It Only Takes 3.5% of a Population to (Nonviolently) Force Political Change

by | July 26, 2019

This is known as the ‘3.5% rule’ and it’s based on exhaustive research that looked at 323 campaigns from 1900 to 2006. And from 2000 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns were successful nearly 70% of the time. (Excellent Ted Talk here).

“No single campaigns failed after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population. And lots of them succeeded with far fewer than that.” – Erica Chenoweth

Now, you may have never thought of yourself as an activist before (I certainly didn’t), but desperate times call for desperate (yet peaceful) measures.

As Debra Roberts of the IPCC said, “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”

That’s why I decided to protest and get arrested with the Sunrise Movement last December. And that’s why I’m starting to get more involved with the highly effective movement that originated in the UK, Extinction Rebellion.

To be honest with you, I wasn’t a huge fan of the name, “Extinction Rebellion”, the first time I heard it. But their principles are fantastic, their strategy is sound, and the people I’ve met are absolutely wonderful…plus The 1975 just endorsed Extinction Rebellion via a new “song” with Greta Thunberg – so you know it’s good.

I recently read an article written by an ordinary person explaining how she went from being completely skeptical of protesting and Extinction Rebellion to blockading a bridge with them – and feeling fantastic.

Her experience is similar to my own so I thought it’d be worth sharing her story:


I’m an ordinary person who joined an Extinction Rebellion blockade. Here’s why you should too

It was way out of my comfort zone, but as a scientist I can tell you that the climate emergency is much more terrifying


I am an ordinary mid-career professional. I work a nine-to-five job in the city, and I’m well respected and growing in my career. I have never broken the law. And recently, I joined Extinction Rebellion, blockading traffic.

I have never done anything like this before. It was way out of my comfort zone, and I felt like vomiting at the idea. But climate change makes me want to vomit even more. I am a scientist, and I can say with confidence: the science is absolutely terrifying. So I went.

Here’s my reflections on the experience: I found it surprisingly calm, peaceful and friendly. The heavy media and police presence was intense, but I felt safe, and I didn’t feel like I was at risk of being arrested at any point. I just followed clear instructions from organisers and the police. Those who were arrested chose to be arrested, and even that was very calm. I’d genuinely feel safe bringing a child, just like to any other peaceful rally.

Also, it was fun! There was lots of chanting, and it felt positive and upbeat. I’m really glad I had courage and went, despite feeling so nervous. I don’t intend to get arrested, but there are a hundred other ways to support and contribute, and I intend to do them.

Until recently, I thought that these sorts of tactics are ridiculous and just irritate people and lead to more divisiveness. I thought blocking traffic was no way to develop consensus and get things done.

But then I saw the news on Extinction Rebellion blockading London for more than a week, with more than 1,000 arrests. Soon after, the UK government adopted a climate emergency resolution.

I started reading about Extinction Rebellion. I found out that it’s been carefully and deliberately constructed, drawing upon the best research on how to create massive social change, of the kind we need to address the climate emergency.

I found out that the suffragettes got women the vote by smashing windows and chaining themselves to railings, facing hate and ridicule in the media. And how Martin Luther King combated racial inequality by rallying people to violate laws and provoke mass arrests, and was arrested 29 times. And this was deliberate, carefully orchestrated and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.

I learned how the research shows nonviolent civil disobedience can bring rapid and sweeping changes, and that we’ve never seen an example fail once 3.5% of the population becomes actively involved.

I started to hope.

Let me tell you a story. Many of us already know the climate catastrophe story, so let me tell you a different one.

Right now, we are sleepwalking. We go about our daily lives assuming that buying a house and putting money in our superannuation are appropriate ways to plan for the future. If we hear about the climate crisis, we tell ourselves, surely it can’t be that urgent if no one is doing anything?

We need to wake people up, fast. This requires massive, sustained media attention. Disruption is very effective at creating this, especially by blockading major urban centres. The aim is to make people pay attention, and they’re much more likely to do so when it impacts their daily lives. If there are arrests, that’s great too, because that’s also newsworthy.

Most people will hate the disruption tactics, and get irritated or angry. They’ll ridicule the people involved and say negative things in the media. A small percentage will join the movement. It’s OK that this is only a small percentage. Remember that we only need 3.5% of people to get active.

We do, however, need most people to be sympathetic.

People start by discussing tactics (with lots of hate), but then move on to the issue (“but we really should be doing something about climate, it’s actually quite scary”). More people start to realise that this is an actual emergency.

Proper debate starts happening, and people are talking about it everywhere. As more people wake up, more of them join the protests. And there’s safety in numbers, so as it gets bigger, more people feel they can join.

Politicians can no longer ignore the issue. More and more people are getting arrested for nonviolent and relatively harmless activities, and they have growing public support for their sentiments. Grandfathers are gluing themselves to roads because they want a safe future for their grandchildren. Economic activity is suffering from longer blockades, and businesses are demanding that the government does something.

Politicians are forced to address the issue. And now, we finally start working together in collaboration with other countries. People all around the world have been inspired to rebellion.

I have no idea if this story will ever happen but I think there’s a chance. It depends entirely on how many of us get on board. It’s uncomfortable to disrupt people’s lives, but the courageous folks doing it are putting themselves on the line to save us all.


I still benefit from the sacrifices of those suffragettes and all the others who’ve fought so hard, at great personal cost. Now it’s my turn.

The author of this article is a scientist living in Australia (anonymous).


Mark your calendars

September 20th – 27th will be a week of global climate action. The 20th and 27th specifically will be major events.

…if you’re not sure yet, just think about it. And feel free to shoot me an email if you have questions on any of this or want to talk it through!

“The most important thing an individual can do is be less of an individual…Movements are, history would indicate, the one way we have of standing up to unjust, entrenched power.” – Bill McKibben

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

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