October 25th, 2022 – A climate activist invited to a Dutch talk show glues himself to the table, repeating the message that “people are going to die” before being removed during a commercial break1. November 5th, 2022 – Climate activists block private jets from departing at Schiphol airport. The activists sit around the wheels, effectively blocking them for hours and resulting in over 100 arrests2. January 28th, 2023 – Over 700 climate activists are arrested after having blocked the A12 highway in both directions to protest governmental fossil fuel subsidies3.
Sounds familiar? Maybe you’ve heard of such protest actions on the news. Maybe your social media timeline is flooded with posts about them. Maybe you’ve sat in your car on your way to work, silently cursing those bloody people who, again, have chosen to block the street at the busiest time of day. Or maybe, you’ve sat on those highways yourself, enduring incomprehension, anger and perhaps even violence from passersby, the media, or the police.
Regardless of which group you find yourself in, you’ve probably wondered – how effective are actions which risk causing contempt, anger, and even violence? This is a question every activist is confronted with, whether or not they choose to engage with it. While I cannot answer it, I chose to explore the reasons why activists keep going – why, despite the risk of causing more backlash than support, they keep on protesting, again and again. This is an exploration of the activist’s dilemma.
Climate Activism & the Dilemma
Firstly, let’s remember that climate activism is not new. Protests to protect natural habitats have a long history, starting in the 70s and 80s in Europe. Back then, protests were more focused on blocking particular projects, such as the cutting down of specific forests. Climate change protests nowadays, however, attack a much more pervasive issue spanning wider social change (4). Along with this distinction, the protest methods themselves have shifted, with some forms of protest becoming increasingly disconnected directly from the problem. Simultaneously, as frustration grew over the lack of changes, extreme protest groups developed and radical organizations such as Extinction Rebellion were followed by even more radical groups such as Just Stop Oil4.
As the movement split into varying degrees of radical actions, opinions and reactions polarized further – whether that is among the public or climate activists themselves. This diversity of reactions has caused what researchers coined the activist’s dilemma. The dilemma stems from the proven success of radical protest actions to raise awareness for a social movement5 and pressure institutions6, while simultaneously risking the reduction of social support for the cause7. In short – people may know about the movement, but they might disapprove of it.
During a research project I completed on this topic for university, I talked to climate activists about their experiences. One activist summarized his stance in the phrase – borrowed and adapted from Chico Mendes, it appears – “environmentalism without direct action is just gardening”. To me, this quote illustrates the deep-rooted belief in the importance of direct action. Even this activist, however, just like many others struggled with the negative reactions and resistance they faced. Many of them experienced the activist’s dilemma, questioning whether their methods are effective and weighing the benefits of raising awareness against the risk of alienating people to their cause. What motivates them to keep going, despite this risk? What drives their belief that their actions will eventually prove effective? Let’s explore two of the central motivations – the comparison to other movements and the radical flank effect – as well as an attempt at reconciling the dilemma by differentiating between audiences.
Historical Comparisons & the Suffragettes
Consider this. March 10th, 1914 – Velazquez’ Rokeby Venus is slashed by suffragette Mary Richardson. As she is pulled out of the museum, she proclaims “Yes, I am a suffragette. You can get another picture, but you cannot get a life, as they are killing Mrs Pankhurst”8. Sounds familiar? October 14th, 2022 – Climate activists throw canned tomato soup at van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting, glue their hands to the wall beneath the painting and proclaim “What is worth more, art or life?”9.
The suffragettes fought for women’s right to vote. They faced oppression, inaction, and violence. They chose non-violent direct action as weapon to have their voices heard. On February 6th, 1918, women in the United Kingdom (above the age of 30, meeting certain requirements) were given the right to vote. Today, the suffragettes are regarded as heroes – on March 8th this year, Emmeline Pankhurst, political activist and key figure of the suffragettes, was immortalized in wax at Madame Tussauds in London10.
Many of today’s climate activists look back at civil disobedient movements such as the suffragettes when they choose methods such as the blocking of highways, the gluing of hands, or the throwing of soup. They find comfort and hope in the thought that the suffragettes were once too regarded as the enemy, even though nobody would dispute the righteousness of their cause today. When faced with inaction and denial, the suffragettes did not stand silently on the sidelines – and neither are climate activists.
Degrees of Extremism & the Radical Flank Effect
Another source of hope for activists battling the activist’s dilemma results from the diversity of the climate movement. Although activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion or Just Stop Oil may be the most visible thanks to their media- and attention-grabbing actions, they only constitute a fraction of the broader climate movement. Many other interest groups, parties, organizations, and individuals support the same cause, but with very different means. Often, their less radical methods are less attention-grabbing, but also cause much less backlash.
