Earth Matters: Peaceful civil disobedience the path to political change

Dr. Hildur Palsdottir

September featured the largest environmental mobilization recorded to date. Never before have 7.6 million people in 185 countries marched for a livable climate.

This Global Climate Strike was intentionally scheduled three days before the UN Climate Action Summit in New York where the UN secretary-general cautiously stated: “’we have a long way to go.” Seventy-seven countries committed to carbon zero by 2050.

That is a start, but not enough. We need to all start making dramatic changes TODAY. We must act now, or there’s no tomorrow.

A growing social movement, Extinction Rebellion, is a powerful example of international mobilization for non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to protest governments’ inaction on climate change.

Rooted in UK, with branches in many countries, non-compromising XR activists are growing in numbers, strength and most notably, in compassion.

We stood near them during the climate rally at Battery Park, September 20th. One of my favorite signs carried by XR activists read: “Respect existence, or expect resistance.” Youth chanting: “A better world is possible” felt so powerful that I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh, so I did both.

Extinction Rebels demand that we disrupt “business as usual” and break through the cultural denial responsible for where we’re at today. They warn that we’re unprepared for a future where floods, wildfires, extreme weather, droughts, crop failures and mass displacements wreak havoc.

XR demands to governments are:

Tell the truth.

Act Now.

Beyond Politics – The government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly.

We’re living in unprecedented times, we’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction (or as coined by Jonathan Cook “The first Extermination Event”) and we may be the first species aware that we are facing our own impermanence. What we do today matters. It’s truly a matter of life and death. I’m not being dramatic. The data is clear.

Devastating biodiversity loss should be enough of a warning sign. Birds are excellent indicators of environmental health. Rachel Carson warned of a world without bird song in Silent Spring. With a net loss of 29 percent North-America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970. What are we waiting for?

On Sept. 27t, XR activists shut down the Congress Street Bridge in Boston during rush hour. Two protesters climbed 40 feet onto the bridge structure and placed a banner stating: “Tell the truth … declare a climate emergency.”

In solidarity, the Buddhist branch of Boston XR called for “Mass Meditation: Love for the Earth, Love for the Future,” extending the invitation to all faiths, clearly stating that anyone who shares “a commitment to non-violence, inclusivity, and care for the Earth and her creatures are welcome to participate.”

It is truly countercultural to stop and sit down to breathe together in a fast-paced world that so often seems fed by conflict, fueled by aggression and measured in productivity. If you were a passenger in a car that’s speeding towards the cliff’s edge in a thick fog of mental pollution and confusion, it would only be wise to ask the driver to stop the car; to “disrupt business as usual.”

I grew up in Iceland, where there’s no denying climate change. This summer included a formal memorial for our first glacier to melt as a consequence of climate change. This glacier is named “Ok” in Icelandic (translates into “Burden” in English). Ok is a lake now. A beloved author, activist and former presidential candidate, Andri Snaer Magnason wrote the dedication on the plaque:

“Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done.

Only you know if we did it.”

What did we do? What are you doing today?

“Ordinary people, all the time, are engaging in pretty heroic activities that are actually changing the way the world works,” Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, suggests with her studies that civil disobedience is not just a matter of public outcry sparked by a moral sense of urgency; it is perhaps the most powerful way to shape world politics.

Chenoweth states that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to succeed as violent campaigns. She confidently stresses that there is historical evidence that if 3.5 percent of the population peacefully protest, the rest will follow and serious political change will take place.


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