In 2019 the climate movement experienced a wave of energy and success, centred around school strikes and Extinction Rebellion. But three years later, as crises loom larger still, that impetus has waned. Sam Knights reflects on the journey and state of the movement.
Who would have thought that a fifteen year old girl refusing to go to school would be the birth of a new movement? It came after a long, hot summer, and a damning report from the United Nations. Unlike previous reports, this one did not hold back. It stated that in order to avert catastrophic climate breakdown, we would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” In short, revolutionary system change. “Climate change is an emergency and we need to act now!” we shouted in the streets, to anyone who would listen.
Borrowing a tactic from American schoolchildren in Parkland, following the school shooting earlier that year, Greta Thunberg began a series of school strikes. The first few went largely unnoticed. But social media amplified them, and journalists soon started to take notice. Greta quickly found herself in the eye of a storm. The strikes became weekly and were immediately replicated all around the world, in over a hundred different countries. At their peak, organisers estimated four million schoolchildren were participating in the strikes.
Meanwhile, Extinction Rebellion mobilised hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets in coordinated acts of mass civil disobedience. This idea also spread. In London, we organised one of the largest civil-disobedience events in modern history. Hundreds of people were arrested and thousands of activists held public assemblies, day after day, until our demands were met. After two weeks of rolling protest, the government gave into our demand and parliamentarians declared a climate emergency. Activists met with government ministers and told them, “this is not enough, you have to do more.” In less than a year, the world had changed.
'Hundreds of people were arrested and thousands of activists held public assemblies, day after day, until our demands were met. After two weeks of rolling protest, the government gave into our demand and parliamentarians declared a climate emergency.'
The first sparks of a new protest cycle are always strangely clarifying. It is as if, somehow, a new logic has supplanted the old, and what made sense before has now been rendered nonsensical. Social movement theorists call this a “new master frame”. Political scientists call it “hegemony”. Either way, we had found the tools to express it. After decades of decline, the climate movement was alive and kicking. “Did you see that?” an excited onlooker shouts. “It’s life! There is life here, I’m telling you!”
It is often said that every revolution seems inevitable only in retrospect. “The crisis was insurmountable,” a historian will tell you. “The people were angry, the old regime was bound to fall.” So, it did not surprise you at all, then? That the system collapsed and everything changed? He looks offended, “No, of course not.” Doubles down. “In fact, in my scholarly opinion, the only surprising thing about the revolution is that it had not happened sooner.” But is this true? Is the revolution only inevitable with the benefit of hindsight? What about all the people who knew about it before? Who had dreamt about it, worked towards it, had sacrificed everything to make it happen? We forget how inevitable it can feel in the moment, in the midst of a protest. How close the future seems from the top of a barricade.
Of course, many revolutionaries have been wrong about the inevitability of their own revolutions, and many sober activists have had their heads turned by an excitable crowd. “We are the future,” shouts a young activist into her megaphone, “we are the future demanding to be heard.” What happens, then, when we lose? Does the future disappear? Or is it simply delayed?
After every defeat, we comfort ourselves with the same familiar lie: it is possible to continue like this. “Nobody is listening anymore, your tactics are no longer working, but you should continue nonetheless.” The familiar refrain on the left is, “Don’t mourn, organise.” Don’t mourn? Why not? Something has died, hasn’t it? Strangely enough, the original expression is borrowed from a telegram written by Joe Hill just before his death. “Don't waste any time mourning. Organise!" he wrote to his comrade Bill Haywood. He followed this message with a second telegram: “Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don't want to be found dead in Utah.” Some distractions from organising are clearly worth doing. The reproach to “organise” has always struck me as an odd response to defeat. I much prefer the words of the Chartist poet W. J. Linton. “Chartism is indeed dead,” he wrote during the decline of the Chartist movement. “Bury it decently, and go home to think what next is to be done.” Bury it decently, yes. But why is that always so hard to do?
'Is the revolution only inevitable with the benefit of hindsight? What about all the people who knew about it before? Who had dreamt about it, worked towards it, had sacrificed everything to make it happen? We forget how inevitable it can feel in the moment, in the midst of a protest. How close the future seems from the top of a barricade.'
