Reflection on civil resistance and ARRCC

Jason MacLeod is an Australian civil resistance researcher, teacher and practitioner. He has written this letter to ARRCC, which he entitles, "Why ARRCC needs to publicly embrace civil resistance: a few provocative thoughts".

by Jason MacLeod[i]

The dangers of climate change do not need explaining to members of ARRCC. Even with one degree warming we are facing an increasingly hostile climate. For the poor and vulnerable that situation is worse. We know, that at the very least, we need to leave all fossil fuels in the ground and that countries like Australia need to decommission all coal fired power stations and transition to a clean energy economy within 30 years to have any hope of staying below two degrees warming. The problem is complex and multi-faceted. It is also well understood and urgent. The real question is what to do? Are conventional politics and current economic forces sufficient to bring about the kind of far-reaching change we need within a fast enough time period? And for members of ARRCC, how does our faith speak to those of us burdened with living knowingly in this time?

Our existing political and economic system is incapable of bringing about the change we need

An analysis of the proposed Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin should be sufficient to illustrate that by themselves parliamentary processes and the market are incapable of ending our shared addiction to coal or instituting climate justice policies. Both sides of politics voted to erode the already limited rights of all Traditional Owners, including the Right to Free and Prior Informed Consent. The Australian Labor Party and the Liberal National Party continue to back Adani because of vested political and economic interests, even when it is clear that the majority of the Australian people oppose the mine. And although Australia’s four major banks publicly withdrew financial support for the project, I would argue that the major reason they did so was because of sustained, organised and increasingly disruptive nonviolent protest targeting Bank’s reputation, brand and customer base. The same is true for other wins like the Bentley campaign in northern NSW. Change occurred primarily because organised people imposed unacceptable political and economic costs on fossil fuel corporations and their political backers. They did this primarily through escalating tactics of nonviolent protest, mass noncooperation and sustained blockades. And while it is important to continue to use what space we have within parliament, the legal system and to engage in persuasive and rational dialogue with elite decision makers, the existing political and economic system is incapable of bringing about the change we need.

What is civil resistance and why is it suited to addressing climate change?

Civil resistance is not the only path to change. Nor is it always the most effective way to transform conflict and violence. Civil resistance is best used in situations of entrenched injustice with sharp

asymmetrical power differences; unarmed ordinary people on one side pitted against corporate and political elites on the other, with all the hard power of the state at their disposal.

Civil resistance has been used successfully throughout history, by people of all races and creeds, on every continent on earth. Despite popular belief doubting its efficacy, evidence shows that nonviolent action is more than twice as potent as violence, ushering in national liberation, securing equality and expelling foreign occupiers.[ii]  In a parliamentary democracy like Australia civil resistance is used alongside conventional political process – like lobbying, elections and legal action – to defend deeply held societal values, safeguard civil and political rights, strengthen the rule of law, and uphold democratic institutions. It works by organising and mobilising large numbers of people who maintain nonviolent discipline, persist over time, and act in strategic concert to withdraw their consent and cooperation from unjust policies, rulers or systems.[iii]

Civil resistance, which is also known as people power, nonviolence, nonviolent action, and nonviolent resistance, is collective action for social and political change that is against violence and conducted without violence.[iv] Its systematic approach to change goes beyond single and individual acts of nonviolent protest or civil disobedience (the deliberate breaking of unjust laws). Stellan Vinthagen describes it as multi-dimensional transformative force combining strategy, normative action, dialogue and utopian enactment.


In recent years the most thoroughly explored dimension of civil resistance has been strategy. Civil resistance lowers the bar to participation and raises political and economic costs for the opponent, shifting power dynamics in favour of just outcomes. Strategic nonviolent action is not only about altering the opponent’s willingness, and undermining their capability to continue the injustice.

Strategy also includes support for social, political and economic alternatives. These compete with the existing system, making space for a more just, peaceful and sustainable society to emerge. For the climate justice movement it also includes fearless action to disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure and impose escalating economic and political costs on our corporate and political opponents.

Normative action

Norms are the non-formal and often unwritten ‘rules’ of expected behaviour of groups and people in various social situations. Normativity may be codified in legislation but norms are different from laws. Norms include etiquette, rituals, traditions and cultural practices that members of groups – small and large – get socialised into through participation in daily life. Over time these norms become internalised, regulating behaviour and belonging, influencing group members’ motives and habits. All groups, communities and societies have norms. It is one of the things that help bind people together, and in some cases, keep people apart. The normative worlds of people, however, even those from the same group, may look fundamentally different from one another.

