Has XR the successful strategy to save the planet?

XR Protesters with placard 'Tell the Truth'
Extinction Rebellion - Tell the Truth - cc-by Julian Meehan - https://www.flickr.com/photos/140724511@N03/

Extinction Rebellion has one very clear tactic: Nonviolent mass-participation civil disobedience. They state that this is proven to be the most successful strategy. Their mobilisations have successfully shown they can build mass participation with large numbers willing to be arrested. Has XR found the one tactic that can finally make the change required?

Submitted by anna and arthur on August 16, 2019

The tactic is in the introductory talks, in the way actions are organised, interviews with co-founders, in the FAQ on the website, and in the 10 principles and values:

"2. We set our mission on what is necessary. Mobilising 3.5% of the population to achieve system change"
"9. We are a non-violent network. Using non-violent strategy and tactics as the most effective way to bring about change."

If there is a reference why nonviolence is the only strategy it is invariably "Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict" or another one of Erica Chenoweth's presentations or works which are all stem from an earlier study from 2008. Can this study underpin the one tactic?
Chenoweth & Stephan built a sample of some 323 resistance campaigns. These are all anti-regime, anti-occupation or secession campaigns. While many in XR don't believe that they're trying to
change a regime, they are campaigning for a change in the method of government, moving power from Parliament to the Citizens Assemblies. It follows the logic of the imminent climate threat and the lack of response by the present regimes. Hallem, co-founder and central architect of the strategy, is clearer: if government won't accept the demands then the slogan should be 'bring down the government'.

"Bring down the government you say?
I would argue that the slogan – 'bring down the government' (or similar) - has an incredible (and therefore actually a very credible) ring about it... This releases enormous political energy and imagination. This is what has powered the rapid explosion of support for Extinction Rebellion. Rebellion is ridiculous but for that very reason it is appealing." (Hallam 2019:23)

The 323 resistance campaigns are focused on single national governments. There are few in Western industrialised democracies:
ETA, the IRA. The only campaign covered that tried to unseat a Western industrialised democracy is Spain 1936–39 (the violent and successful Fascist overthrow of the republican government).
Social and economic movements are explicitly excluded. Women's rights, equality, civil rights environmental and peace movements: That's all excluded.
There are no examples of issue based or international campaigns. The study only looks at the state actor. Success in this context is gaining international recognition for the new regime – not changed policies. The study does not look at non-state actors: It doesn't deal with companies, multinationals, intergovernmental organisations, or other actors such as Worldbank, IMF, OECD, World
Economic Forum etc. It doesn't look at international treaties where states and non-state actors can - and do - pressure each other from different positions of power.
Just like the cases in the study, XR's tactic is also national. While there are groups starting in other countries, each is targeting their own national government alone. While companies might be sometimes be targeted in an action, this is part of the tactic to attack the government of the individual state.

