Looking through the history of social change is like reading a list of turning points in humanity.
Everything from wars, revolutions, protests, changing laws, politics, empowering people, religion, independence movements, and much more can come under the broad heading of social change.
The people involved in these changes had an idea for a better future and wanted to do something to make it happen.
In this article, I want to look at social change as it applies to climate change and what we can learn from previously successful social movements.
Many people will agree that climate change is the biggest threat humanity has ever faced—the very livability of our planet is in jeopardy.
Yet, at the same time, there seems to be a reluctance from both government and business as a whole to take this crisis seriously. As individuals, we too often fail to meet the call.
With a threat this large, the only way to treat it seriously is to respond with action proportionate to the problem. If we really want to have a chance at limiting the extreme effects of climate change, we need to make substantial changes now.
Significant social change is not easy and, in many cases, people have had to fight for long periods of time. It can take decades of fighting before fundamental laws, like the Civil Rights Act, are passed. Even changes that seem to happen quickly, such as in revolution, need time to build support in the movement.
So, what can we learn from our collective history about affecting social change, and how can we bring it into the current climate struggle we are facing today?
What Is Social Change?
The basic definition of social change is the alterations of mechanisms within the social structure. It focuses specifically on transformation in cultural symbols, social organizations, rules of behavior, and value systems.
Currently, the way we choose to organize our society is primarily into nation-states, leaving much of the mechanisms of control to the government. This article is going to look at the ability of people to impact and change the systems of power.
Social change is slow—often painstakingly so. We can expect resistance to any change. Many fear what the change will bring or benefit greatly from maintaining the status quo.
Nevertheless, society is always changing. You only have to look back 50 years to the 1970s to see how our views on gay rights, women in the workplace, and people of color voting have changed significantly.
You’re probably noting the long way we still have to go, but change requires attention and nurturing to keep progress going, and momentum continues to exist in these areas.
What Causes Social Change?
If you are to believe Auguste Comte, French philosopher and the inventor of modern sociology, no society stays the same forever; society is moving ever forward in increasing complexity. That certainly seems to describe the world we currently live in: complex banking systems, supply chains, and societal structures that are forever moving forward.
Of course, there are many different aspects of social change we could examine. In view of climate change, I like to think about social change that has happened as a result of social movements started by the public because, as mentioned, systems of power seem to need a push to provide sufficient response.
There are three main factors that lead to significant social change in any society. In many cases, it can be a combination of two or more factors that lead to the change.
- Conflict: Both internal and external conflict has been a large catalyst for change in the last 100 years. E.g., protests or war.
- Demographic Change: As group demographics change so do their values.
- Cultural Change: Since the invention of the internet, communication and culture have spread across the planet faster than ever.
The suffrage and civil rights movements are clear examples that brought about essential changes in institutions, cultural norms, and relationships. They were both conflicts from within the country itself.
These movements led to sweeping changes for millions of people in the United States and could be seen as a catalyst for changes around the world. Social change is a powerful force when used in the right way.
How Do We Get Social Change?
If we have decided that we need significant changes to prevent the worst effects of climate change, where do we start to make sure that happens? A good place to begin is by examining how other successful movements from around the world have achieved large-scale changes.
In researching this article, I found a study done by Harvard political scientist, Erica Chenoweth. In her book, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” Chenoweth conducts a deep-dive study to answer the question, “What is more successful in eliciting change—violent or nonviolent resistance?” She uses various data points and looks at a variety of movements that have led to changes in both government and laws. The surprising conclusion she reached made me consider how this could impact social change in the climate movement and what would be required.
Chenoweth began the study believing violent conflict was the most certain path to change. She and her team spent two years looking at data from various conflicts, both violent and nonviolent, from 1900 to 2006—examining the data from 323 mass actions across 160 variables associated with “success.” The results were the opposite of what she expected: overwhelmingly, nonviolent civil resistance was the most effective way of getting change.
The criteria for judging these conflicts was strict. A campaign was considered violent if it involved harming a person or property in any way. A campaign was considered a success if it achieved its goals both within a year of peak engagement and as a result of the group’s activities.
The study applied this strict criteria to events that have already taken place. The benefit of hindsight allows them to connect the social movement with the resultant change. Of course, this is no way to guarantee that anything will work like this in the future, however, it is a solid foundation of research to learn lessons from that may be helpful in our current era. I mention the study since the principles it outlines make a compelling message for people to believe that nonviolent, civil resistance is an effective way to send a message that change is demanded.
