Grassroots of Change

By GLOBUS Correspondent, Emily Harros

Millions of frustrated commuters, 8600 politically active tractors, hundreds of absent school children, and one bewildered language assistant: the political climate in Berlin has been heating up – but to what end? In this day-in-the-life account, I record my encounters with civil disobedience in Germany’s capital, thereby questioning its impact on people’s everyday lives and its effectiveness in the fight to tackle climate change.

This piece is based on real events that took place in Berlin on the 26th November 2019.

Trailblazer Tractors

26th November was meant to be a normal day. A typical Tuesday. The date didn’t announce a major change, rather it began as usual: “Urgh – I hate alarms! I’m awake already. I’ll get up in a minute, I just want to lay here for a few more seconds…”

Now, you don’t need me to tell you that that minute turned into ten, that I frantically pulled my clothes on, that I almost forgot my purse, or that I dashed out of the house to get to the station. But you might need me to tell you what happened next…

“Keep power-walking, Emily. You’ll be able to catch the S-Bahn. You’re almost there… 

Wait, what the — –?”

I was stopped in my tracks. By tractors. Hundreds of them – all in convoy, all heading towards the centre. Seeing pink elephants was one thing, but seeing tractors…1 As one after another sped past me, I realized I was neither drunk, nor dreaming. I stood helplessly at the crossing as bewildered drivers moved their cars to the side and policemen waved their arms manically. The noise was overwhelming. And then – as if to herald the coming of chaos – all the traffic lights went out.

Contemplations in Commuter Chaos

By the time I finally crossed the road and got on an S-Bahn, I was most definitely running late. More bewildered than frustrated, I turned to Google to enlighten me as to what I had just seen. 

Several thousand farmers are demonstrating in Berlin to protest against the federal government’s agricultural policy. Organizers believe 40,000 farmers are participating in the demonstration – and according to police estimations, the farmers have paralyzed the city centre with 8600 tractors. The farmers’ protest is directed against stricter environmental protection laws among other things.”2

Hmm – so what I’d witnessed wasn’t another Extinction Rebellion (XR) masterpiece as the bold spectacle had led me to believe initially. On the contrary, the group seemed to be voicing a more economic-centric view compared to other environmental movements, namely that stricter environmental regulations (in particular the prohibition of certain pesticides to protect insects) are jeopardising farmers’ livelihoods and the future of their profession.

It got me thinking…

“What is it with this new trend of traffic-stopping demonstrations? Has every man and his dog joined the civil disobedience bandwagon in order to have their say?” 

I thought back to one particular day in late September. At school, I had been faced with a half-empty classroom as many of my students joined a Fridays For Future protests around the Brandenburger Tor. And then there was that day in October, when XR protester had stopped traffic by doing yoga and other morning exercises at Potsdamer Platz. That same week, as I attempted to go home after work, I was confronted with a cacophony of curses and car horns due to XR protesters occupying the Oberbaumbrücke. Images from various newspaper reports swam before my eyes: XR protesters covered in fake blood in front of an old fire truck in London, climate change activists dressed in penguin suits at Tegel airport. 

It seemed that grassroots civil disobedience – in all its disruptive glory – was being used by multiple different groups to influence the wider environmental dialogue. I had just one question: were these protesters succeeding at anything more than making me (and many others) late?

Smashing the Status-Quo

When I arrived at the library, I tried to put civil disobedience out of my mind and crack on with lesson planning: 

“Tea – check. Laptop – check. Comfy window seat – check. Brilliant, I can finally get down to — — Wait a minute. Is that… a horn? That can’t be them again, can it?”

It was. Lights flashing, horns blaring, this group of tractor drivers was determined to sabotage the status quo and add their distinct voice to the environmental discussion – just like Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion. Indeed, it didn’t seem to make a difference whether or not these different groups agreed with each other; they were all using civil disobedience to get their message across. Intrigued this phenomenon (and by this point thoroughly distracted), I decided to investigate my earlier question: were these large-scale acts of civil disobedience actually catalysing any political change?

Galvanising Action from the Grassroots?

