Civil Disobedience, Radical Choices and Systemic Change

This is the second part of an essay that begins here. Part one is called “Why Aren’t We Setting Ourselves On Fire Yet? It is an impassioned call to action in response to the continued failure of governments around the world to respond to the escalating climate crisis: the latest IPCC report says that we have at most 12 years to slash global carbon emissions by 50% in order to stand a chance of averting apocalyptic climate catastrophe in the decades to come. Therefore we the people must take matters into our own hands. We must fight for life on Earth. Here are my thoughts on how to do that.

Change doesn’t need to come through the barrel of a gun. Mass non-violent civil disobedience has worked many times before to force through big changes that had previously seemed impossible: in the women’s suffrage movement; in the overthrow of British rule in India; in the civil rights movement in America. These are just some of the most famous cases of non-violence creating national change. Together we have much more power than we realise.

More good news is that it has been shown that only 3.5% of a country’s population rising up against its government in a sustained campaign of civil disobedience is enough to overthrow the old regime. 

And even better news is that non-violent campaigns are twice as likely as violent ones to be successful and to create lasting beyond the initial overthrow.

So the best new of all is that it’s possible for us to rise up and non-violently force the changes that could avert climate catastrophe and usher in a more peaceful, equitable, and beautiful era in which humanity embraces responsible stewardship of the Earth.

However, the changes we need to see are on a much greater scale than any historical examples of civil disobedience. They are greater, in fact, than any common undertaking in human history—apart, that is, from the development of the fossil-fuel-based industrialised society that has caused the mess we are now in in the first place! But that took millennia to achieve. We have only a few dozen years to completely transform our destructive world into something that can exist within planetary limits. We must act now and resolutely. This will require global solidarity and co-operation on an unprecedented scale.

Moreover, there are some very powerful forces, both particular and systemic, which are opposed to such a transformation. Examples of the former are the fossil fuel industry, multinational corporations, the super-rich, corrupt or feckless governments.

More powerful than particular forces, however, is the systemic inertia of the modern consumer lifestyle. The scale of the changes to our individual lives that are required in order to avert climate catastrophe is enormous. But it seems that very few people are willing to grasp the nettle when it comes to adopting them. Among those unaware of the crisis and hooked into the consumer matrix, no-one from the top of the stack down to the very bottom wants to simplify, to significantly reduce consumption, to curtail their freedom to have or to do whatever they want and can afford. Even those who are aware of the climate crisis, even those who are aware of how destructive the current form of modern life is, are finding it hard to step up and willingly embrace the changes. 

Overcoming our personal and societal sense of entitlement to unfeasibly high levels of industrially manufactured convenience and fossil-fuel-driven consumer satisfaction is in many ways the primary revolution we must enact before we are able to force our governments to implement the policies which will lead to steep emission reductions and widespread ecological restoration. We ourselves, each one of us who would fight for life, must begin in our own lives to break the systemic inertia. We need to accept the radical changes in lifestyle that will enable us all to live within the carrying capacity of the Earth. For otherwise how can we ask those in power to impose those changes on anyone else? How else can we positively demonstrate our love for the Earth. And how else can we ask the billions of people in developing countries who aspire to the consumer paradise to believe that it is in their interests to seek an alternative path?

We must be prepared to embrace radical changes in our own lives, now, if we are to create the radical changes which we need to see in our world.

What are these radical changes?