How Many People Are Needed for Change?
If nonviolent protests have a higher likelihood of success, then there must be a tipping point at which the change happens. Chenoweth’s study addressed this as well: “There weren’t any campaigns that had failed after they had achieved 3.5% participation during a peak event,” says Chenoweth. The reference point they use is a single event or time period when 3.5% of the population were actively involved in the protests.
With enough public support, the data shows clearly that governments will listen. While 3.5% may sound like a small amount, to engage such a significant number in one location means there was a larger amount of the population also passively supporting the cause, which is what gives any movement the force for change.
It may seem strange to be discussing climate change with data about changing governments, but the demand to the government is the same in both causes—demanding a significant change to the way things are currently being done. If people who care about climate change could rally just 3.5% of the population, they would not be asking for a regime change—they would be asking for policy change, and it seems that may be the best way to get it.
Those who are in the battle for the climate know that if we do not force action soon, it may be too late. So, this idea that we only need a small but committed minority to enact significant changes is extremely motivating, especially as we see numbers increasing in support of the climate fight.
The climate science is conclusive, and now the focus should be on a mass campaign to engage the population. We only have to convince more than 3.5% (to be on the safe side) that it is a battle worth fighting.
Below are some examples of successful nonviolent campaigns with more than 3.5% of the population participating in their peak event. In some cases, they may not have had the support of the majority of the population, but this 3.5% number was enough to push the change through.
1920 – Women get the right to vote in the US
1947 – Mahatma Gandhi protesting for an Independent India
1964 – Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act
1973 – Protests against the Vietnam war
1986 – Marcos defeated by millions in 4 days by People Power Movement
2003 – Peaceful protest to remove Georgia president Eduard Shevardnadze after 30 years in power with the Rose Revolution
2019 – Presidents of Sudan and Algeria both step down from peaceful protests during the Arab Spring
In each case, nonviolent civil resistance by the ordinary public achieved the goals they had set and won change without even close to the majority of the population taking action in support of the movements. Again, the threshold appeared to be 3.5%.
The People Power campaign against the Marcos regime in the Philippines, for instance, attracted two million participants at its height with a population of 56 million, while the Brazilian uprising in 1984 and 1985 attracted one million with a population of 135 million, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 attracted 500,000 participants with a population of 10 million.
Chenoweth also points to the consumer boycotts in apartheid-era South Africa that contributed to the deconstruction of Apartheid law and segregation in South Africa in the early 1990s. There, Black South Africans refused to buy products from companies that had white owners. This resulted in an economic crisis among the country’s white elite that required government response in the form of a shift in political power and movement toward social and racial progress in its policies.
The example in South Africa is a particularly interesting one for the climate movement, as it shows the power of economic protests. It is reported that 100 companies account for the majority of the carbon emissions from industry.
What if we were able to organize a global boycott to stop buying these products and how quickly would that change their policy?
What Do the Numbers Look Like for Us?
So, what would change actually look like in terms of the numbers of people that would need to be involved for climate action, according to Chenoweth?
In the UK, it would be around 2.3 million people actively engaging in a movement (roughly twice the size of Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city). In the US, it would be around 11 million citizens—more than the population of New York City.
Eleven million seems like a lot of people when you first think about it. However, in the recent US election, 76 million people voted for Joe Biden, a candidate who states support of climate action.
Estimates of the Black Lives Matter protest being between 15 and 20 million people are comfortably over the 11 million we’re aiming for. This is an encouraging reminder that, like the BLM movement, participation can come from across the country.
So, the question becomes how to get a focused effort and how to let people organize for themselves.
What Does This Mean for People Fighting for the Planet?
This sounds like positive news for the planet and for people that want to support a more sustainable world. Increasingly, we are seeing people take to the streets to voice their position on climate change.
From Greta Thunberg and the student walkouts that followed to Extinction Rebellion, all are using a collective voice that needs to be heard.
What can we learn from this?
If, as Chenoweth’s study suggests, nonviolent protests are the most effective way to bring about change, then this is something that people in the space should consider.
We must also look at what lessons we can draw from past victories and how we can apply their methods in today’s world.
- Sustained effort. When it comes to getting large-scale policy shifts, movements need to show consistent pressure over a period of time. Both the Civil Rights Movement and the suffragettes took years before the laws they supported were added to the Constitution.