Nobody is born an activist. We are all on our own journey and, for many of us, the year that changed everything was a formative moment in our own story. A new generation of activists were trained in direct-action tactics, we formed new communities and built new coalitions. We were pushed through the criminal justice system and spat out the other side. We were fully committed to a project that then splintered, spluttered, and ultimately disappeared. The decline was obvious well before the pandemic, but an enforced break certainly did not help.
What triggered this new protest cycle was not simply a worsening crisis. Three changes enabled it to happen. The first was the emergence of a new frame: “this is an emergency.” The second was the innovation of an old tactic: “because this is an emergency, we are going to occupy public spaces and go on strike.” And the third change was that enough elements within the establishment were persuaded of the need for a shakeup; they were prepared to aid the protesters, insofar as the protests were helpful in pursuing their own agenda. Many activists are, understandably, bitter about this parasitic relationship. Revolutions have always relied on defections from members of the establishment and the rights won by liberals are often relied on by revolutionary movements, but there is a difference between a defection and a hijacking.
'Nobody is born an activist. We are all on our own journey and, for many of us, the year that changed everything was a formative moment in our own story. A new generation of activists were trained in direct-action tactics, we formed new communities and built new coalitions. We were pushed through the criminal justice system and spat out the other side. We were fully committed to a project that then splintered, spluttered, and ultimately disappeared.'
“This is an emergency,” the radicals shouted. “Yes, this is an emergency,” the reformists agreed. In 2019, the liberal establishment decided to adopt the master frame of the climate movement and grant Extinction Rebellion a symbolic victory. More material gains followed later: the government adopted a legally binding net-zero target, parliament began to trial experiments in direct democracy, and the Labour Party adopted the Green New Deal. At the same time, rightwing elements of the establishment closed ranks. The climate movement had won important policy victories, and now they had to be punished. The police illegally banned Extinction Rebellion protests and the rightwing press dislocated and delegitimised the movement. Rightwing think tanks lobbied for harsher sentences for protesters, and many of us were hounded by the press. A couple of years later and activists now engaging in peaceful protest can be given years in prison.
The conditions which enabled the School Strikes and Extinction Rebellion to mobilise so successfully have since disappeared. The frame that once proved so successful is now redundant; “this is an emergency” protesters shout. Everyone else says, “yeah, we know.” We are, in this regard at least, a victim of our own success. At the same time, the tactics that once inspired millions are now proving more difficult. The school strikes are no longer interesting to their own organisers let alone the general public, and strategies which once relied on press coverage are hitting up against hard limits. In the pursuit of increasingly diminishing and unfair coverage, activists are now resorting to illogical stunts. I worry that such a strategy can only end in tragedy. In the past, activists who have been attacked by the police have garnered sympathy for their cause. Some have deliberately provoked it. Look, for example, at the Freedom Riders or the police repression which turbocharged the Occupy Movement. But without a coherent strategy beyond causing outrage, the climate movement will be left floundering.
Activists are burning out, very quickly, and the prospect of decades spent in a prison cell is a strong deterrent for anyone seeking to build a mass movement. The groups which came after Extinction Rebellion have proved unable to mobilise more than a couple of hundred people. Some have used this to their advantage, like Palestine Action who have successfully used a small number of activists to shut down arms factories. Others have been unwilling to adapt, continuing to encourage activists to sit in roads and get arrested for no discernible reason. The reasons for our failure are obvious, yet still we continue. “This is an emergency, we have to act now.”
'The conditions which enabled the School Strikes and Extinction Rebellion to mobilise so successfully have since disappeared. The frame that once proved so successful is now redundant; “this is an emergency” protesters shout. Everyone else says, “yeah, we know.”'
I understand this feeling, because I feel it too. The modern climate movement is obsessed with time. Climate impacts are occurring incredibly quickly in geological time, but less so in human time. Over my lifetime, they will sadly become more and more regular. Other devastating impacts are already locked in, and will continue to get worse over the years and decades to come. “We have to act now, before it is too late.” This is true, but it is not all of the truth. There will never come a time when it is “too late.” Too late for what? Too late for whom? Every fraction of a degree matters. Every year, every month, every day matters.
