8 min read

The Politics Follow the People (or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the protests)

Something I learned this week that helped me to feel a little less hopeless.
The Politics Follow the People (or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the protests)

Hello grownups!

I'm working on a project that has me deeply immersed in reading about the climate emergency. And yup, as you'd expect, a lot of the time this has me almost breathing into a paper bag in panic. To be honest, I've felt for a long time that sure, this is obviously very important, but isn't it all a bit hopeless really? Because c'mon, how are you actually going to convince the fossil fuel industry to stop burning coal, or persuade politicians to make them? Might as well just start building an emergency bunker in New Zealand, I guess.

Kenneth from 30rock saying "Time to Die!"

But I learned something this week that has made me feel more hopeful than I have felt in a long time, so I wanted to share it with you.

It's a number: 3.5%.

The thing about the climate emergency is that it's fundamentally a collective action problem, not a technological problem. It's also not an individual behaviour change problem. Sure, you can go vegan and refuse straws and give up your car and make your own clothes out of hemp all you like, and those things matter, but they're not going to be remotely sufficient. There's a much bigger and more urgent issue: we need the whole world to stop burning fossil fuels for energy, like, yesterday. Solve that, and you've halted the biggest source of the emissions. We especially need China, the US, Europe and India to stop (UK and South African readers, you're not off the hook, you're the 15th and 16th worst offenders, respectively).

We need this to happen now. Specifically, we need high-emitting rich countries to get to net zero carbon emissions by around 2025-2030 if we want a 2 out of 3 chance of staying below the 1.5°C target the world needs to hit to avoid the worst of climate change's effects. That means that we urgently need these countries to pass laws that stop fossil fuel subsidies, that radically tax or limit carbon emissions, and that pour money into fair renewable energy projects, as quickly as possible.

Covid-19 actually presents us with a uniquely good opportunity to do this. The International Energy Agency has calculated that governments have already committed to spending 9-trillion USD on stimulus packages this year to rescue their economies from the Coronavirus crisis. They could choose to use this money to prop up dead, dirty industries, or to create a wave of good new jobs in sustainable energy, mass transport and clean manufacturing. The money we spend now has an oversized impact on our chances of hitting the carbon emissions goal in this crucial decade. That's the urgency of the moment we are facing right now: we need our leaders to choose to spend this stimulus money correctly, and to follow it up with decisive action against carbon emitters.

But changing laws is sloooooow. Politicians are corrupt (duh). Big fossil fuel corporations are even corrupter (double-duh). And protests are pointless, right? So what do we do? Are we doomed unless we all give up our jobs and get into politics?

teen holding up a poster saying "be a part of the solution, not part of the pollution"
Photos by Callum Shaw

The good news is, no. There's good research showing that protests and ongoing community organising can be very effective (just look at the profound work Black Lives Matter is doing right now). We don't need everyone to do this, either. Just 3.5% of the population actively campaigning is probably enough.

I didn't just pull that number out my bum, by the way. It's based on research by a political scientist called Erica Chenoweth, who analysed hundreds of civil resistance campaigns against dictators to understand how likely they were to succeed. She discovered two things:

  1. No campaign failed once they'd achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population (and lots succeeded with less than that), and
  2. Nonviolent campaigns were twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.
Cover of the book, This is an Uprising by Mark Engler and Paul Engler

My friend Carla Lever sent me this extract from a book called This is an Uprising by Mark Engler and Paul Engler, and it's been rattling around in my brain:

In Serbia, [an authoritarian regime], it took social forces pushing from outside the country's oppressive power structure to generate change... But in democratic countries with representative institutions, the conventional wisdom is that the process of altering the status quo looks very different. It means working through officials in high office. It requires prolonged and often painstaking back-room negotiations between various interest groups. And when reforms are achieved, they are never so stark or dramatic as a dictator's fall.
Or are they?
As it turns out, this accepted vision of how political change occurs has serious flaws. At best, it presents an incomplete picture of how progress in our society is won. At worst, it is a wrong-headed story that stubbornly conceals the way in which many of the most significant gains of the past century have been secured, from women's suffrage, to labor laws, to civil rights. It misses how people with few material resources and little access to conventional powerbrokers have sometimes been able to bring about transformations that mainstream politicians consider to be absurd and impractical – right up until the moment when these changes become common sense.

Change feels slow, until suddenly it's not. A good example of this is the fight for same-sex marriage in America. In 1990, a public poll found that 3/4 of Americans saw gay sex as immoral. 25 years later, the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, after 36 states had already enacted it, often through elected officials or the popular vote. Decades of incremental change, and then, suddenly, the floodgates open, and the power balance shifts, and it becomes more costly for politicians and businesses to alienate the people pushing for change than the people holding onto the old ways. The politics follows the people, and we are not as powerless as we are lead to believe.