The Study

The original study analyses a sample of 323 campaigns that meet a strict set of criteria (Chenoweth & Stephan 2008). It categorises them by success, partial success and failure and as nonviolent and violent. This sample does not include the IRA till 1968, so no Easter Rising, no civil war or Irish independence. The original Young Turks and their Revolution in the Ottoman empire don't make the grade either. Creating the Weimar Republic from the German Revolution is also not, nor the Bolsheviks October revolution, though the Kirghiz and Kazabeles rebels before them and anti-Bolsheviks after do. The largely nonviolent mass civil disobedience and Egyptian Revolution of 1919 doesn't get in, nor the unsuccessful 2,000,000 people nonviolently campaigning for Korean independence from Japan as part of the March 1st Movement in 1919. A list of 323 campaigns actually in the study can be found online available under the name NAVCO dataset 1.1 (Chenoweth & Stephan 2011b).
Nonviolent campaigns in the book include the First Intifada in Palestine, several involving military coup d'etats, the attempted regime change in Panama in 1987-89 that was supported by the US army, as well as Hungary in 1956. Nonviolence means 'primarily nonviolent tactics.' In the case of the First Intifada for example, the text explains that 97% of it was nonviolent. Violent campaigns include tactics such as bombs, arson, kidnapping, and assassinations.
From this sample, Chenoweth concludes 57% of the nonviolent campaigns were successful (in the book that figure is 53%), compared to 26% of the violent campaigns (Chenoweth & Stephan 2008:8). XR extrapolate this to be the proof that nonviolence "is twice as likely to succeed" as violent action, even though it's clear that even within the bounds of the sample it's not authoritative of all campaigns, rendering that particular conclusion invalid.
XR's focus on the nation state and changing its regime can also be seen reflected in this book. Some of the constraints the study gives itself even seem to be echoed in the tactic of XR. The study has a specific limited focus: its atomises the successes and failures of campaigns outside their historical context. All campaigns are put into neat little boxes. Each is assessed as if they all happened on a clean slate, as if prior history has no effect on how people see a current event. This over-emphasises the particular form of action these campaigns take. This understood, it has clearly been formative for, and at points underpins, the one tactic that XR will accept.
Politics doesn't work in the neat atomised boxes of the campaigns taken in the study. Take for example Ghana. The study solely attributes, Ghana's successful nonviolent transition from British colony to independent state, to the period of negotiation between Nkrumah and the British State between 1951 and 1957. What is left out is the rioting of 1948 that triggered the establishment of a British Commission that proposed the assembly and elections, What is also left out is the ongoing struggles Nkrumah promoted
that raised his profile between 1948 and 1951, so that he won those elections and power in the new assembly from which to negotiate.
For South Africa, two separate periods are studied. The first one stops in 1961, just as Nelson Mandela goes underground to set up the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC. It's described as nonviolent and a failure, even though they do allude to the fact that "it dramatically increased international awareness of the South African Apartheid system, eventually resulting in world-wide trade embargoes and boycotts against the state." (Chenoweth & Stephan 2011b:97). The second period starts in 1984. There is a gap of 23 years of militant, violent and armed struggle that is left out, just as the other events in that period. The Soweto uprising in 1976, in which 10-20,000 black school children went out to protest - and several hundred got killed? The international boycott campaigns? The high international pressure on
the regime that was at its peaking in the middle of the 80s? All this is outside the study. When the ANC suspended – but not stopped – armed struggle in 1990 during the talks with the South African
government, it wasn't because the tactic had failed but because it had succeeded. "The purpose of the armed struggle was always to bring the government to the negotiation table, and now we have done so" (Mandela 1992:774). Nonetheless, the study gives the credit for ending apartheid to a nonviolent "Defiance Campaign" 1984-94.
The boxes can also isolate the campaign from what is around them. East Timor is a case study in the book where Chenoweth describes how the Falintil guerillas had stopped fighting and retreated into the mountains. They hadn't given up their weapons. The book then quotes one of the protesters saying: "The Falintil was an important symbol of resistance and their presence in the mountains helped boost morale [...]". (Chenoweth & Stephen 2011:4).
The Philippines case study also mentions that there was ongoing violence, but counts it as a separate campaign even when mentioning that another scientist "argues that the violent and nonviolent resistance strategies were complementary" (Chenoweth & Stephan 2011:169). The book discounts that these violent tactics had any bearing just based on their narrative of events.
The list could continue. Relying on this study certainly doesn't "prove" that non-violence is the most successful strategy.
The Philippines case highlights another feature inherent in the premise of the study. Success includes support by other states. This can be sanctions, material support, but also armed invasions. Since the goal of the chosen campaigns is a regime change, it can be seen as successful when a new government is recognized as legitimate, or when a state's independence recognized. President Marcos in the Philippines was backed by the US, and supported by the military, by the time of the campaign followed by the study he
is loosing this support as the economy is failing, international financial institutions are putting on the pressure and he is no longer compliant to US demands.
The original study analyses the campaigns for 4 hypothesis that can be paraphrased as:

  • Do they benefit from suppression of the state?
  • Do they lead to security staff defecting as a measurement for the
    regime loosing important support?
  • Does the campaign get international support?
  • Does the international support help?

