As one of the organizers of what many consider to be quite an extreme action, I have often been confronted with the opinion that extreme actions ‘alienate the mainstream’, and by so doing harm the formation of a broad-based social movement. In fact, the truth may be quite the opposite.
Studies* into the psychology of responses to emergency alarms note that humans, by our nature, do not respond to warning signals by immediately taking emergency action. Instead, we look for cues, often in the actions of others, to determine our response. It often takes numerous warnings, plus the sight of others taking actions compatible with the presence of an emergency, before people will respond to an emergency situation. For example, if a person hears a fire alarm in a shopping centre, they will not immediately run for the exit. Instead, they will look around to see the way others are reacting before deciding how to respond.
We can see this tendency at work in the way society is reacting to the climate crisis. Despite warnings being sounded, people are by and large still not responding in an emergency manner. Instead, many are looking around and seeing their families and neighbours continuing with life-as-usual, and are receiving confusing messages from the media. To make an apt analogy, people are in the shopping centre and are hearing an alarm, but many of the cues around them are telling them to keep on shopping.
The lesson here for climate activists is a relatively simple one. In order to shift our societies at large from business as usual into the emergency response mode that is needed to adequately confront the climate crisis, we need to constantly provide people with evidence that we are in a drastically urgent situation that requires them to respond accordingly.
This evidence can come in many forms, not all of which are under our control. We cannot create extreme weather events, for example, or force world leaders to issue stern warnings. But there are some cues we can control. Increasing numbers of people being arrested for direct actions and civil disobedience is one. Door knocking campaigns are another. Both of these actions can provide the public with powerful cues because they are evidence of a growing number of people becoming more concerned and involved- precisely what one would expect to see if climate change was a true emergency.
Obviously, the average person knows that there are extreme environmental activists. They will recognize, therefore, that a true environmental emergency would naturally lead such activists to take extreme actions. This is why it is in fact necessary for extreme actions to take place, because if they did not, their absence would indicate that an emergency was not occurring.
Extreme actions, of course, are not for everyone, and they need not be. But they have an important role to play in engineering the changes we need, and should not be dismissed. And the more of us that get involved in them, the better.
So if you are considering taking part in a form of extreme activism, be it arrest-able direct action, civil disobedience or even Climate Justice Fast!, do take the plunge. Despite what some will tell you, it can only help.
*The social psychology of public response to warnings of a nuclear power plant accident, Dennis S. Mileti, Lori Peek, Journal of Hazardous Materials 75_2000.181–194