Just in case you had great hopes for it, the climate movement is failing miserably. A relatively small group of activists – no matter how dedicated – can’t bring about change by themselves. The primary role of action campaigns is to engage and mobilize the public, and this is proving incredibly difficult to do with respect to the climate and ecological emergency even though it threatens everything we love.



I share pictures and stories of my climate activism on this podcast, and on social media. I hope to inspire others to join me, or to participate in similar activities wherever they are. At the very least I hope that people will be reminded that we are not powerless – that we have a voice beyond voting for the lesser of two evils when elections roll around. However, despite the fact that the people I know cheer me on and thank me for my activism, almost no one joins me.

Last Friday I participated in the youth-led Portland Climate Strike.[i] There was a one-hour rally in downtown Portland in front of City Hall, followed by a two-mile march through the city, ending at a day-long climate festival with booths and music. The vast majority of the marchers were high school students who had opted out of school to participate. To use their words, “I skipped my lessons to you one.” Energy was high, and it was encouraging to see so many youth clear and defiant. Signs read, “You’ll die of old age. I’ll die of climate change.” And “Your greed will kill us.”


I had hoped to participate in the climate strike with several people from my local Climate Action Now affinity group. Following the recommendations I shared in the last episode, 17 – Stay Strong and Take Action: Get Together with Friends, I’ve been trying over the last couple years to build a small group of like-minded folks who support one another in climate action. Our group is still very small, 6-7 people at the most. Conflicting schedules, illness, and COVID concerns meant that only 3 of us showed up on Friday. For most of the march, I was grateful to have one friend walking with me, but it was hard not to feel lonely.

There were an estimated 2,000 people at the Portland Climate Strike.[ii] You might think that’s pretty impressive. But 2,000 people can gather and march through a city almost unnoticed. The march was clearly organized with the full knowledge and cooperation of the authorities, as we had light and friendly police presence throughout. A host of bicyclists moved ahead of the parade route in order to block off side streets, so no cars got stuck watching the whole march go by. For all of about 2 ½ hours, we caused minor inconveniences to traffic. Witnesses to the march were probably outnumbered by the marchers themselves.

Then it was all over. It will probably be another year before there’s a youth-led climate strike of any significant size. The next few climate actions on Portland’s calendar are likely to be attended by a few hundred people at most.

I say all of this not in order to disparage Friday’s march or the youth who showed up. Not at all! They are all taking action, putting themselves out there and trying to make a difference. I speak of the limited size and impact of this march to make a point. In her groundbreaking research on nonviolent civil resistance in the 20th century, Erica Chenoweth[iii] found that movements and campaigns tended to succeed if they could get a mere 3.5% of the population actively involved. When this happened, major change was possible as long as you had an additional 50% of the population that was passively supportive. Good news, right? You don’t need 51% of the population on the frontlines of activism devoting significant time and energy, taking risks, and making sacrifices.

However, 3.5% is still a significant number. The Portland metro population is around 2 million people. A turnout of 2,000 is 0.1% of the local population. A tenth of one percent. Not only that, this 0.1% does not reflect people who, by Chenoweth’s definition, are actively involved in the climate movement. Showing up to an organized, legal, 3-hour climate march is pretty much the easiest climate-related activity you can do, short of signing online petitions. There’s no risk involved, and almost no sacrifice. There’s no obligation to do more after the march is done. You can post a few pictures of yourself marching and for at least a few months feel satisfied that you’ve taken action. My estimate of the number of people in the Portland area actively involved in the climate movement in an ongoing way is about 200 people. That makes our numbers more like 0.01%. One hundredth of one percent.

The fact is that the climate movement is failing miserably. This isn’t because climate activists aren’t working hard and giving it their all. It isn’t because the climate movement isn’t at least trying to be creative, inclusive, collaborative, justice-oriented, and intersectional. Activists offer all kinds of ways to get involved, from sending emails to your legislators to participating in sacrificial, dramatic, nonviolent civil disobedience, and everything in between. Our efforts are diligent and inspired. We are far from perfect, but we work very hard.

However, as long as the climate movement is made up of one hundredth of one percent of the population, we will utterly fail to prevent the breakdown of earth’s natural life-support systems. Without people power, what we can do is extremely limited. Our governments don’t listen to the demands of tiny, if vocal, groups of people perceived as being fringe or special-interest – especially not when the demands are to radically reorganize almost all of our systems immediately, starting with energy, economic, agriculture, transportation, and housing. The primary function of activist movements is to engage and mobilize the public. Commensurate action – that is, action matching the scale of the problem – will only come when a majority of the population demands it. Mobilization of that majority is nearly impossible with only 0.01% of us working on it.

As I marched on Friday with my sign, I walked with determination but also while feeling deep despair. India recently shut down exports of wheat at a time when the war in Ukraine is already threatening global food supplies.[iv] An unprecedented heat wave has cut wheat yield in some areas of India by half,[v] and the Indian government understandably is concerned about feeding its own population. Many of us are insulated from the suffering this current food shortage will cause, but this is just a sign of things to come. Sooner or later our grocery store shelves will be empty, too. Sooner or later our own taps will run dry, and most of us will realize our homes are ridiculously far from a suitable source of safe drinking water. Sooner or later those fleeing from areas of the world made uninhabitable by global heating will only be kept out of the more fortunate areas by violence, and our nations will be drawn deeper into war and conflict. Governments will crumble or be drawn in totalitarianism.

When will people rise to demand commensurate action on our climate and ecological emergency? Will it only happen when our grocery store shelves are empty? Will the motivation have to be that immediate, that tangible? Will it happen in five years, or ten years? By then, so many lives and livelihoods will have been needlessly lost. So much preventable but irreparable damage will have happened in those intervening years. It’s an anthropotragedy.

In the meantime, those climate activists who don’t burn out will keep up what momentum they can, ready to channel the energy of the masses when they finally recognize this is not someone else’s problem, and that no one else is going to save them. I look forward to the day when 3.5% of Portland’s population shows up in the streets to demand action. When we stand 70,000 strong outside City Hall or the state capital and refuse to leave until our governments prioritize people over profits.



[i] https://pamplinmedia.com/pt/9-news/546592-437501-portland-students-stage-walkout-against-climate-change-pwoff

[ii] Ibid

[iii] https://smile.amazon.com/Why-Civil-Resistance-Works-Nonviolent-ebook/dp/B005SZEEXQ/

[iv] https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/14/business/india-wheat-export-banned/index.html

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/21/india-wheat-farmers-40c-heat-food-security

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