  • Renouncing meat in favour of an ‘organic’ plant-based diet seems to be one of the most effective lifestyle changes that we could each immediately adopt. Livestock farming is a major contributor to ecological destruction and climate change. Yet it’s possible to live almost anywhere in the 1st world at the moment without consuming meat and dairy. If 3.5% of us stopped eating meat and if we could then use targeted non-violent civil disobedience to force governments worldwide to legislate against livestock farming, we would have won a major victory for life on this planet.
  • Flying is something else most of us could stop immediately and which would make a big difference to the atmosphere. We need to accept that it’s simply not conscionable or in anyone’s interests including our own to jet around the world for either business or pleasure. If 3.5% of us stopped flying, and if we could then use targeted non-violent civil disobedience to force governments to legislate against all non-necessary flights, we would have won another major victory for life.
  • There may be lots of self-driving electric cars arriving on our roads in the coming decades, but at the moment this isn’t something we can wait for before we relinquish the convenience of the internal combustion engine. Here we begin to feel the pinch. Driving much less often or giving up entirely would be difficult for most people, but not impossible. It would mean a serious reduction in the number of things it’s possible to fit into a day or a week. We’d have to let go of a lot of activities. It would be especially difficult for those with kids. On the other hand, life would slow down a lot. We’d walk more, spend more time in our local communities and less time inside our own private bubbles. If 3.5% of us stopped driving, and if we could then use targeted non-violent civil disobedience to force governments to legislate against all non-necessary fossil-fuel powered transport, we would have won another major victory for life.
  • The pinch intensifies as we start to think about our electricity consumption. Even if you’re producing your own power, or buying ‘green energy’ from a suppler, there isn’t enough green energy around for everyone to have a share unless everyone uses less. How would it be to reduce your usage by 50% or even 75%? Again, difficult but not impossible. If 3.5% of us did it, and if we could then use targeted non-violent civil disobedience to force governments to ration electricity supply across the whole world, we would have won another major victory for life.
  • The pinch intensifies again as we move into the realm of renouncing unnecessary consumer goods. What is ‘necessary’? Well, that’s a big question, but the essence of this change is to “need little, want less”, as the Tao Te Ching puts it. Really, hardly anything most people buy is absolutely necessary for either survival or in fact wellbeing. On the contrary, most things people buy are in some way harmful to the individuals who buy them and to those who make them and to the ecology of the planet, while also contributing to climate change which is harmful to everyone and ultimately life-threatening. Relinquishing genuine trivialities entirely and learning to use throw-away items very sparingly, to re-use whatever can be re-used, to repair whatever can be repaired, and to share communally those larger consumer items that genuinely enhance quality of life instead of everyone owning their own would be a big step forward not only ecologically but also in terms of consciousness. If 3.5% of us could take this step, and if we could then use targeted non-violent civil disobedience to force governments to legislate against non-necessary goods, we would have won another major victory for life.
  • About this time some of us might be ready to move onto the land into an intentional One Planet community. Here things will in some ways get a lot easier, as (ideally) we’ll be meeting a lot of our basic needs within our immediate land-based community—food production, housing materials and construction, fuel, facilities, education, socialising, entertainment, etc—instead of struggling to meet them within the disbursed and fragmented social environment created around the everyday use of the motor vehicle by people who generally wish to avoid relating with other people and the Earth as much as possible. Living in close-knit intentional communities close to nature is not a walk in the park, however. We have become very separate and individualistic over recent decades and seem to find it difficult to co-create shared realities within a group of people with diverse perspectives. We’re used to interfacing with others who have a different perspective to ours either only superficially, in order to avoid potential conflict, or aggressively/defensively. Neither of these hard approaches are conducive to communal living, where superficiality or combat simply don’t work on a daily basis. Here we need to learn to listen, to yield more, and to maintain firm boundaries but without hard edges and sharp corners. Also challenging for us will be the fact that, in addition to having become interpersonally hard where we would do well to be softer, we’ve become physically soft where we would do well to be more hardy—that is, in relation to living and working more outside amidst the elemental exigencies of the capricious weather and the changing seasons of the year. Life lived outside the existential structures and environments of the modern world is definitely more tough than that mediated by industrially manufactured conveniences. This will take a bit of getting used to. But it doesn’t actually take very long to adjust in this way, especially if the step is taken willingly and embraced as positive. If 3.5% of us could take this step, and if we could then use targeted non-violent civil disobedience to force governments to legislate against all new developments which weren’t low-impact, land based, Earth-loving, soul-nurturing and community centred, we’d have won another major victory for life.

For most people none of these changes will be easy. They will all be experienced as sacrifices. But can any sacrifice be too great under the existential threat of runaway climate change? We really need to keep remembering that, at this point, the only alternative to radical change is apocalyptic catastrophe!

And anyway, after we’ve softened up our egos and hardened our sinews and are sitting with our colourful community of fellow rebel Earth-lovers around the communal table; after a tasty organic plant-based meal of vibrant homegrown produce, served on beautiful plates made by our resident potter; when we’re feeling more meaningfully connected to each other and more rooted in the land due to living slow, working together to meet our needs, and not driving or flying around all the time within fragmented, over-busy lives; while we’re enjoying a lively discussion, free from the glowing distractions of technology, as the flames dance in the fireplace (rather than up the curtains!) and cast their leaping shadows around the hand-sculpted contours of the lime-rendered straw-bale community building—then I believe most of us will find cause to thank the climate emergency for escalating to a point that necessitated the journey just described. 

Sacrifice means, after all, to make sacred. Life well lived upon the nourishing Earth is a sacred gift. My hope is that the crisis of our time will help us to remember and re-embody that truth.

However, unless the rest of the world has also transitioned or is well on the way to transitioning through the changes above or some other similarly radical life-friendly alternatives, our lively fireside discussion might well be about what act of non-violent civil disobedience we’re going to perform next to protest the continued destruction of the planet and to demand that all governments take immediate and full action to ensure the protection of Earth’s living systems and the wellbeing of its diverse inhabitants against the forces hostile to life which threaten them!

For wherever we are, however right-on our life is or becomes in the near future, all of us who love life on Earth and are interested in its continuance need to rise up and take sustained radical action to defend it until the whole world is acting in wise stewardship of the planetary system, in the name of all the beings whose home it is and all those yet to come.


Please consider joining Extinction Rebellion, a growing movement of non-violent civil-disobedience aimed at raising awareness about the urgency of the climate situation and demanding a rapid and robust international response. We are committed to love, to truth and to non-violent direct action. You won’t be asked to set yourself on fire ; ) nor expected to do anything else you’re not comfortable with, although many of us are willing to risk prison in order to help bring about the major changes that are needed in order to halt the global destruction.

Rise up in love for life!