I normally respect the law . . . but I needed to get the message out. By getting arrested, that happened.”
So commented Patricia Warwick, 68, who ventured down to the White House last month to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline project in the U.S., a vast arterial skein that will pump the oil harvest of the Alberta tarsands across six U.S. states to refineries in Texas.
She wound up in an non-air-conditioned paddy wagon.
Warwick joined more than 1,250 Americans and Canadians, ranging from students and grandmothers to celebrities such as Darryl Hannah and Margot Kidder, and eminent scholars, such as James Hansen of NASA, Bill McKibben of Middlebury College and No Logo author Naomi Klein, who were led away from the White House gates in handcuffs over a two-week demonstration. Their action represents one of the largest environmental acts of civil disobedience of the new millennium.
Those arrested were supported in spirit by nine Nobel Peace Prize recipients, including the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, the Nobel laureates urge him to reject the proposed pipeline, saying his decision offers “a critical moment” to make good on his pledge to create a clean energy economy.
Another Nobel winner, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, also signalled his support for the protestors.
“This pipeline would be an enormous mistake,” Gore tweeted to more than two million followers. “The answer to our climate, energy and economic challenges does not lie in burning more dirty fossil fuels — instead, we must continue to press for much more rapid development of renewable energy and energy efficient technologies and cuts in the pollution that causes global warming.”
The Obama administration has said it will decide by the end of the year whether to permit the pipeline.
In Canada, many are also urging Obama to sever the tarsands supply line. More than 450 have committed to attend a protest scheduled for Parliament Hill on Sept. 26 (ottawaaction.ca), which will also involve acts of civil disobedience and action bringing together students, labour unions, aboriginal groups, physicians and social justice organizations from across Canada.
While there is a tendency to label such protestors as anarchists, professional activists or social deviants, marginal to the social and economic mainstream, such a characterization is inaccurate.
These protestors are not members of a malcontented rabble, but rather represent an engaged and vital part of our democracies, as research on social movements suggests.
Social theorist Charles Tilly, for example, one of the world’s foremost scholars of social movements, spoke of such protests as forming “repertoires of contention.” He traced their beginning to Great Britain in the early 1800s, as the economic and political upheaval of the Industrial Revolution was gathering steam.
Unlike the 1789 mob that stormed the Bastille, these social movements, according to Tilly, are more strategic campaigns than mob-rule, and are a direct result of democratization. In other words, they are the logical result of a democracy, as people deepen a sense of their rights and strategically pressure governments to protect and foster those rights.
The pipeline protestors thus represent not a problem for, but a product of, our democratic political system, and as such have to be taken seriously and treated respectfully.
As British historian E.P. Thompson pointed out, such social movements represent a “moral economy,” whereby ethical behaviour is articulated by a broader set of social values than simply just following the law. American abolitionist Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay, On Civil Disobedience, represented a moral lighthouse for Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom espoused civil disobedience when confronted with unjust laws. These protestors are heirs to this tradition.
Significantly, at the Nuremburg trials following World War II, Nazi officials were hanged for not committing civil disobedience. Their oft-repeated defence that they were simply “following orders” was not enough to save them from the gallows. Their defence was inadequate for the new “moral economy” of a post-Holocaust world.
These protesters are pointing us to a new “moral economy” concerning the Earth itself. Their actions suggest our present economy, based on ecologically rapacious oil and gas extraction, is ultimately ecologically unsustainable and ethically unacceptable. In future years, when “geocide” is deemed a crime, these protestors may well be remembered not as criminals, but as champions of a life-filled world.
Stephen Bede Scharper teaches environmental studies at the University of Toronto.