Content warning: discussions of terrorism and violent activity.
During the British summer, a series of major sporting events, including the Ashes, Wimbledon, and the World Snooker Championships were disrupted by protestors from Just Stop Oil. The environmental activists entered playing arenas and threw coloured powder on the snooker table at the Crucible, on England’s wicketkeeper at Lord’s, and scattered jigsaw puzzle pieces (bought at Wimbledon’s gift shop) over a tennis court. The protesters argue the inconvenience of a few minutes disruption to a sporting event is nothing compared to the impact of climate change, and that they are raising awareness of an existential issue.
But how much faith should be placed in the idea that radical action will necessarily lead to desired change? Are you more likely to achieve your aims by holding extreme positions or are they counterproductive? Should we think about achieving our aims through incremental or rapid, wholesale change? By examining three distinct types of radical actions—climate activism, terrorism, and lockdown restrictions—we consider the relationship between extreme means and desired ends.
Environmentalist campaign groups like Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain have held several bold demonstrations across the United Kingdom. Members of these groups occupied busy thoroughfares and motorways, and disabled transportation networks, airports and other pieces of critical infrastructure to increase public awareness and to press for greater government action on climate change. They operate under the assumption that dramatic protests will garner more media and public attention, which will pressure the government into taking greater action. But is there any evidence to support this approach?
Across the Atlantic, research published in the American Sociological Review suggests that our views may be driven more by personal affiliation than objective analysis . It noted that civil disobedience—a frequent feature in the modern climate activist toolkit—increased support among Democrat voters in the United States but had no effect on independents. Peaceful demonstrations, on the other hand, increased support among both Democrats and independents.
Despite protests having a limited impact on Republican voters, research suggests that as many as 50 percent of Republicans do believe that climate change is caused by human activity . The research concluded that protesting needed “tactical diversity” —ranging from peaceful to civil disobedience—to engage and gain support from as broad an audience with the goals and objectives of the activist group.
Terrorists commit atrocities to further their aims against adversarial governments and opposition groups. But how often do these horrific attacks achieve the terrorists’ stated goals?
Robert Pape’s seminal study on suicide terrorism , which examined 187 suicide bomb attacks between 1980 and 2001, concluded that suicide bombing was a highly effective tool for political change. Although nation-states may be too strong, both militarily and economically, to be overthrown by terrorists, Pape argued that terrorism can coerce governments into offering minor concessions, such as giving up territory or forcing a leader to resign. For example, terror attacks helped force the withdrawal of all United States forces from Lebanon in 1984 .
Pape’s conclusions about “successful terrorism” have recently been re-examined . Richard English suggested that terrorism could be broken down into different kinds of success. The first—and most uncommon—is strategic success, which fulfils a primary goal such as establishing a new state, as seen by the early success of the Islamic State.
The second is partial strategic success, which includes achieving a diluted version of the group’s primary goals, achieving secondary goals, or influencing the national or international conversation about an issue. Groups can also achieve tactical successes, such as the assassination of a prominent figure (as with Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2007).
Finally, a group may succeed by producing violence that rewards its members psychologically, such as through the promise of martyrdom, status or celebrity. The former is a crucial driver for suicide terrorism and is thought to have been a key motivator for many of the 9/11 plotters.
In analysing these distinct cases, English argued that if terrorism did not achieve some success, it would not keep happening. Offering partial concessions to terrorist organisations can weaken their recruiting base and limit the appetite for further violence but, English warns, it can also embolden terrorists. Additionally, aggressive action against terrorist organisations can help generate public sympathy towards the groups, and inadvertently help with recruitment.
Lockdown restrictions were a drastic, unprecedented public health measure taken during the Covid-19 pandemic. When the virus started to sweep across the world, many governments immediately decided to introduce lockdowns to stop the virus spreading. The restrictions proved controversial: some criticised them as a disproportionate curtailment on civil liberties, while others defended their ability to save lives.
The scientific research suggests that no non-pharmaceutical intervention acts as a silver bullet to the spread of Covid-19 . However, lockdowns had a substantial effect in reducing the rate of virus transmission. Even taking into account country-specific effects, some research indicates that lockdowns may have reduced transmission by approximately 80 percent .
Despite the clear benefit to public health, the lockdown restrictions fuelled the rise of the anti-vaccine and other associated conspiracy movements. The claims of these groups are often grounded in anecdotal evidence and causal fallacies (i.e. assuming a link between unrelated events, as in the case of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and autism ). This has included the belief that vaccines are being deployed for population control  and that Covid-19 is a human-made virus designed to establish a new world order .
Lockdown restrictions succeeded in helping to reduce transmission of the virus but also produced a range of unintended consequences, such as giving rise to conspiracy theories and creating a lightning rod for the spread of disinformation.
What these cases show is that radical actions are a response to radical situations and environments. But while extreme actions can be successful, the impact is often limited. Climate action groups have struggled to get significant policy change or action from governments—despite climate change being an accepted, mainstream political issue. Terrorism has had some limited success, but total victory is rare. And while lockdowns were successful at stopping the spread of Covid-19, they fed fuel to the anti-vaccine disinformation campaigns. Ultimately, while some extreme actions achieve success, we should not be blinded by the many pitfalls that they can bring.