Climate activists from more radical movements often hope that their actions, while they might not create support for the radical organizations, will nevertheless stir people towards less radical factions within the climate movement. This effect has been coined the radical flank effect11. Researchers have actually demonstrated this effect within the climate movement. They found that the public compares extreme with more moderate activist groups, and that the actions of the former increase favorable perceptions of the latter. Thereby, radical activist groups can increase support and identification with the climate movement as a whole, even if individuals react negatively to their specific actions.
Extreme Methods & Target Audiences
Finally, an entirely different approach at resolving the dilemma may come from the communication strategies employed by climate activist groups. Extinction Rebellion interviewees described differences in the organization’s approach when addressing different audiences. When targeting corporations or governments, Extinction Rebellion often uses an accusatory tone, harsh words, and more extreme methods. When addressing the general public, however, it often relies on a much softer tone, engaging in dialogue with individual citizens and starting conversations. Designated members during protest actions, for instance, reach out to passersby, empathize with them, and emphasize the human side of activism – thereby bridging the gap that is often created by more extreme methods.
In short, while more extreme protest actions risk causing backlash, some activist organizations may try to counter-balance this effect by differentiating between different targets – not shying away from radical methods to address corporations and governments, but simultaneously attempting to build relationships with the public.
Resolving the Dilemma?
Where does all this leave us? Non-violent direct action has historically been used by various movements to have their cause heard and affect social change, and will continue to be used in the future. Climate activists today are faced with the question of whether such methods do more good than harm – and ultimately, only time will provide the answers. In the meantime, however, they rely on history to justify their means, adapt their methods to different publics, and take their place as one puzzle piece within the broader movement – functioning not on its own, but in synergy with other organizations working towards the same goals.
On this note, let me leave you with a quote from Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst: “Environmentalists of all forms have the moral high ground. I have absolutely no doubt that in 100 years’ time they will be seen as the real heroes. Those who ignored the warning bells will be – nay, already are – on the wrong side of history.”12
1. NOS. (2022, October 25). Klimaatactivist lijmt zichzelf vast aan tafel bij Jinek. https://nos.nl/artikel/2449797-klimaatactivist-lijmt-zichzelf-vast-aan-tafel-bij-jinek
2. Reuters (2022, November 7). Climate activists block private jets at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. https://www.reuters.com/business/cop/activists-block-private-jet-traffic-schiphol-airport-2022-11-05/
3. NOS. (2023, January 29). 768 klimaatactivisten opgepakt bij klimaatdemonstratie op A12 in Den Haag. https://nos.nl/artikel/2461713-768-klimaatactivisten-opgepakt-bij-klimaatdemonstratie-op-a12-in-den-haag
4. Lamberti, L. (2023, January 20). Art attack: contextualising the latest trend in climate activism. The Parliament. https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/news/article/climate-protests-art-vandalism-explainer
5. Myers, D. J., & Caniglia, B. S. (2004). All the rioting that’s fit to print: Selection efforts in national newspapers coverage of civil disorders, 1968-1969. American Sociological Review, 69(4), 519–543. https://doi.org/10.1177/000312240406900403
6. Biggs, M., & Andrews, K. T. (2015). Protest campaigns and movement success: Desegrating the U.S. South in the early 1960s. American Sociological Review, 80(2), 416–443. https://doi.org10.1177/0003122415574328
7. Feinberg, M., Willer, R., & Kovacheff, C. (2020). The activist’s dilemma: Extreme protest actions reduce popular support for social movements. American Psychology Association, 119(5), 1086–1111.https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000230
8. Ibbett, V. (2016, March 8). Fighting for representation: suffragettes and art vandalism. Art UK. https://artuk.org/discover/stories/fighting-for-representation-suffragettes-and-art-vandalism
9. Gayle, D. (2022, October 14). Just Stop Oil activists throw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/oct/14/just-stop-oil-activists-throw-soup-at-van-goghs-sunflowers
10. Madame Tussauds. (n.d.). Emmeline Pankhurst English political activist, feminist trailblazer and Suffragette. https://www.madametussauds.com/london/whats-inside/zones/culture/emmeline-pankhurst/
11. Freeman, J. (1973). Political organization in the feminist movement. Nordic Sociological Association, 18(2), 222–244. https://doi.org/10.1177/000169937501800208
12. Pankhurst, H. (2022, November 15). My suffragette grandmothers are now seen as heroes. Today’s climate protesters will be too. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/nov/15/suffragette-grandmothers-heroes-climate-protesters-activists-traffic