Demanding big change requires communicating that we are serious about the cause. And that means showing up again and again in whatever way you can. Support climate-friendly companies and nix big polluters. Vote for public servants who demonstrate they understand the urgency. Show up at local protests or even organize them.
The bottom line is that persistence pays off when it comes to winning change. Some change may come quicker and some may take more time, but with consistent pressure and effort, the change we desire is very possible.
- A focused point. In the campaigns that Chenoweth cites in her study, the protesters had a very specific solution they were fighting for. It could be getting women the right to vote or people of color equal rights, or the removal of a corrupt regime, or independence from a colonizer.
Each person in the protest knew what they wanted. More importantly, they knew what victory looked like. In each of the cases mentioned, there was a clear action that they wanted the government to take. Climate change is more complex than this, as it is not just about changing one law or taking one action.
Climate change will only be solved through a large-scale shift in the way we do things as well as the correct support and investment in the technology that can help us. We need to find specific “wins” that the movement can achieve to continue to build momentum.
We can see climate victories happening all around us:
- The EU banning single use plastic bags.
- In the US, 2020 election climate leaders, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey who introduced the 2019 resolution on the Green New Deal, got reelected along with many others who supported the bill.
- The price of setting up renewable energy continues to drop while its share of new energy infrastructure continues to increase.
- Businesses such as Blackrock and Google are actively doing something about their climate footprint.
All of these wins were only possible because people have shown that these are important issues close to people’s hearts.
- Organization. Successful campaigns have effective organizations behind them that are able to rally people to the cause. They operate the way political parties operate, thinking about how to communicate with, engage, and motivate the people who align with their mission.
It is too easy for those who disagree with climate change to pick off small groups one at a time with their amassed power and wealth. But it is changing significantly. People who believe in the crisis of climate change are banding together in an organized movement around the world, giving the movement a voice that no government, business, or community could argue with.
We are seeing the growth of organizations attempting to coordinate people who care about the climate and want to do something about it. Greta Thunberg’s Friday for Future and Extinction Rebellion are just two of the more prominent groups. They have attracted large followings and may be the beginning of a truly global movement.
3.5% is not a large part of the whole. The planet needs an activated and engaged minority who can push the message of sustainability. The increasing awareness of the fragility of our planet is bringing many more people into the cause.
Technology is letting people connect with others around the globe in ways that were unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago. We are seeing how the internet and social media are helping people to share ideas and mobilize. There has never been a better time to get involved and make your voice heard.
It Feels Good To Be the Change
There is a wonderful quote from Steve Jobs: “Those that are crazy enough to think they can change the world, usually do.” It would be good for all of us to try and remember this.
No significant change in our world has ever been easy. Behind every successful movement are the people who have toiled for years to bring the movement into the mainstream. Climate change is very much in the mainstream at the moment.
Globally, we are realizing that the planet is not an all-you-can-eat buffet, and we need to do something before it becomes uninhabitable. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us all time to reflect on what is really important: family, friends, health, and community.
We should take this as an opportunity to make the changes needed in the world, so that we prioritize what is good for humankind and not just for corporations.
This is the time for us all to believe that we can change the world. We have no other choice.
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Zal has been a tech entrepreneur for more than a decade, focused primarily in the enterprise SaaS space, selling marketing and sales technology. He is the COO and Co-founder of Lucep, a Digital Marketing Software Company, and is now looking to take the skills he has learned to help sustainable and climate-focused companies grow and prosper.
Great write up. One question I’d love your and Grow Ensemble’s take on – the way we communicate and build community has changed drastically.
In the past, the world watched on television screens across all four major news networks. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos put their gloved fists up in the air in 1968, television ownership crossed into 90% of US households. This now echoes to this day as a symbol for human rights.
Now, with the advent of algorithmic social media, communities are sharded and can exist in many spaces. Arab Spring ~2011, Occupy Wall Street 2011, BLM 2013, Umbrella Revolution 2014, FFF 2018, XR 2018 – are all modern movements that have found organisation and amplification online.
Today, our society consumes media very differently (with time on platform fragmented, and what content we see – very different).
Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan wrote “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” in 2011.
Well before the ramped adoption of social media for the vast majority of the population. How do you think they would revise their findings, 10 years on, watching the social movements that occurred in the last 10 years?