Internationally powerful states, the military, and business are frequently not looking for a political objective that would be disruptive for them. They want to maintain their power as a regime is no longer working to their own goals. The study can categorise the objectives of a campaign (antiregime, antioccupation...) (Chenoweth & Stephan 2011:7) but it can't analyse anything about the nature of the (attempted) power changes.
The support of powerful states and the military - and therefore their interests - are inherent in the definition of success of the study itself. At the same time, the study excludes social and economic campaigns that could be challenging these interests within a country. Many of the cases that could work as examples for XR and similar campaigns, are excluded.

"Omitted from the data set are major social and economic campaigns, such as the civil rights movement and the populist movement in the United States. To gain inclusion into the NAVCO data set, the campaign must have a major and disruptive political objective, such as the ending of a current political regime, a foreign occupation, or secession." (Chenoweth & Stephan 2008:15)

Another restriction is the campaign requires clear leaders.

"But for the sake of this study only events with clear leaders, begin and end dates, and clear demands are taken into account." (Chenoweth & Stephan 2008:16)

This emphasises further that particular campaigns are selected and analysed in isolation to others, removing the complexity of real movements and the dynamics of history.

3.5 percent?

One last note about something that's neither in the study nor in the book. There are frequent claims it is proven 3.5% is all that is required to guarantee success of a nonviolent mass-participation civil-disobedience campaign. This is even prominently stated in one of XR's principles.
Chenoweth explains on one of her websites in 2017 that she had come up with the figure for an activist workshop and that her TED talk (in 2013) is the only "published claim" of it. A BBC article (Robson 2019) explains that the size of a campaign is defined as the largest number of people visibly active at one point. The three biggest successful "non-violent" events in the study - the People Power movement in the Philipinnes against Marcos in 1983-86, the Singing Revolution in Estonia in 1989 and the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 - are followed by the fourth largest campaign that wasn't successful. These three were above 3.5% so Chenoweth simply took this as a cut-off point. By sample and probability: it's not significant.

Using the study as blueprint for a political project?

Extinction Rebellion is often described as a movement. In the words of the XR website, it was "set up as a project" by the Rising Up network. This is also the body that signs all the press releases for the UK. Hallam - member of Rising Up and co-founder of XR - is writing a booklet (version 0.3 at the time of writing) in which he explicitly draws a direct line between Chenoweth's study and Extinction Rebellion's tactic:

"The Rising Up network was set up to question this conservatism - the unwillingness of activists to look at new strategies and tactics. The hope was that by trying tactics which 'will not work' according to conventional activist wisdom, we would find something that will. A key discovery here is that mass civil disobedience works better than any other strategy. This is no accident as the main social scientific research on the subject ('Why civil resistance works') shows that mass participation civil
disobedience is the most successful strategy in bringing down regimes. (Hallam 2019:30)

From his reading of the study, the target is clearly the government. "They focus on the government, not intermediate targets – government is the institution that make the rules of society and has the monopoly of coercion to enforce them." (Hallam 2019:7) The study of course only looks at campaigns targeting government. Hallam's desire to "[treat] the police in a polite way when we are arrested and at the police stations, engaging in small talk" (Hallam 2019:31) resonates heavily with the sections of Chenoweth's
book that talk of loyalty shifts for security staff.
The Citizen's Assembly - one of XR's three demands - is chosen by Hallam as the proposed solution because he thinks that it will appeal to the broadest possible audience. Citizen's Assemblies will "appeal to both liberal and revolutionary values" (Hallam, 2019:62). To fit the study they would have to gain international recognition. Further just as the study, this goal potentially suffers from viewing regime change in the most limited sense, and by not analysing existing or future power relations. Climate change already effects people unevenly, within a nation state, but more important globally. This disparity will only get greater as it gets worse. XR has a principle of not blaming anybody individually, and while that might create a nice atmosphere, there are people who want to perpetuate the growth that causes climate destruction. These are just the individuals and groups who have existing power, and it isn't governmental, or bound to nation states. Is a change of process enough to guarantee the policy change required? Those with existing power have a track record of stopping, or reversing, change that is disruptive for them.
As Hallem further expands, you can't just take a historically similar situation and place it in the present context:

"we need to look in detail at how the present situation and proposed plan are similar or different to what has happened before. Small differences and the introduction of new design elements can massively change outcomes in a complex social system. This problem is made worse when ideological dogmas are imposed on scientific facts. We need to look at empirical feedback objectively." (Hallam 2019:16)

What becomes clear is that the historical situations have not been looked at for similarities. Instead it seems that the three dogma (single tactic, mass civil disobedience, nonviolence) have been looked at for similarities even though they don't have empirical historical basis in the complex social system in the past
and present.

