When an email from Tony Leiserowitz popped up on screen the other day, I was blown away to read the findings of his team’s latest national survey of U.S. opinion on climate change:
«One in eight people (13%) say they would be willing to personally engage in non-violent civil disobedience against corporate or government activities that make global warming worse.»
That’s more than 40 million Americans potentially willing to take to the streets and risk arrest. To put this in perspective, when 50,000 people turned up at the National Mall to protest the Keystone XL pipeline last February, it was hailed as the «largest climate rally in US history.«
I was therefore taken aback by the first headline I saw referencing the study: «Most Americans don’t support warming-focused civil disobedience – poll.» Clearly significance is in the eye of the beholder.
It got me to wondering whether large numbers actually matter, and if so what it would take to move those 40 million people from passive willingness to active participation. Is civil disobedience a tactic for catalyzing stronger and broader support for action – for growing the «movement» and achieving a specific outcome? Or is it a highly personal and (self-) empowering expression of a core value, an opinion or an emotion such as anger or hope?
I thought back to my first experiences with civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action as a young activist in the 1980s – fresh out of college, and full of optimism that my friends and I could save the world – before I made a career out of trying.
The author, pictured at right, participating in civil disobedience at a chemical plant in Virginia, USA in the early 1980’s.
I remembered the uncomfortable nights spent sleeping on the hard wooden pews of a local church to protest the latest commissioning of a Trident nuclear submarine at the General Dynamics facility in Groton Connecticut. The sheer size and blackness of those beasts when seen up close and high up out of the water. It felt like looking into the heart of evil.
I had a similar sensation of looking evil in the eye when protesting against one of the armoured «white trains» that used to transport nuclear weapons around the country. And when I was arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C.–the location may have been symbolic but again–it felt like a defiant act against an inherently evil regime.
When I was arrested for participating in a direct action at an Allied Chemical facility, which was spraying toxic waste on a field where it leeched into the river nearby, I was also taking a stance against a practice that seemed inherently wrong. But looking back, I don’t recall the same visceral outrage as I experienced in protests against nuclear weapons and apartheid. Maybe it was because the impacts were indirect or longer-term – like the collective horror we experience when hundreds die in an airplane crash but barely stop to consider that more than a million people die in car crashes each year.
None of these actions were directly connected to my day job at the time, which was running a campaign against offshore oil drilling. As part of that campaign, I once led a direct action in the waters off California from on-board the original Rainbow Warrior (the one that was later bombed by the French Secret Service for protesting nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific). We disrupted a program of seismic testing for rock formations likely to hold oil and gas. Despite the captain’s threats that we were endangering hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of tests, it turned out he was operating outside his permitted area so the legal consequences landed on his head, not ours. Hilarity ensued.
And I once submitted symbolic (i.e. fake) bids for Oil and Gas Lease Sale 82 on Georges Bank – I was the only bidder as it happened, which led to cancellation of the lease sale.
Even more hilarity ensued.
In both of those cases, I felt a sense of empowerment, for speaking truth to power. And since there was no new oil and gas development in those waters, there was a definite thrill of victory.
But I did not experience a deep, emotional sense of confronting evil.
Nearly 30 years later, as climate change takes center stage as the defining issue of our time, many are wondering role civil disobedience might play in creating a tipping point beyond which business as usual will simply no longer be possible. I don’t pretend to have the answer, especially given that the threat, the «enemy» and the solutions are diverse, decentralized, and diffuse.
But I would offer two observations about what makes civil disobedience most powerful:
- When it involves taking a serious personal risk (including the possibility of extended jail time) – a genuine sacrifice. Obviously one person’s sense of sacrifice will be different than another’s, but no one ever inspired millions by giving up meat once a week. Those four Greenpeace women who climbed the Shard recently? That was really something.
- When there is a very clear and tangible villain – one that conjures up heartfelt anger that resonates with those who witness it. When Eleanor Fairchild, a 78-year-old great-grandmother was recently arrested for blocking TransCanada’s bulldozers ON HER OWN LAND, I could almost feel my blood boiling.
So in answer to my own questions… Do numbers matter? Yes, I think so, though not necessarily in absolute terms. In many cases it’s enough simply to exceed expectations. But getting 40 million people out on the streets would almost certainly be game changing.
Is civil disobedience primarily a personal expression, or is it a tactical tool? Clearly it can be both. But either way, if my two observations above are correct, it is a tactic that shouldn’t be used lightly.
To the more than 75 percent of respondents in the Yale poll who say they would not support an organization that engaged in non-violent civil disobedience, I say that the very fact of climate change is evidence that we are already breaking the laws of nature. Surely breaking the laws of people which perpetuate that crime can be justified?