One of the issues I am pondering these days is that of civil disobedience. The central issue is that of how to respond to a breach of law when the law goes along with the breach. As such, if we are to resolve our cultural dilemma of climate disruption, we must deal with the negative forces that are leading to global warming. In particular, we must recognize that these negative forces are currently poised in the dominator roles of our culture. These powers are in the position to mandate the continuance of:
- the military-industrial complex, and
- the fossil fuel industry
via legal means, imposed by government forces which are in alignment with these forces; it also means that to resist these forces often requires stepping outside the bounds of legality. To oppose these forces thus requires some form of civil disobedience.
Such disobedience can be placed on a spectrum between sabotage and non-violent civil disobedience (NVCD). Much has been written on NVCD, the earliest being the play Antigone by Sophocles (5th century BCE). The modern writings on NVCD have mainly begun with Thoreau in [On the Duty of] Civil Disobedience, 1848. Thoreau was essentially questioning the distinction between legality and justice, wherein:
It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do what I think right. . . . Law never made men a whit more just; and by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.
There is much to be explored in Thoreau’s writing, but essentially he was an advocate of NVCD when government and legal systems were acting in ways that are unjust. His primary suggestions, as elucidated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, were to:
- use only moral or legal means to oppose unjust law
- boycotting, picketing, blocking traffic, non-violent resistance, non-payment of taxes
- first make an effort to bring about change through legal means
- work within the system before and during
- be open and public about actions
- the disobedience must be fully revealed and public
- be willing to accept the consequences of such actions
- prison, fines, deportation, loss of job, social disapproval
The intention behind NVCD is to induce shame in the dominator by highlighting the discordance between legality and justice. The difficulty is that these processes are slow to induce social change: witness the years required before the British Empire released India from colonialization (Gandhi), or the years of societal demonstration before significant reduction of racial inequality (Martin Luther King Jr). The major difficulty with NVCD in regard to global warming is that we probably do not have time for slow resolution; we are too close to the edge of irreversible global catastrophe.
Sabotage, on the other hand, is usually illegal, likely violent or violating, action engaged in secretly, and often such that the perpetrators attempt to avoid the personal consequences of their actions. While sabotage might be somewhat satisfying to the perpetrators, I am not sure it does anything other than anger the recipients, and provide a justification on the part of the dominator for the suppression of any kind of civil disobedience.
In this regard, I have been networking with a group of individuals who seek to offer protection services for groups that engage in civil demonstration, with the purpose being to maintain the principles of NVCD wherein these protest rallies occur. I believe that such protection service is very important, providing safety for all — but it is very easy for individuals to become provocative, or for spectators to provoke, which then leads to antagonistic responses. In particular in the Vancouver area, it appears that a number of neo-Nazi groups are now attempting to be provocative in just this fashion.
Even for the people who offer such protection services, there is a range of responses. Some say that actions such as sabotage can be done without danger to those who simply practice of NVCD. I totally disagree with this — I doubt that the dominator society makes this distinction, and it is likely that if sabotage occurs at the same time as NVCD, repressive responses will be imposed on all, not just the saboteurs.
So, what to do? I do not know. What is fundamentally needed is a massive mobilization of the general populous towards all types of civil disobedience, but forty years of attempting this on the part of many parties has been largely unsuccessful. Sooner or later, enough angst from environmental devastation will occur, but likely it will then be too late.