History and theory of activism leading the fight against climate crisis today

Aug 10, 2020 by

From Gandhi’s Salt March via the Civil Rights movements up to today’s environmentally driven actions by Extinction Rebellion – publicly breaking the law on moral grounds is often seen as the only way to bring about change towards a just system. In a lively discussion with Mira Kapfinger and Patrick Scherhaufer we took a closer look on what is needed to effectively drive societal change. As our speakers combined both research knowledge in the area of environmental policy with practical experience in activism at Stay Grounded, we had the chance to cast light on the subject of civil disobedience and NGO strategies from various perspectives.

How should activism look like? 

Whereas many movements share a vision of a better world, in reality, the approaches to achieve this future vary greatly. Activities can range from a letter to the CEO to affecting the work force to blocking roads. Even among activists these differences cause confusion and a lack of understanding, raising the question on how societal change is best promoted. Provocatively it could be replied if there even needs to be one best way. Is it good or bad to act different?

The Theory of Change provides the basis for the emergence of disparate strategies, tactics, actions and campaigns. More precisely, it describes the underlying assumptions on how the society can be changed and consequently leads the thinking and behaviour of NGOs and other organizations and movements committed to societal change. Mira emphasized, out of her own experience, that making implicit beliefs explicit already in the early start of a movement improves its productivity. Even though this is often not done, an awareness of own change ideas helps to critically reflect activities and can guide effective activities.

And still, depending on the perspective of change, an NGO needs to determine who is when, where and how addressed within the current system. One typical grassroot approach is illustrated by the ‘pillars of power’. Assuming that the system in power is only as powerful as the pillars that hold it in place, single actors such as the customers or workers are approached in contrast to the top of the pyramid. Although this bottom-up approach might be typical for many NGOs, both Mira and Patrick stressed that not the perspective on change and the derived type of resistance is the most critical aspect. Rather, a good match of timing and content can achieve a maximum of attention and impact. Moreover, one should be encouraged to think beyond applying the most efficient way of activism, but instead focus on driving change through being an active part of democracy and motivate others to do the same.

Is activism enough to address climate change?

Although more and more people raise their voices against climate change, current trends put us on a path of ongoing temperature increases beyond 1.5 degrees globally. Up to now, political, and economic actions seem insufficient to enable us a liveable future on planet earth. As it is necessary to step up the efforts rapidly and extensively, one could easily conclude that non-violent change endeavours are simply not enough to save us from the worst.

According to the theoretical concept of ‘Stairway to vision’, an efficient and democratic way to achieve societal change is to stepwise increase non-governmental activities in escalation and scale. However, this long-term concept might take more time than we have. In contrast, a revolution would use violence as means to rapidly change the system. While this potentially brings about the extensive changes necessary to stay within the planetary boundaries of climate crises, it needs to be critically questioned what violence means and how many lives it possibly costs. Comparing those to the consequences of temperature rise seems to be a more than morally questionable undertaking. Next to the negative societal consequences during revolution, both Mira and Patrick emphasized to think about the conditions provoked: instability, disorder, and injustice. Even more, if we look at history it is difficult to argue that revolutions have brought the initially intended framework conditions. At the same time history gives us hope that peacefully following our moral grounds allows for both rapid and sustaining societal changes.

Tools for activism

Mira presented us various tools activists and NGOs can use to better coordinate their strategies. It was interesting to learn the differences between campaigns, strategy, tactics and actions. For one, the strategy describes “what the initiative does” as opposed to tactics, which are the means to implementing strategies. For example, the strategy Stay Grounded pursues is changing public discourse on aviation. This could be seen as their main focus of action or their path to achieve change. Following this strategy, a tactic could be challenging unconditional bailouts of airlines. Furthermore, tactics also include actions, which were defined as single events, for example demonstrations, strikes, petitions, open letters and so on. Tactics and actions combined make up campaigns, for example “save people not planes”.  These need to be strategically connected and follow a certain time frame. Since I am also a climate activist within Fridays for Future, it was fascinating to learn about the theory behind activism. Speaking from my own experience, Fridays for Future is quite an action-focused movement, that puts most of its efforts into organising political action, instead of strategic, long-term planning. However, a lot can be learned from looking at the bigger picture and thinking about what the strategies, campaigns, tactics and actions of Fridays for Future could be. So here is an attempt to define these terms in the context of Fridays For Future.

Our international strategy is definitely putting pressure on politicians to achieve the Paris climate target. Fridays for Future does this through mass mobilisation, especially of the younger generation (this could be seen as one of our tactics). Additionally, we attempt to shift the narrative around the climate crisis from something that “only affects polar bears” to something that affects children and all future generations. As for actions, they can vary depending on the country. Since Fridays for Future is a global, decentralised movement, in which every local group decides autonomously on their way of political action, it is hard to generalise. However, one uniting way of action is civil disobedience in the form of school striking. Several Fridays for Future groups also engage in other ways of civil disobedience (blockades, sit-ins,…), whereas others protest in accordance with the law, some frequently meet with political decision makers, some do not, others write open letters, organise workshops or other educational events, the list goes on. The fact is that there is not only one form of political action. Fridays for Future gives local groups the opportunity to autonomously decide based on regional societal and political circumstances. For example, in countries, where protesting is highly dangerous, such as Russia, protests will strongly differ from ones in France or Germany. Adapting to local circumstances is a key advantage to raising awareness globally. Moreover, Friday for Future pursue several campaigns, however, frankly, they are rarely a result of long-term planning, but rather things that develop organically out of the given political circumstances. As Mira asked if AEMS students are involved in social movements or organizations, we discovered that quite of few students are members of Fridays for Future. Maybe we could use the Summer School to strengthen the links between FFF groups of different countries and compare our tactics!

Sustainable movements

One element we discussed during the session was the question of how to sustain a movement, especially one that is faced with urgency like the climate movement. Mira Kapfinger and Patrick Scherhaufer emphasized the importance of democratic, participative structures and taking care of people within the movement to prevent burn-out or other psychological harm. Additionally, they also urged activists to have fun. Programming actions in a way that participants will enjoy taking part in them can contribute to long term support by those participants. This is definitely something I can bring into the Fridays for Future movement.

To sum up, taking a closer look at the theory, history and methods behind activism offers valuable insights and learnings for activism today. However, it is important to remember that times have changed since Gandhi’s Salt March. We must not forget the impact Social Media and the internet have on organising and performing activism and the key element of urgency that comes with the climate crisis. Both of these factors heavily shape the movement and its actions, though from today’s point of view it is difficult to say in what ways exactly. This is definitely a question worth asking for historians of the future. Nevertheless, a lot can be gained from the presented tools for activism and long term strategic planning as shown by the Stay Grounded Network, as well as historic insights into civil disobedience and societal change.


Written by: Vanessa and Franziska

Based on the session with Patrick Scherhaufer and Mira Kapfinger during the AEMS 2020.