‘Any political movement for social change—from civil rights to LGBTQ rights—requires a one-two punch. The inside politico engages the powers that be, courting sympathy, while the outside agitator throws rocks at the establishment’s gates, stirring fear about the risks of inaction.’
There is a lot we may learn by reframing contemporary global events - first and foremost the climate movement - around Neuman’s theory of societal change in America.
Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion redefine activism for the climate cause through high-impact civil disobedience and public disruption. The international group Extinction Rebellion blockades major roads and stages 'die-in' events, in which protesters pretend to be dead to symbolise the deadly effects of environmental inaction, while Britain’s Just Stop Oil smashes the glass panels of high-profile paintings in the London National Gallery and interrupts ‘Do you hear the people sing?’ at performances of Les Miserables.
Both have caused a lot of angry men. A YouGov poll from August 2023 indicates that 68% of a politically diverse British sample disapproves of Just Stop Oil, with 44% expressing very unfavourable views. Extinction Rebellion faced similar sentiments in 2021, with nearly half of the respondents viewing the group negatively.
Media coverage reflects and amplifies this perception. It positions both groups as too radical to effect constructive change, instead alienating would-be supporters of the mainstream climate movement. A headline in the Guardian encapsulates this neatly: ‘I helped fund Just Stop Oil, but no more. The ballot box will be more powerful than disruption’.
But what if the criticisms aimed at Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion fail to recognise their role within the broader struggle against climate change? Much like the historical movements before them, these groups may be complementing the moderate sector of the movement, making its policy-focused middle-ground an acceptable and desirable alternative. Their very presence stimulates a psychological impetus for change. The real failure lies not in public disapproval but in apathy, an outcome press coverage has ensured is far from reality.
To all those who are comfortable with the mainstream but resistant to the radical wing of the climate movement: the presence of groups like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil could be pivotal in securing a sustainable future. The irony is that you shouldn’t start liking them. That would defeat the point.
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