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During the second AEMS Summer School’s afternoon session on 26 July, Mira Kapfinger and Patrick Scherhaufer talked about organising and building social movements. Particularly exciting were discussions about civil disobedience and country-specific differences in campaigning due to the prevailing political conditions.
Mira Kapfinger is an activist and campaigner for System Change, not Climate Change! On top of that, she is also co-founder and coordinator of the network Stay Grounded, which is a global network based in Vienna, consisting of more than 170 member organisations worldwide. The main aim of Stay Grounded is to work on limiting and decreasing the current level of the aviation sector, which is causing increasing damage to the climate, biodiversity and local residents. Using the example of one of her campaigns under the title #SavePeopleNotPlanes, Mira showed what to watch out for and what organisational subtleties to consider. In addition, she gave some background information and explained interesting concepts such as the pillars of power or the spectrum of allies.
Complementary to Mira’s activist perspective, Patrick Scherhaufer is a researcher focusing on social movements and the use of civil disobedience as a tactic, with Ende Gelände being the main example of the session. Civil disobedience is the act of consciously breaking the law on moral grounds with the intention of leading up to political change.
One point that often came up in the discussion with the students was the different approaches to civil disobedience in different countries. Some students rightfully pointed out that the research presented cannot be fully applied in other countries apart from the Western world. It was insightful that the cohort of participants, coming from many different places and cultural backgrounds, were able to share their own experiences. This example has shown that diversity and internationality in a discourse enriches the discussion and leads to a more holistic picture.
During discussions in the session, it became apparent that civil disobedience is just one of many different tactics discussed by the two lecturers. Civil disobedience mostly aims at shaping public discourse in a field while introducing new narratives on specific issues. However, the utilisation of civil disobedience can also be seen critically, as some members of the discussion expressed fears of dividing societies with a tactic this ‘radical’. Another point of contention was the possibility of using violence. When engaging in civil disobedience, breaking the law often means acting violently against property which many participants rejected outright. Even the use of civil disobedience was implicitly questioned in conversations regarding possible effects and outcomes. But overall, most attendants of the discussion agreed that civil disobedience is an important tool of social movements. Thus, it is an efficient and effective way to facilitate large-scale political change, with the Salt-Satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi in 1930 being one of the most significant examples, breaking a british salt monopoly through civil disobedience.
Overall, social movements have a plurality of tools at their disposal, with an especially interesting but not uncontroversial one being civil disobedience. Its particular effects are criticised, seen as negative or even thrown into question entirely. Fundamentally, no matter if social movements use polarising or controversial tactics like civil disobedience or simply work with other tools such as preparing statements signed by experts, they are often the most effective and efficient means to facilitate societal change.
Written by: Marc-Alexander Munshi and Felix Bruch
Based on the lecture "Realizing change and building movements" by Mira Kapfinger and Patrick Scherhaufer during the AEMS Summer School 2021