Nonviolent activists simultaneously uphold some norms while criticising and even breaking others. The civil rights activists who campaigned for equal rights in the United States for example, claimed norms of equality, taking responsibility for one’s actions and not harming others in word and deed. At the same time these activists also criticised and broke widely held social norms like obeying authorities. Through training and participation in the movement, social behaviour previously abhorred, like being arrested and serving time in jail, was reframed as badges of honour. This was true for not only the Civil Rights movement but also the Indian independence movement, as well as many other social movements. Normative action is also about creating the new nonviolent society and embodying that with our lives, social interactions, group processes and new institutions, even though our goals of a just and sustainable peace are yet to be fully realised. We need religious leaders, communities and organisations like ARRCC actively involved in a civil resistance movement for climate justice in order to deepen and broaden nonviolent discipline, acting like leaven to strengthen the ethics, discipline, moral tone, and vision of the movement. Religious organisations like ARRCC are unique because they bring spiritual and ethical values to the fore, saying ‘no’ with one hand, while saying ‘yes’ with the other, reaching out to and affirming the humanity of those whose actions we oppose.

Vinthagen argues that activists who participate in nonviolent resistance movements begin to internalise new social movement norms through training and education, joining social action groups, participating in campaigns of nonviolent action, living in communities of resistance and being part of creating cultures of nonviolence. Mohandas Gandhi, for example, developed norms of not just nonviolently resisting British colonialism. He also emphasised satyagraha, the individual search for Truth/God, actively building the nonviolent society, what he called the constructive program, and engaging in work for the good of all, sarvodaya. These were all important norms that gave the Indian independence movement its unique character. If ARRCC embraced civil resistance it could act as much needed leaven in a movement helping guard against the dangers of despair, frustration, intolerance, moral righteousness, and lack of discipline.


Dialogue is about understanding the ways in which ‘nonviolence speaks’, creating the conditions for greater trust and deeper rational understanding between movement adherents, opponents and third parties. A powerful nonviolent strategy might compel political elites to sit down and enter into some kind of problem solving process, what is sometimes referred to as ‘Track 1 dialogue’. However, it is vital that ‘Track 3’ dialogue is also built into the struggle. This is about ordinary citizens from different walks of life, meeting, understanding one another’s perspective, building relationships and even engaging in shared action. This is different from ‘Track 2’ dialogue which is more about dialogue between mid-level society leaders from different sides. ‘Track 3’ dialogue is with the ordinary people, generating widely shared conversations and initiatives designed to democratically transform society. A people power orientated dialogue is about creating common analyses about problems, and visions of shared futures, across class, religious and ethnic lines that often divide people, and even internationally, in order to delegitimise injustice and lay the foundations for a different social, political and economic order.

Utopian Enactment

In ‘utopian enactment’, one imagines the world ‘as if’ the protagonists preferred future was already breaking through. For Vinthagen (2015, 209) utopian enactment is also about the willingness to ‘voluntarily suffer’ – or persist in active search for justice even in the face of repression – in order to transform not only oneself, but the relational and emotional dynamics of conflict, including persistent and destructive ‘enemy images’. This includes spaces for art and beauty. Vinthagen describes utopian enactment as

…acting in a way that looks toward the future within and in confrontation with a violent conflict, where the high risk of violent repercussions is taken into account. Utopian enactment is focused on an individual’s relationship to the other, the opponent, and it attempts to counter prevailing images, emotional

predispositions and attitudes towards the activists by acting in a way that is the opposite of the expected behaviour. At the same time, it embodies an attractive, shared possibility of living together in respect and mutuality, in the hope of opening up new relationships with the other.

Our religious traditions are uniquely positioned to communicate the redemptive power of suffering and sacrifice to others. We understand, and at our best joyfully embody, the power of persisting and holding firm to the common good even in the face of violence, threats of violence and loss of liberty.