When I started protesting, it was common to describe the future in apocalyptic terms. “We might be able to hold back the future, to stop the ticking clock,” activists told one another. However, as we grew in numbers and began to believe once again in our own collective power, this metaphor transformed. First, we imagined the future as a path that stretched out in front of us. “We are walking towards the future together.” Then, we saw it as a forked road. “There is one future in which we survive and one future in which we die.” Then, a roundabout. “The turning is clear, but we are going round and around in circles.” And, finally, a dead end. “There is no future.”
As the climate movement fractured, I became obsessed – and, I admit, unhealthily so – with the idea of time. I was often told that revolutionary periods came in cycles. If you so wish, you can trace this idea back to ancient Greece. The Greek historian Polybius believed that every political community went through a cycle of political systems in alternating virtuous and perverted forms: monarchy followed by tyranny followed by aristocracy followed by oligarchy, and so on. This was an idea revived in the Renaissance and, even later, by early students of revolutionary movements. In the twentieth century, historians like Crane Brinton wrote about stages of human civilisation, much like those that characterise biological development or the stages of a disease. Indeed, there are some people who still think like this; in a book entitled The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe argue that modern history moves in cycles, each one lasting about the length of a human lifetime and each composed of four eras – or turnings – which last about twenty years and which always arrive in the same order: high, awakening, unravelling, and crisis. According to the two authors, we are currently in the fourth era of our current cycle: crisis. Well, okay, sure. I do not need a theory of time to tell you that.
Thinking about cycles of history in such a flat and codified way is a bit like writing horoscopes for nerds. But there is nonetheless something true here. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “the generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it.” Revolutions do indeed take time. They are nurtured, slowly, over many generations. And then, suddenly, they explode. Micah White in The End of Protest compares revolutionary time to the construction of a cathedral in medieval Europe. “The architects who designed it and the masons who built it did not live to see their work completed,” he writes. “As you are not able to choose which part of the cycle you are born into, it may be that you will live your entire life in preparation for a revolution that your grandchildren will finish.” There is a tendency to think about revolution as merely a matter of insurrection. But real revolutions are prepared over time; resentments grow, people organise, a means of seizing power begins to emerge.
'There is a tendency to think about revolution as merely a matter of insurrection. But real revolutions are prepared over time; resentments grow, people organise, a means of seizing power begins to emerge.'
Whilst it might be fantastical to suggest that history passes in predetermined cycles, it is clearly true that there are periods of contention followed by periods of calm. The social movement scholar Sidney Tarrow believes that although “cycles of contention” do not follow a determined set of stages, we can nonetheless observe familiar patterns. “In the initial stages of protest,” he writes, “the most disruptive tactics are often to the fore. New actors invent new tactics as emerging collective identities require radical action. As the cycle of protest continues, the reaction of the authorities produces simultaneous processes of radicalisation and institutionalisation.” He goes on: “When disruptive forms are first employed, they frighten antagonists with their potential cost, shock onlookers, and worry elites concerned with public order. But newspapers gradually begin to give less and less space to protesters that would have merited banner headlines when they first appeared in the streets. Repeating the same form of collective action over and over reduces uncertainty and is greeted with a smile or a yawn. Participants, at first enthused and invigorated by their solidarity and ability to challenge authority, become jaded or disillusioned.”
If movements have lifecycles, then so do individual organisations. Scholars have once again tried to define these cycles in four distinct phases: emergence, coalescence, institutionalisation, and bureaucratisation or decline. Other scholars see it differently. They point towards five different outcomes before an inevitable decline: success, failure, co-optation, repression, or going mainstream. I am personally quite sceptical of any theory that seeks to order something so obviously disordered, but whatever your opinion of this kind of scholarship, it is certainly true that all social movements go through periods of boom and bust, statis and flux. A movement can emerge, lose, decline, re-emerge, and eventually succeed. These cycles may happen over months, years, or even centuries, and different stages may be repeated over time. For activists, the question seems obvious: “how do we make successful outcomes more likely, and how do we protect ourselves from failure?” But there is another question that seems important to me: is it possible to diffuse the lifecycle of a movement, to cross-pollinate the processes of contention, so that the patterns of boom and bust become more sustainable over time? Or, at the very least, to make the booms more frequent?
