Why I’m Leaning Away From Civil Disobedience as a Response to Climate Change

Civil disobedience is a touchy topic. I doubt I’ve got one friend willing to engage in it to fight climate change or anything else. Yet it’s driven some of history’s most dramatic social transformations, so it’s hard to avoid thinking about it in view of the transformation we now need.

So I’m thinking about it.

Reminder: civil disobedience means breaking a law intentionally to illustrate its injustice. It should be performed openly, peacefully, without malice, and with acceptance of consequences (jail time, etc.) Ideally, the show of principle, and the sacrifice made to uphold that principle, will inspire so many others to follow suit that the law shrivels and dies like a wicked witch.

There are reasons to doubt whether civil disobedience is an appropriate response to climate change:

  1. Historically, civil disobedience has worked against restrictive or prescriptive law, but climate change results from permissive law. You can’t break a permissive law. You can hold yourself to a more restrictive standard that you wish were law (Supracivil Obedience?) but it won’t have the impact of civil disobedience because it won’t cause a stir. My brother rides his bike 6 miles to work each day. The world would be better if we all agreed to do the same and formalized our agreement into law, but my brother’s practice isn’t news. Nor does his behavior illustrate why riding to work is good and driving is bad. Which leads to the second point:
  2. Civil disobedience works by making injustice visible. Think Rosa Parks. When someone tells Rosa Parks to move to the back of the bus, we see the victim, we imagine ourselves in her shoes and we empathize. Not so with climate change.  When I drive to work, I may be contributing to a problem which will destroy the lives of billions, but I can’t see it. Where’s the victim? Not in my car. Many of the victims, the armies of unborn children who may spend the balance of their lives in an unraveling world, don’t even exist. So driving to work doesn’t feel unjust. Even though it is. And if you commit an act of civil disobedience which prevents me from driving to work, say by slashing my tires, it doesn’t make the injustice of driving any clearer. In fact it confuses the issue by making *me* feel like a victim.

But wait! There may yet be circumstances under which civil disobedience is a not-terrible idea. I’m thinking of cases where we break the law to obstruct fossil fuel companies from obtaining new supplies. Here are two real-world examples:

  1. Bidding for oil/gas leases (with no intention of paying) to prevent energy companies from getting them.
  2. Standing in the way of mountaintop coal mining.

These might work because:

  1. Energy companies aren’t grandma. We don’t empathize with them and we won’t get confused about who the victims are.
  2. Those who commit such acts do so at great cost, which makes them inspiring. They inspire me anyway. The man who bid for oil/gas leases may do ten years in jail for it. It would break my heart if his sacrifice were in vain. I want to make what he did mean something. I want to follow him into battle.

Alas, I’ve got doubts about acting against energy companies as well:

  1. It’s hypocritical for the disobeyer to rely on fossil fuels, and how do you avoid that? Civil disobedience’s power is symbolic and hypocrisy can kill it. Imagine if Gandhi had gone on wearing British cloth while protesting it. That loincloth was important.
  2. It’s also counterproductive for a disobeyer to rely on fossil fuels: If I fill my tank to drive to the auction to bid on leases, I just paid the companies I’m fighting, on the way to fighting them. How messed up is that?

The last point is relevant for all climate activists. Last week Bill McKibben gave a talk in my town where he copped to racking up a huge footprint flying all over the world. He thereby donates hundreds if not thousands of dollars a year to the opposition. Right now I’m paying a company to burn coal to run the laptop on which I’m writing. It’s like punching myself in the face.

So I’m leaning away from Civil Disobedience. Not that I’ve got a substitute.

But you know what I would like?

(He said casually, trying not to draw attention to his last-ditch effort to say something constructive before the post is over)

I’d like a debit/credit card that automatically charges me an appropriate carbon tax on all my purchases and sends the proceeds to the climate change-fighting organization of my choice. You hear me, MasterCard?

-From the Sea

Posted March 14, 2011 in Random Thoughts | 5 Comments on Why I’m Leaning Away From Civil Disobedience as a Response to Climate Change


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  1. Nate says:

    Wow, I love the credit card idea. That is ingenious. I would definitely use one — really good incentive not to use it on wasteful and destructive things.

  2. Judy says:

    To work, the card would have to show you in advance of the purchase how much the tax would be on a particular item.

  3. Judy says:

    P.S. I like the new profile pic.

  4. Nick B. says:

    Right. That poses a problem. My techie friends tell me that it won’t be long before our phones *become* our credit cards. If that happens, problem solved, since the phone can just display the tax prior to our hitting the “purchase” button.

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