Combining all four dimensions

The task for climate activists in general, and ARRCC in particular, is to simultaneously develop all four dimensions, holding each in creative tension, one complementing the other, in order to cultivate more powerful nonviolent action. Strategy builds the possibility of dialogue, negotiations and legislative and policy change. Normative action strengthens capacity within the movement to generate viable nonviolent collective approaches to change. At the same time, it expands an audience that demands investments in renewables and climate justice action to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable. This assists a strategy designed to undermine the power of our fossil fuel opponents. Utopian enactment engages with emotions, enemy images and discursive change. It confronts, or resists, the ways emotions and images might block transformation of the conflict by posing attractive visions at the centre of the conflict. At the same time, it paints visions for the creation of new norms and possible alternative ways of living. Dialogue builds the foundations of people power – which is strategic nonviolent action – and coordinates the activities of the three other different dimensions. Dialogue also contributes to changing the conversation about the problem, drawing on normative action and utopian enactment to do so.

Make no mistake, civil resistance will involve action that is illegal. The consequences of such tactical, strategic and even organisational choices may be fines, loss of privileges and even custodial sentences. This needs to be accepted, even embraced, as part of the transformative force of nonviolence. Asking whether individual and collective action is legal or illegal is, in my opinion the wrong question. Cooking the climate, trashing Traditional Owner rights, destroying the living wonder of the Great Barrier Reef, and poisoning our water are all legal. There is no intrinsic value in legality, especially when laws are divorced from ethical value systems. A better question, is what action will lead us into right relationship with one another and God’s creation? What will take us closer to a just and sustainable peace? What individual and collective action clearly communicates ‘no’ to injustice while simultaneously saying ‘yes’ to dignity? What will build a powerful and disciplined nonviolent movement for climate justice?

What could ARRCC’s contribution to building a powerful civil resistance movement for climate justice be?

After encountering ARRCC earlier this year, facilitating a one day workshop on nonviolent action in Brisbane, I have become increasingly convinced that we need ARRCC to publicly declare its support for civil resistance and explain in words and deeds exactly what this means. There are plenty of organisations who do research, education, engage in reformist politics, and even mobilise the public for media stunts. All this is excellent and needs to continue. What the movement for civil resistance is lacking are mainstream organisations who publicly embrace ethical and strategic civil resistance for climate justice. Environmental NGOs won’t do it. They are too bound by the corrosive politics of risk and a desire to protect their DGR status. Our religious institutions won’t do it. They are too busy

fighting their own battles, many of them internal. ARRCC could do it. And if it did so, ARRCC would be the organisation I and many others have been longing for.

I hope you will forgive me for saying that I know this scares you. I empathise with that. I am fearful too. But our various faith traditions have prepared us choosing the path of love over fear. Faith is a battle. It calls us to pilgrimage. We are invited again and again to lose sight of the shore, to cast off to a new horizon. Perhaps civil resistance is an invitation to better practice our various faith traditions? In small and larger ways might choosing civil resistance enable us to be gifts, not just to one another, but to the greater society and the living earth? I hope ARRCC will consider publicly embracing civil resistance not because it is the path of radical and progressive environmental justice. Choose civil resistance also because it is your role as faith leaders to defend life and our most sacred values. Choose civil resistance as true religious conservatives, not just as secular radicals.

Across time and history Muslims like Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Hindus like Mohandas Gandhi, Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hahn, Jews like Abraham Herschel, Christians like Dom Helder Camara, and other people from other faith traditions, have embodied the best of who we are as human beings. They remind us that nonviolence is not an additional extra, a ‘side dish’ to be sampled by those who are drawn to it. Nonviolence is at the heart of all our religious traditions. This is not just about individual ethics, we are called to take corporate action too. Religious organisations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for instance, played a transformative role in the civil rights struggle, providing the moral tenor and leadership that set in place changes in racial equality that continue to resonate today.

What does the Spirit – the ‘still small voice’, which is eternal – say to you?

[i]  Jason MacLeod is an educator, organiser and researcher. He teaches civil resistance at the University of Sydney and coordinates a social movement training and education program in the Asia-Pacific region. He is on the board of the Journal of Resistance Studies and is a member of the Academic Council of the International Centre for Nonviolent Conflict based in Washington, D.C. Jason is the author of Merdeka and the Morning Star: civil resistance in West Papua and the People Power Manual with James Whelan. He lives in a small co-housing settlement on Jagera Country in the Maiwar catchment, Brisbane, and tries to live out his Quaker faith. He would like to do more gardening and look after chickens.

[ii] Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works, New York: Columbia University Press.

[iii] Gene Sharp, 1973. The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Boston: Porter Seargent.

[iv] Stellan Vinthagen, 2015, A Theory of Nonviolent Action: How Civil Resistance Works, London: Zed Books.