• Martina Losi

The Climate Movement. Have we reached Critical Mass?


Abandoning fossil fuels for renewables, fighting deforestation, lowering carbon emissions, protecting populations from natural disasters: all major issues needing solutions - and needing them quickly.


For at least half a century, the environmental community has been fighting at a political and grassroots level to protect the environment. Organisations like 350.org, the People’s Climate Movement, Fridays For Future, Youth Climate Strikes and Extinction Rebellion are separate yet connected revolutionary movements, all playing a role in the climate movement.


Climate change is a substantial issue - and to face it, we need substantial changes in our societies. In many respects, to mitigate the effects of climate change we need revolutionary change. And if there’s one thing we can learn from previous revolutions, there's a specific tipping point at which a movement reaches critical mass… welcome to the 3.5% rule.


The 3.5% rule


The 3.5% rule was coined by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan around 2010; the two political scientists studied movements that took place over the last 90 years. What did they find out? If at least 3.5% of a population actively participated in nonviolent movements, change was almost guaranteed. This is the ‘3.5% rule’, which Chenoweth and Stephan coined and explained in their book ‘Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict’.


Whilst the percentage seems low, the actual numbers aren’t so small, especially if we are talking about a global movement. For example, 3.5% of the United States would be more than 11 million people; 15 million in Europe and 48 million in India alone. As Chenoweth wrote, “it is nothing to sneeze at.”


The 3.5% rule could provide a great deal of hope to climate revolutionary nonviolent movements around the world. If a small portion of the global population can subvert the social course of actions, then maybe climate warriors are on track to foster those changes needed by the environment. But how far has the climate movement gone in terms of participation? And what exactly does it mean to be an ‘active participant’?


The Fridays For Future effect


The number of climate activists who have joined protests and demonstrations has been growing, especially over the last two years in particular. After Fridays For Future launched their school strike campaigns, children and teenagers joined the movement all over the world. 2019 was a record year: after the global strikes in March and May, more than 7 million people marched on the streets during the Global Week For Future in September 2019. With more than 6,100 events held in 185 countries, it was one of the largest coordinated demonstrations ever recorded.


According to Chenoweth, broad participation is key for success, because it enables a movement to access social and political power, by weakening the chain of support of the existing power. The real change happens when the pillars of support of power - politicians, media, religious authorities, leaders - get out of the movement’s way or better still, join it. But is it necessary to join a demonstration to be part of that famous 3.5%?


Demonstrations are not the only way


Not all of us need to all join demonstrations and sit-ins to be active participants to the climate movement. In fact, movements are most likely to succeed if they act on different tactics and actions - that’s another interesting finding of Chenoweth’s research. It’s not only protests and high-risk activities that are useful; even perceived lower-risk actions such as stay-at-home strikes, flash mobs and consumer boycotts may be effective additions to a movement's strategy.


As we have seen with the recent case of Unilever, the multinational company producing cleaning products, personal care goods, food and other goods. Unilever was one of the 10 top plastic polluters in 2019, according to the Break Free From Plastic movement (we won’t get into the company’s huge palm-oil usage this time). In September, the company committed to eliminate fossil fuel-based ingredients from its cleaning products, and to do so by 2030. Last year, Unilever had already pledged to halve their plastic production by 2025. Today, companies are aware of consumers’ demands and, when held accountable, may be willing to make changes.


It’s nice to know that even individual effort is a fundamental piece of the success of a movement. Lots can be done by orienting the market through consumers’ choices, joining discussion groups - online and offline - and supporting organisations and local groups.


Are we reaching 3.5%?


So the final question… have climate activists reached 3.5% of the global population? To reach 3.5% of the global population, we’d need 273 million people to reach critical mass. Are we nearly there? Possibly! Whilst it would be hard to count all climate activists, the amount of potential supporters could be grasped by looking at the global sentiment towards climate change and consumers’ actions to reduce waste.


We found some figures that might give us a hint. In a 2018 global survey over 26 countries, on average 68% of respondents thought climate change was a major threat to their nation. A year ago, a study by a consulting company found that 16% of global consumers frequently take active steps to improve the environment. That number has risen by 4% in 2020. Overall, 52% of global respondents said they frequently or infrequently take some steps to reduce their environmental impact.


These figures suggest that communities are ever more concerned towards climate change and gradually more ready to take active steps towards sustainable lifestyles. Among them, some will be likely to support or join climate movements as well, as they want to be more active on this front. All things considered, we think numbers bode quite well, what do you think? Any questions or comments, feel free to join the discussions via our Instagram channel @thecaptureapp or say hi to the team via email at hello@thecapture.club

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