Sidney Tarrow identifies four important conditions which signal the start of a new protest cycle. The first condition is opportunity; activists seize upon opportunities and emphasise the deep cleavages in their societies. The second condition is a new story; Tarrow calls this the “master frame” which motivates people to take action. The third condition is innovation; the activists experiment with different tactics and formulate new strategies. The final condition is coalition; activists form an alliance with other groups, no matter how formal or informal this coalition may be.
'But there is another question that seems important to me: is it possible to diffuse the lifecycle of a movement, to cross-pollinate the processes of contention, so that the patterns of boom and bust become more sustainable over time? Or, at the very least, to make the booms more frequent?'
This way of framing the problem was, for me, an important discovery. Tarrow was writing about 1848, but the lessons felt especially relevant to 2019. That year the effects of the climate crisis were clearly worsening, the political class had no coherent response, and the world’s top scientists were openly talking about imminent catastrophe. There was opportunity, but there was also a new story. Activists successfully argued that climate change was an emergency, and this new framing mobilised millions of people to take action. There was also innovation; schoolchildren went on strike and there were mass campaigns of civil disobedience. Pink boats appeared in public spaces, bridges were transformed into gardens, and millions of schoolchildren walked out of their classrooms. These tactics were fun, exciting, and genuinely inspiring. And, finally, there was a coalition; we had a parliamentary vehicle to ensure concrete gains and large portions of the establishment were taken by surprise. The labour movement and the climate movement worked together, however anxiously, to pass a declaration of climate emergency. At the time, it felt like a miracle.
In 2019, we saw an opportunity to tell a new story. We innovated, built coalitions, and, finally, we won. We changed the circumstances of the struggle and, then, we failed to adapt. If we are going to reenergise the climate movement today, we need to start innovating again. “Innovation” simply means to “renew, to make new.” In fact, once upon a time, it was associated with rebellion; Shakespeare writes in Henry IV of “fickle changelings and poor discontents, which gape and rub the elbow at the news, of hurlyburly innovation.”
We need to start experimenting and being imaginative again. We also need to develop a better understanding of movement ecology. Different parts of the climate movement can do different things. We need mass-mobilisation campaigns and we need targeted direct action. We need rallies and we need sabotage. It is not one or the other. In Neither Vertical nor Horizontal, Rodrigo Nunes encourages us to think about our strategies as complimentary. He writes, “If no single strategy is likely to work on its own, if no single agent is capable of doing everything, if different agents will make different kinds of intervention, and if different interventions demand different kinds of organisation and tactics, diversity of strategies and an ecological approach to organisation seems to be inevitable conclusions”. In other words, not everybody has to do what you are doing. Not everybody has to follow your singular strategy. Indeed, there is immense advantage to not doing so.
'In 2019, we saw an opportunity to tell a new story. We innovated, built coalitions, and, finally, we won. We changed the circumstances of the struggle and, then, we failed to adapt.'
We also need a new story. We can tell by the way in which the School Strikes and Extinction Rebellion fractured, and in the emergence of new movements with increasingly small and technocratic demands. New frames can unleash new possibilities. In the 1980s, the American peace movement coalesced around a proposal for a freeze on nuclear weapons. In the previous decades, the peace movement had struggled to define their demands and had therefore failed to mobilise people, despite the material conditions worsening and the global arsenal of nuclear weapons increasing exponentially. Once they established a clear call to action and a simple, concrete demand, people took to the streets in record numbers and the movement was revitalised.
Those who believe that a worsening crisis always leads to an uptick in revolutionary activity should reflect upon this. The climate movement may indeed experience an uplift around the occasional crisis, but crisis is not by itself enough. We cannot rely on deadly heatwaves to kickstart a revolutionary moment, especially in the minority world where the impacts of climate breakdown are less obviously felt. Modern politics is adept at normalising crises. They have become expected and unremarkable. Therefore, without a coherent story to tell, the opportunity is lost and the moment for action is over. For a new wave of climate protests, we need a new frame, one which addresses the fundamental cleavages of the time. The debate is no longer whether climate change exists or not, whether this is an emergency or not. The debate today is over solutions. “Climate change is an emergency, so what are we going to do about it?”