Another political scientist, Gene Sharp:

Obedience is at the heart of political power. Rulers or other command systems, despite appearances, [are] dependent on the population’s goodwill, decisions, and support.

Look, we don't have 25 years. And 3.5% of the population is a lot of people. In both SA and the UK, it's about 2-million people. But it's not everyone. You don't have to convince every corrupt banker and business leader and politician. And a lot of people are there already - everyone under the age of 20, for instance :)

You just need to convince 3.5% of regular people. And we 3.5%, we need to care a lot.

People protesting, one woman holding a sign saying granny's for future
Grannys for Future! From Fridays for Future in Bonn, Germany. Photo by Mika Baumeister.

Here's what active and sustained nonviolent participation looks like: participating in a strike. Attending a protest. Showing up for a community meeting. Persuading your friends, family, workplace, community (or newsletter readers) to care about the issue. Participating in acts of civil disobedience, like Gandhi walking across India making salt (illegally), or black South Africans showing up at an Apartheid police station without their passbooks, or XR protesters standing naked in front of your city's most famous tourist attraction.

It means caring. Learning more about the issue, and what it means in your own community. Refusing to feel hopeless, and holding on to the ways in which responding to the climate emergency is just one thread in the story about the better future we have to build: one with more jobs, an inclusive economy, social justice, reformed land rights, healthier communities. One where we don't lurch forever from one natural disaster to the next.

A place to start? How about picking one climate justice group, and joining their mailing list? Extinction Rebellion has chapters all around the world, or you could look for a more hyper-local organisation that aligns with your values, like the New Eskom group in SA.

It might feel like this doesn't matter, and it's all too big and the system is too hard to change, and there's no point in trying. But that's what they want you to think. And what if they're wrong?

Anyway, learning about that 3.5% number made me feel more hopeful, and clearer about what we have to do. I hope it's helpful for some of you too.

Wishing you hemp shirts and hope,

Your buddy Sam

Looking for a good bank account for savings pockets?

In last week's post, we chatted about whether you should split up your savings into separate pockets or lump everything together. Approximately 27-million of you emailed me back to tell me that if you are somebody who likes to divide your savings, the TymeBank Goalsave feature is the best solution in South Africa. Here's from our reader Nick:

Just a note on the SA banking comments - would recommend looking at TymeBank’s Goalsave offering. The current account Everyday Account is free and allows you to open up to ten linked savings pockets - also free. The interest rate on the pocket increases the longer it is open regardless of the amount. Pockets can be labeled whatever makes sense to you. Pockets then work like piggy banks - can add whatever you want but withdrawal entails breaking the specific pocket and ‘repatriating’ the funds into the Everyday account for use. No notice required to break a piggy bank and a bonus if you give 10 days notice. Interest rates probably best in the market.Very easy to use and a great option for Solution 1 aficionados.

I had a TymeBank account for a while, and I liked it a lot! If you're a savings-splitter rather than a savings-lumper, do check them out. Do be aware that they have a limit about how much you can have in your accounts, though, which means they might not be appropriate for people sitting on a lot of cash/dragons.

Looking for a good global ethical ETF in SA?

One other nifty product I want to tell you about, Saffers: Satrix just launched two new low-cost global ETFs specifically for sustainable investing - the MSCI World ESG Enhanced & the MSCI Emerging Markets ESG Enhanced funds. "ESG" stands for "Environmental, Social and Governance". They're the global ethical funds of your dreams, friends! And they're both available through EasyEquities.

I am not on the payroll of Satrix or EasyEquities, I promise! I just legit like them both, and products like this are a great reminder of why.

Updates from Sam-Land

My little holiday in Cornwall was a damn dream, friends. And boy did I need it. You know when you've got too many tabs open? I had too many tabs open, but in my brain. I am feeling REFRESHED and ready to hunker down for the rest of the year.

  • I did the cutest ever interview with Bruce Whitfield on Monday night where he got his 11-year-old kid to review my teen book. Take a listen.
  • I'm back on 702/Cape Talk this Thursday just after 2pm talking to Pippa Hudson. It would be great to know some friendly ears are listening in!
  • Do you need a new podcast? I recently loved the New York Times' 8-part series about what the internet is doing to our brains, called Rabbit Hole.
  • Apart from promoting the teen book and working on the climate change thing, I've got a few other projects brewing, but I'll tell you more about them soon! (MYSTERIOUS WINK)

Stay safe!