EarthTalk: Civil disobedience

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Activists from the group Extinction Rebellion are keeping civil disobedience alive as a campaign tactic to help raise awareness about the need to rein in carbon emissions and save endangered wildlife. Credit: Alexander Savin, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways environmentalists use civil disobedience to accomplish their goals?

— Robert P., Portland, OR

The concept of civil disobedience (defined by Merriam-Webster as the “refusal to obey laws as a way of forcing the government to do or change something”) dates back to the dawn of civil society. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are primary examples of non-violent resistors using civil disobedience as a tool to achieve their goals. Of course, environmental proponents have been practicing civil disobedience in various forms for decades if not longer. After all, proto-environment Henry David Thoreau wrote his seminal essay on the topic in 1846 after spending the night in jail for refusing to pay his back taxes. He feared the money would go toward funding the Mexican-American War, which he opposed, by a U.S. government that also happened to permit slavery, which he also opposed. 

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“If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood,” wrote Thoreau. “This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.”

While not an environmental essay per se, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience makes the case for nonviolent resistance as “a counter friction to stop the machine.” While democracy might be the best form of government we can hope for, the dominance of the majority inevitably leads to the trampling on the hopes, dreams and rights of the minority. In Thoreau’s mind, individuals shouldn’t let governments doing the will of an amoral or immoral majority overrule their own consciences and thus enlist them as collaborators in injustice. 

Even though its focus is more general, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience has certainly fueled many an environmental campaign in the intervening years. Cut to the present, and we have Extinction Rebellion (XR), a two-year-old UK-born movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience “in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimize the risk of social collapse.” Activists working on behalf of XR’s cause have been in the news lately for various “monkeywrenching” antics, such as supergluing themselves to infrastructure like roads, trains and buildings and attempting to shut down oil rigs and airports. Last Spring the group brought traffic in parts of London to a halt for hours by parking a hot pink sailboat in the middle of a busy intersection, while activists threw black paint at the London headquarters of Shell Oil and blockaded entry to the company’s corporate headquarters. Seven-hundred XR activists were hauled off to jail as a result of the protest, which won’t likely be forgotten by any London commuters trying to get home that day at least. More recently, activists from the group have been generating controversy by threatening cyberattacks if the UK government bails out its ailing airline industry.

While XR may be attracting the headlines lately, they are following a civil disobedience trail blazed by many others over the last half-century. Activists from groups such as 350.org, Sea Shepherd, the Hambach Forest Occupation, EarthFirst!, Greenpeace, and thousands of others engage in acts of civil disobedience every day all over the world in their pursuit of protecting wildlife, the environment and/or the health and safety of humans.

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