'The climate movement may indeed experience an uplift around the occasional crisis, but crisis is not by itself enough. We cannot rely on deadly heatwaves to kickstart a revolutionary moment, especially in the minority world where the impacts of climate breakdown are less obviously felt.'
Frames capable of breaking through right now are “no new oil and gas”, a demand broadly aligned with the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, and “public control of energy”, a demand broadly aligned with the labour movement in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. The important thing, however, is to fit your demands to your campaign. If you are a small direct-action group, why are you making demands at all? Look at the campaigns that have been successful in recent years; what would happen if the radical flank of the climate movement picked a villain, like Shell, seemingly at random and decided to do everything they can – roadblocks, vandalism, sabotage, office occupations – to make that business unviable? What kind of message would that send out?
One of the many problems with the climate movement today is that the vanguard of the movement is not functioning as such. Groups like Insulate Britain positioned themselves as the vanguard of the movement, but their ideological demands were, if anything, smaller and weaker than the demands of many capitalists. At their best, vanguards are experimental and innovative; they push open a space for others to join. But, as yet, these groups have failed to innovate. They have been reduced to media spectacle, irritating members of the public and throwing soup at Van Gogh paintings. I am not, to be clear, saying all of these actions are useless. But beyond grabbing attention, what are these campaigns actually trying to achieve? Should we really be building our movements with the sole intention of attracting controversy? This is one of the big problems with the modern climate movement. We need to stop thinking about protest as spectacle. It is more than just grabbing attention. This is a question of power, of genuine resistance against a system that is killing us. As the current strategy is rewarded with diminishing returns, and more and more people find themselves in prison for largely symbolic acts, there is little sign that a great innovation is on its way. Our only solution is “again, again!” when it needs to be “what next?”
'This is one of the big problems with the modern climate movement. We need to stop thinking about protest as spectacle. It is more than just grabbing attention. This is a question of power, of genuine resistance against a system that is killing us.'
What I am convinced of, however, is that a new movement needs to emerge that is once again focused on mass mobilisation. The School Strikes and Extinction Rebellion have been incredibly successful, but they are no longer able to mobilise millions. There is a gap in our strategy, a gaping chasm in our movement. A new mass movement needs to emerge.
This new mass movement needs to have a systemic analysis of the crisis and it needs to be imaginative and innovative in its tactics. It will likely come from the younger generation or from those closest to the harm, the marginalised and the poor. It might come in the midst of environmental catastrophe, triggering global protests and an outpouring of grief. It may come in a period of economic turmoil, when the fossil-fuel economy is at its weakest. Either way, we have to be ready. We cannot wait for this to just happen, for the next revolutionary cycle to slowly roll around. We need to ensure it happens now. We need to work towards it, prepare for it. Build our cadre, unite our class, organise our communities. Every fraction of a degree matters, remember? Every year, every month, every day. Well, we have to start acting like it.
'We cannot wait for this to just happen, for the next revolutionary cycle to slowly roll around. We need to ensure it happens now. We need to work towards it, prepare for it. Build our cadre, unite our class, organise our communities. Every fraction of a degree matters, remember?'
This question, the question of time, once kept me up at night. I was gripped by the fear that we had ruined our best chance, that the next revolutionary moment would not be for another five or ten years. “How do we draw this cycle to a close and begin a new cycle?” I garbled, eyes wide, beer in my hand. “What if we could turbocharge the patterns of revolutionary change? What if we could find a way to make our activism more regenerative, minimising the gaps between boom and bust?” My friends looked at me, concerned. “Are you sleeping enough, Sam? Eating enough fruit? Exercising at all?” Of course I wasn’t exercising. I was burnt out and upset. “You don’t understand,” I said, embarrassed. “I am in my decline era. We all are.”
In hindsight, my obsession with time was itself a symptom of defeat. Protests come in waves, and sometimes waves turn into revolutions, but it is a fool’s errand trying to predict when and how these moments will manifest. As the crises around us grow deeper, there are more opportunities to resist. New movements emerge, new cycles form, new journeys start. Activists tend to overestimate the effect of their actions in the short run, and underestimate the effect in the long run. We will never be content. We will never be pacified. This is what drives us forward, and spurs on the next revolution. Trying is always better than doing nothing; indeed, it is the only thing that has ever worked.