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A green banner saying 'end fossil fuels now' is draped over the entrance to Marble Arch in London.

Climate change: radical activists benefit social movements – history shows why

Wynn Bruce set himself on fire on April 22 2022 – Earth Day. His self-immolation in front of the US supreme court was a protest against inadequate action on the climate crisis. He later died of his injuries.

Two days earlier in the UK, climate activist Angus Rose ended his 37-day hunger strike when a parliamentary group finally agreed to host a briefing by the chief scientific adviser for MPs and ministers.

Such radical forms of protest have historically been deployed by social movements to cast a spotlight on desperate situations, when conventional legal and political responses have been deemed woefully inadequate. After decades of international negotiations, the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change yet again warned that current emissions put countries far off limiting warming to below 2°C by 2100. Severe droughts, intolerable heat, wildfires, violent storms, crop failures, sea-level rise and social turmoil are expected to spiral once global temperatures exceed that threshold.

As such, some climate activists are likely to deploy increasingly radical tactics in the years ahead. History shows that may be a good thing for the wider movement.

Bodies on the line

In my research, I’ve explored what motivates radical environmental activists to engage in what’s called direct action. Coined by US anarcho-feminist Voltairine de Cleyre, direct action was popularised during Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition to British colonial rule in India. Its use proliferated in civil rights and anti-war demonstrations during the 1960s and 70s, namely in the form of sit-ins, marches and other forms of civil disobedience that challenged state laws.

Direct action is a mode of protest that takes place outside of parliamentary politics. It encompasses a range of tactics. Within the environmental movement, Hambach Forest activists in Germany have used direct action to occupy old-growth forests set for clear-cutting. Extinction Rebellion has blocked roads and oil depots across the UK. More controversial tactics include acts of sabotage, such as dismantling machinery. In 1986, for instance, two Sea Shepherd Conservation Society engineers destroyed half of Iceland’s whaling fleet and a processing station in Reykjavik harbour, effectively shutting down the country’s commercial whaling industry for 16 years.

Police approach a wooden barricade in a forest.
By putting themselves in harm’s way, activists demonstrate the seriousness of their cause. EPA-EFE/Sascha Steinbach

These tactics are designed to disrupt the status quo and halt an antagonistic system or process at its source. They also seek to draw media and public attention to the issue. But they tend to be adopted as a means of last resort, when a situation is urgent and more conventional modes of political participation, like voting and lobbying, are deemed insufficient.

The radical flank effect

Wynn Bruce’s self-immolation recalls a similar protest in the mid-20th century. Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức set himself on fire in 1963 to highlight the persecution of religious minorities by the US-backed regime in South Vietnam.

Such radical acts of self-sacrifice have often take place where the mobilisation of a social movement is already underway. This dynamic is known as the radical flank effect. When the efforts of the movement are frustrated, radical segments emerge and deploy more disruptive tactics. These serve to render the demands of their mainstream counterparts more palatable in the eyes of governments and the public, effectively advancing the entire movement’s agenda.

In the late 1950s, alongside the prospects of armed self-defence by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King Jr’s calls for dismantling segregation laws appeared less radical. Militant suffragettes destroying property made granting women the vote seem a reasonable concession. And suffragette Emily Davison’s death after colliding with a horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, whether intentional or not, attracted global attention to the struggle for universal suffrage.

Radical forms of resistance – from property destruction to hunger strikes and self-immolation – serve a similar function in the environmental movement. They highlight the urgency of the climate crisis as well as the reasonableness of demands by mainstream organisations, such as the need to swiftly phase out fossil fuel projects.

Of course, there is always a risk that more extreme tactics might alienate certain segments of the public. But research suggests that people tend to be more sympathetic towards radical tactics when they see that conventional political solutions are failing.

Sociologists Paweł Żuk and Piotr Żuk argue that tactics such as self-immolation are acts of rebellion against a deficient reality: gestures of self-sacrifice which alert observers to an entire community’s suffering. These forms of protest are especially common during times of crisis – like the unfolding climate emergency – when the lives of millions – human and nonhuman – may be threatened.

These modes of environmental protest are also powerful articulations of grief over the narrowing prospects of a viable future for many of Earth’s inhabitants. In his recent book How to Blow Up a Pipeline scholar-activist Andreas Malm observes that it is “better to die blowing up a pipeline than to burn impassively – but we shall hope, of course, that it never comes to this. If we resist fatalism, it might not.”

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