To many the idea of civil disobedience and jail time seems like a small price to pay in the fight against climate change. However, to many more the actions of activist groups like Extinction Rebellion (hereafter as XR) seem extreme and problematic. Beyond simply causing a disruption to the general public, the methods of XR are seen as counterproductive and ineffective. But when faced with inaction from governments, civil disobedience may not only be the only way forward, but morally required.
Henry David Thoreau, a man who practiced much of the philosophy he preached, is well known for his essay on civil disobedience. More than simply writing about it, Thoreau was jailed at one point for evading a poll tax that aided a government that endorsed slavery, and the Mexican-American War. Under the belief that he had a duty to oppose a government that tried to overrule his own conscience, Thoreau purposefully evaded the tax and accepted any and all punishment that came with it.
He was of the understanding that merely abiding by the law was not enough to enact change and represent the will of the people. At its best the government is expedient, and exercising ones will through such a system was bound to be perverted and abused in the eyes of Thoreau. For while voting democratically is essential, it fails to truly illustrate what the individual wants to prevail. Beyond merely exercising our opinions through how we vote, Thoreau saw it as necessary to do what we as citizens think right. Whether that be through evading unjust tax or through protest, what was important is that we did not remain stagnant in the face of injustice; to allow acquiescence out of mere convenience. Not because it is the only way for change to occur, but by doing otherwise would conform to the government’s wishes, which would be against one’s own conscience if we deem that government unjust. If we were to, we would be serving the state not primarily as people but merely as machines. And if we are required to act as agents of injustice under that machine, then according to Thoreau we must non-violently break the law.
To many the idea of resigning to civil disobedience in the face of an unjust government, or to even call our government unjust may seem extreme. Nonetheless, we have seen the state fail to act in the face of climate change. As I wrote in a previous essay titled Why You Should Go to the Global Climate Strike,
“When all people believe in a need to combat climate change, and our government responds with complacency… the inaction of our government are the actions of an unjust government” [i]
The very abuse of our will that Thoreau described is seen through the apathy of governments all over the world. Despite the majority of people recognising climate change as a real threat, we are no closer to saving our future and the planet we live on. From this, perhaps the only way forward is to enact our whole influence as individuals through non-violent civil disobedience.
XR has been pioneering these acts of civil disobedience through their economic and social disruption. Beyond simply evading tax in the way Thoreau did, XR is organising and mobilising civil disobedience to enable citizens to not only stand up for what they value, but to allow them to enact their will through these disruptions. These have taken the form of blockades on city streets, sit ins, demonstrations; all of which encourage arrests of their members. No doubt this takes a lot of courage to undertake, but in the eyes of many XR members it is a small price to pay. For while many of us see climate change as a threat that needs to be stopped, those who are protesting with XR are embodying that belief, rather than simply entertaining the idea. A Thoreau says,
“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence” [ii]
Those members of XR who are willing to give up their liberties for what they believe to be right have done far more than simply cast a vote on a piece of paper or attended a protest. They are enacting their truest will in the face of an unjust government. When discussing the threat of climate change, and the possibility of ecological collapse it is not enough to merely leave it to chance; to cast a vote in the hope the majority will see it through.
It’s not the first time a movement has been inspired by the philosophy of Thoreau. Mahatma Gandhi was influenced by Thoreau’s work, stating that it ‘was directly applicable to Indian Rights in Transvaal’[iii]. It was here the Gandhi adopted his methodology of Satyagraha; or nonviolent protest for the first time. He then took these ideas back to India where he fought for Indian Independence against the British Raj.
Another famous figure who was greatly inspired by the works of Thoreau was Martin Luther King. He was arrested almost 30 times during his life, in part due to civil disobedience. From reading Thoreau’s work, he stated.
“I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good… The writings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement”[iv]
It was from here that MLK became the most visible leader of the civil rights movement in America, pioneering civil rights through his nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. The scope and influence of both individuals through their protests needs not be justified. They both represent the necessity and influence that can occur when civil disobedience is used not only as a tool for effective change, but also as a manifestation of the will of the people.
Despite this, some may look to XR and suggest that their behaviour is unjustified and not comparable to this. They may look to the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and say that those instances were different. But it is important to remember that they too were dismissed by unjust people, which history now frowns upon.
“all men recognise the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now”
Many may say that these disruptions are excessive and counterproductive to fighting climate change. Perhaps what is meant by this is that XR’s actions are not convenient to the majority, who despite seeing a need to combat climate change, do nothing. When the governments of the world do not take action to protect the freedoms, rights and life of future generations through combating climate change, there is little else to call this other than: unjust. Regardless of the effectiveness of XR, we may very well have a moral imperative to use civil disobedience when our governments fail to act.
So if you are an individual who believes that immediate and direct action needs to be taken against climate change, and you recognise the inaction from our government to take those steps, then perhaps you may have reason to join Extinction Rebellion in acts of civil disobedience. Beyond the convenience of merely casting a vote or signing a petition, perhaps what is necessary is to fully enact your will; to partake in nonviolent civil disobedience and ensure that in the face of injustice you do not enable it further. When faced with possible ecological collapse, and the rights of future generations lies in your hands, do not merely stand aside. Do not gamble with ballot papers and petitions, and at the end of the day ask why we didn’t do more.
[i] Jon Kahler, Why You Should Go To The Global Climate Strike, 2019
[ii] Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, p.15
[iii] Mohandas Gandhi, Duty of Disobeying Laws’, 1907
[iv] Martin Luther King, The Autobiography of Martin Luther, 1998, Chapter 2