Alas, my Google search that day didn’t give me hope that grassroots civil disobedience would help us out of the ecological mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

A certain Michael Backfisch argued that despite the appearance of public support, little desire exists amongst the public to implement meaningful environmental reforms. His evidence? A survey conducted by the ZDF: 63% of those polled said they were against increasing the price of petrol, yet 53% of them agreed that the German government’s environmental reforms hadn’t gone far enough. His conclusion? That public support is already too tenuous to be pushed by acts of civil disobedience: “. . . [T]he more the [XR] movement brings public life or even the economy to a standstill, the more it risks losing public support.”3

Yet in my more recent searches, I’ve seen people warming to the idea of grassroots civil disobedience as a means of bring about climate action.

Drawing on historical evidence, Neil Gunningham argues that governments will only enact the rapid and deep decarbonization of their economies if under pressure. He continues, “. . . such pressure must come from . . . a grass-roots activist movement”. In contrast to Backfisch’s gloomy statistics, Gunningham notes that “more than twice as many non-violent campaigns have been successful as those that involved violence” – a seeming beacon of hope for the likes of Extinction Rebellion. His ultimate assessment similarly elicits hope:

“Perhaps, as groups like XR gain more momentum . . . a tipping point will indeed be reached. If so, then bottom-up action driven by civil society, in tandem with its allies and as part of a broader web of influence, may yet be the catalyst for rapid and radical action by nation states.”

And Gunningham isn’t alone in his tentative hopefulness. Colin Kinniburgh argues that Extinction Rebellion “has provided an entry point into collective action for thousands of people who previously felt disengaged . . . and tipped the scales ever so slightly closer toward meaningful, decisive government action on climate change”. And despite his acknowledgement of XR’s current difficulties – “Extinction Rebellion’s big-tent approach . . . offers few answers . . .” – Kinniburgh’s conclusion is also hopeful. He writes:

“Over the last decade, much of the climate movement has embraced [the complexities of politics both within and outside of their own organizations], and its vision of a just transition to a post-carbon world has only sharpened in the process. There are signs that Extinction Rebellion, after its blistering start, may be coming around as well”.

Sowing the Seeds of Change?

So, what can we take away from these articles and the thoughts provoked by those trailblazing tractors? For one, Tuesday 26th November 2019 was not a normal day; its events got me thinking in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. Because of the farmers’ bold show of civil disobedience and many other spectacles like it, my day was filled first with bewilderment, then disruption, and later, contemplation. What’s more, the latter phase didn’t let up as the clock ticked into November 27th. Quite the opposite – issues of climate change and climate action continued to follow me that day – just as the tractors did. They stayed with me as I read in the library. They stayed with me as I researched for this article. And they have stayed with me to date. In short, the continued use of grassroots civil disobedience in environmental politics has kept the issue of climate action (and how to spark it) firmly in my mind. And ultimately, these activists have driven me to take my own form of political action: written word. Now I’m not claiming that my mind or my voice alone is powerful enough to bring about meaningful change – despite all my efforts. But if other minds out there – greater minds in more powerful positions – are drawn into the same thought cycle by these protesters? If they too are led to think about the issues of climate change and climate action? If they too are accordingly driven to action? Maybe, just maybe we could initiate positive change.

Is the use of civil disobedience at the grassroots of environmental politics sowing the seeds for wider change? I’m certainly hopeful.

Header Image by Aaron Burden via Unsplash


1. For the beady-eyed of you – yes, this is a Dumbo reference, and yes, I am only joking about being drunk.

2. Translation my own. Original German text can be found here: 

Mehrere Tausend Bauern demonstrieren in Berlin gegen die Agrarpolitik der Bundesregierung. Die Veranstalter sprechen von 40.000 Teilnehmern – und die Polizei zählt 8600 Trecker, mit denen die Bauern das Zentrum der Hauptstadt lahmgelegt haben. Der Protest der Bauern richtet sich unter anderem gegen verschärfte Regeln zum Umweltschutz.”

3. Translation my own. Original German text can be found here: “. . . Je mehr die Bewegung das öffentliche Leben oder gar die Wirtschaft lahmlegt, desto höher ist die Gefahr, dass sie in der Bevölkerung an Zustimmung verliert.”

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