The climate crisis will create conditions that are ripe for social breakdown and revolutions
Revolutions are tumultuous, chaotic, unpredictable affairs that lead to massive social transformations. They trigger ideological earthquakes that reverberate around the world and can create momentum for other revolutionary movements in different countries. That’s why modern history has been defined by waves of revolutions. Revolutionary waves include The Atlantic revolutions of the United States (1776), Holland (1787), and France (1789), driven by antimonarchical sentiment; the European Revolutions of 1848, driven by liberalism; the anticolonial revolutions of the 1950s through 1970s, driven by nationalism; the communist revolutions of 1945–1979 in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and other developing countries. Each wave was powerfully shaped by international influences.
We know the climate crisis is going to create weather extremes that will translate into social instability and unrest, but what potential is there for that instability to translate into a wave of environmental revolutions spreading around the world? To make any kind of assessment, we need to consider the conditions that make revolutions possible. The political scientist, Jack Goldstone, argues the likelihood of revolution depends on whether three core conditions are met;
- Efforts to force change through noninstitutionalized actions such as mass demonstrations, protests, strikes, or violence.
- A notable degree of informal or formal mass mobilisation.
- Efforts to change the political regime that draws on a competing vision (or visions) of a just order.
An assessment of each condition can help determine the feasibility of a wave of environmental revolutions.
1. Efforts to force change through protests
The first condition has been happening for some time through groups like Extinction Rebellion, Fridays For Future and other unaffiliated climate activists, who organise strikes, protests and demonstrations calling for systems change. Currently, though, the radical environmental movement remains on the fringes of society because, as the sociologist James Davies puts it, it’s implausible that revolution will be sparked in “a society where there is the continued, unimpeded opportunity to satisfy new needs, new hopes, new expectations.”
Currently, in the developed world, the climate crisis isn’t impacting people’s ability to maintain livelihoods and high living standards. Large sections of society, particularly those with materialist values, don’t subscribe to the environmentalist’s calls for systems change. If anything, they see such calls as a threat to their ability to increase their wealth and social status.
In the coming decades, the risk of global droughts that result in widespread crop failure will increase exponentially. Crop failures will lead to food shortages, which will have profound consequences. Globalisation can only work if every country is willing to sell on the open market, but as the impacts of the climate crisis become more aggressive and scarcity begins to impact prices, it’s likely countries will become far more protectionist and ban exports in efforts to reduce social tensions at home.
Should the conditions required for a free market begin to break down, it will debilitate economies. And as growth is key to averting an economic crisis, a return to scarcity could lead to a global economic depression, resulting in mass job losses and a sharp decrease in living standards. Not only that, the breakdown of cooperation between countries will be the harbinger of war because peace will no longer be mutually beneficial. In a world of scarcity, the risk of war, including nuclear war, will increase as countries seek to gain control of critical resources.
In Why Men Rebel, the political scientist Ted Robert Gurr argues people become discontent when they perceive a discrepancy between their expectations and society’s ability to maintain the standards of living they believe they are entitled to. When price hikes, shortages and insecurity are the order of the day; and crucially, when it becomes obvious a return to a period of stability is unfeasible, even to the most optimistic amongst us, it’s in that environment where people will feel poor compared to a prior state of comfort.
That’s when a revolutionary state of mind has the potential to form, not when people are most deprived, oppressed or discontent, but when there is “a persistent, unrelenting threat to the satisfaction of…needs.” For materialists, unrelenting threats to the satisfaction of needs will inspire feelings of relative deprivation, leading to more support for the radical environmental movement as the need and desire for systems change become far more compelling.
When living standards are falling sharply; when social unrest is bubbling under the surface; when the stench of war lingers in the air, that’s when the obstacles that are making it so difficult for the radical environmental movement to build momentum will begin to crumble. The movement will then have the opportunity to act as a spearhead of change as the current order comes under relentless pressure. Calls for systems change will no longer seem extreme but will feel appropriate amid the breakdown of law and order.
2. Mass mobilisation
The second condition, a degree of mass mobilisation, doesn’t yet exist due to the aforementioned obstacles hindering the radical environmental movement. But small, highly motivated protest groups can create the conditions for subsequent collective action.
The sociologists Gerald Marwell and Pamela Oliver argue it is the role of the critical mass that catalyses collective action. The critical mass comprises highly motivated and resourceful individuals who typically consist of those with extremist tendencies. They are prepared to protest when the likelihood of success is slim, but as the chances of success increase, their actions encourage others to join social movements.
The radical environmental movement comprises a critical mass of highly motivated individuals who are prepared to protest when they know the costs (that include arrest and media vilification) outweigh the likelihood of achieving their demands. But in the coming decades, as fermenting social unrest reaches a crescendo, “a single sudden event or series of events — such as a burst of ruinous inflation or the failure to contain a series of demonstrations — can trigger a cycle in which movement groups act, find less state opposition than they expected, and then protests cascade and grow.” That’s why the work of environmentalists is so crucial now because worsening social conditions followed by sudden shocks could trigger a cascade that paves the way for mass mobilisation.
3. Competing visions of a just order
The third condition is all about efforts to change the political regime by drawing on competing visions of a just order. For many, a fundamental weakness of calls for social transformation is that capitalism is so dominant that it’s hard to envisage a society that doesn’t revolve around this economic system. And yet, it’s this ideology that has unintentionally sown the seeds of its destruction.
While the environmental movement isn’t guided by a specific ideology or economic framework, this is no different to previous ideological revolutions. Take the Bolsheviks in Russia, whose momentous October Revolution in 1917 led to the collapse of the Russian Empire and Tsarism. The Bolsheviks were the first communists to revolt successfully; understandably, there was no template guiding policy or actions. It was much the same during the French Revolution. The revolutionaries were driven by enlightenment ideals, but what that meant in practice was open to interpretation. That’s the thing about society; you can’t test a new society alongside the preexisting one. Successful revolutions lead to voyages into the unknown, hence why they’re so transformative.
Environmentalists are driven to create a just society operating within environmental limits; while that doesn’t translate into a specific ideology, it certainly would create a template from which to build the foundations of a sustainable society. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut economics provides a powerful vision of what a sustainable society would look like.
We have the ideas, technology and know-how to restore ecosystems and develop societies that work in symbiosis with nature. Should social breakdown present an opportunity for revolutions to succeed, we could see a rapid social transformation as highly motivated, driven, visionary environmentalists can get to work unencumbered by the restraints that are currently holding a transformation towards a sustainable path back.
A moment in time
In assessing the likelihood of a wave of environmental revolutions, it has to be said that every country has its own particular context and set of circumstances. Each has varying levels of resilience to food shortages and price shocks.
Some countries are self-sufficient; others aren’t and rely on purchasing food and products on the market. Some have authoritarian regimes where dissent is crushed brutally; others celebrate democracy and embrace freedom of speech and the right to protest. Some have political stability; others have increasing political polarisation and fermenting racial tensions. Some have energy security; others don’t. Some have low levels of inequality; others lionise rising inequality and a system of haves and have-nots. Some celebrate individualism; others are far more collectivist.
To paint each country with the same brush when their political, economic and social contexts are so different would be a ridiculous simplification. Assessing where conditions will be ripe for an environmental revolution is impossible to predict. But the climate crisis is going to create global impacts that have the potential to create conditions ripe for social breakdown. In that environment, a revolution in one country could trigger an ideological earthquake that reverberates around the world as governments are left overwhelmed by wave after wave of crisis. Should one revolutionary movement succeed, the possibility of a wave of environmental revolutions spreading around the world will become a distinct possibility.