In practice

Extinction Rebellion is a practical organisation, with a clear tactic and a set of agreed goals at the outset. The only reference for it's tactic is Chenoweth's study. But it is an also an organisation that works in the reality of the present situation, so naturally not everything is followed to the letter.
XR has an introduction talk, which is used and adapted by local groups. This usually emphasises the proven higher success rate of the tactic, but goes on to extend the successes into other campaigns not covered by the book by implying these would be. There is a slide with six or seven pictures to illustrate success nonviolent campaigns or campaigners. This slide includes the iconic pictures of an unnamed suffragette, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, as well as three other people with very little context given.
As already mentioned Nelson Mandela was not only a founder of the military wing of the ANC (MK), but refused through all his time in jail and during negotiations with the government to renounce violence, but praised it as the tactic and acknowledged that – even when the MK was not active - "the aura of armed struggle had great meaning to many people" (Mandela 1994:702).
Gandhi appears in the study as part of the Indian campaign against British Rule (1919-45) but there were a number of outside factors and different tactics lead by different people in parallel. So much so Chenoweth only sees it as "The protesters have limited success in ousting British rule" and "The protests, while not the exclusive reason for why the British withdrew from India, were an important part of established the undesirable nature of the British colonial system and the relative unity of the Indian population." (Chenoweth & Stephan 2011b:124).
The campaigns of the other figures fall outside the book. The suffragettes did marches, lobbying and civil disobedience, but they are well-known for their bombing and arson campaigns. They suspended their campaign in 1914, but not because they were turning their back on violent actions, but because they didn't want to interfere with the war that started.
Martin Luther King, and the Freedom Riders in 1961 often highlighted by XR, were part of the US Civil Rights movement. A movement that included a variety of strategies and actions: a real diversity of tactics including marches and the Freedom Riders, legal support and the school children's breakfast programme of the Black Panther Party. Many Civil Rights campaigners went out armed. At least at the beginning of the Montgomery bus strikes, so did King. He later employed armed bodyguards. The Deacons for Defence
and Justice - an armed African-American self-defence group - secured a range of marches and locations, allowing other groups to formally observe their parameters for nonviolence. One of those marches was the "March against fear" in which King participated.
Prominent leaders in the Civil Rights movement included not only King, but also people like James Baldwin and Malcom X. In the last years of his life, King started to have more common ground with Malcom X. Making the success of the Civil Rights Movement about one person or one action, is reductionistic. It ignores power balances. The state authorities, up to and including the US president, did talk to King. Is this because of his success, alone? Is this because talking to King would give them most political credit? Here's where the Overton window comes in: People like Malcom X were more radical, but a 35 year old, Christian church minister was the safer point of contact for the US administration. Rather then reducing the Civil Rights movement to one person, one action and heralding it as the success of nonviolence, we can learn from its diversity of tactics.
Too often, the messy reality of the past is reduced to shiny pictures and inspirational quotes. The examples sanitize history to promote a tactic from a history that never happened the way it is presented.


In the messy reality of today, actions by groups of Extinction Rebellion have caught the attention of the media. Along with other groups such as Friday's for Future they have helped move the threat of climate change and biodiversity loss further into public discourse. New people have been involved in their first direct action, and arrest. If this experience is "crossing the Rubicon" as Hallam (2019:7) puts it, time will tell. For lasting commitment hope might need to built on something more concrete than "proof" of the most successful tactic, 3.5% and only weeks required.

Diversity of tactics

There is a growing number of national and local XR groups, and it becomes obvious that these groups become more diverse, diverting from some of the strict lines set out by XR in the UK. Some groups take different approaches about whether or not to talk to the police after being detained or arrested. Others actively invite people to participate in actions of other action groups that target specific companies that play a role in climate change, biodiversity loss or industrialized agriculture.
XR Germany in their version of the talk highlights another campaign as a recent example of successful direct action: the protests against the nuclear waste castor transports to Gorleben. They used a variety of tactics: marches and petitions; blocking streets with groups sitting down, but also with barricades of burning tires, or undermining the street itself by digging next to or under them; removing street signs; blocking train traffic by people hanging of trees, but also by sabotaging signals and destabilizing tracks by removing stones, even cutting the tracks themselves. And of course breaking through police lines to get to
the tracks and road that needed blocking, often with elaborate lock-ons. One of the groups set up for breaking through the police lines where the local farmers with their tractors. None of this was off-putting for 'non-activist' local residents. Plenty of old people provided the action camps with fresh blueberry pancakes, or helped by pulling wet activists from street, feeding and drying them, and putting them straight back out again to continue.
It was a diversity of tactics that ensured that people could choose the action form they preferred - including those of the nonviolent group X-tausendmal quer who blocked train tracks for days. It was a campaign that lasted over decades, and that was successful in the end.
Dutch XR activists, participated in the Ende Gelände actions in Germany in June 2019, where different groups (fingers) applied different tactics over the course of several days, ranging from a finger for people with wheelchairs and young children and those who didn't want to enter company grounds, to fingers who broke through the police lines and occupied the open-cast coal mine for 45 hours. For September, Extinction Rebellion Netherlands is mobilizing people to participate in an action by Free the Soil to block a fertilizer company. Meanwhile local German XR groups are part of a broad network of groups that support Sand im Getriebe that calls for blocking the international car fair IAA in Frankfurt in September.
It's encouraging to see that people that are mobilized by XR's actions are out and about, joining other groups in this shared fight, and are willing to participate in actions that are less rigid, that focus on different demands to stop climate change and biodiversity loss, and/or have different forms of action consensus.

Tell the Truth

As outlined, the history of change is a diverse history. A single study can teach us some things, but shouldn't be heralded as the truth, nor can it give the single tactic for success. Looking at history it can be seen how different groups worked together and autonomously, with different tactics to similar goals. It is clear that power resides not only in the institution of government, and that support and resistance will come from parties based on their existing situation and history. Who has this power can be analysed.
If people have the knowledge, they can make informed decisions about what actions or tactics they want to support themselves. Diversity of tactics with this context does not drive people away, but enables different pressure to be exerted.
XR itself doesn't need to target all centres of power, or use all tactics. But it should not claim that it has the successful tactic either. It can support movements with differing tactics, and for example amplify the voice of those who have already been campaigning as they are more immediately threatened by the uneven effects of climate change and the loss of their environment.
While XR groups are now working with more diverse movements, and the groups are changing themselves, the talks and the words used are still the same. Nelson Mandela, the suffragettes and their
successes are still hailed as successes of nonviolent action. Mass civil nonviolent disobedience is still put forward as the most successful tactic. Shouldn't an organisation whose main demand is "Tell the truth" tell their volunteers the truth themselves?
Rather than misrepresent history let's tell the truth. We know we need diverse movements to challenge power.


  • Chenoweth & Stephan (2008): Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. International Security 33(1):7-44.
  • Chenoweth & Stephan (2011): Why Civil Resistance works. Page numbers from the paperback edition 2013.
  • Chenoweth & Stephan (2011b): Online web appendix and NAVCO dataset 1.1. https://www.ericachenoweth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/WCRW-Appendix.pdf
  • Chenoweth (2013): My Talk at TEDxBoulder: Civil Resistance and the "3.5% Rule"; Rationalinsurgent website with transcript and a comment on 31 July 2017. https://rationalinsurgent.com/2013/11/04/my-talk-at-tedxboulder-civil-resistance-and-the-3-5-rule
  • Robson (2019): The '3.5% rule': How a small minority can change the word. BBC website:
  • Hallam (2019): Common sense for the 21st century. v.03
  • Extinction Rebellion UK: Our principles and values. https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/about-us/ and FAQ https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/faqs/(accessed on 12 August 2019)
  • Mandela (1994): Long walk to freedom.
  • Tresantis (2015): Die Anti-Atom-Bewegung.

Image credit CC-BY Julian Meehan