Modern Climate Civil Disobedience

Careful observers of actions by environmentalists such as splashing paintings or gluing themselves to pavement recognize that the activists come from a long tradition of civil disobedience. The Transcendentalist American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay on civil disobedience, published in 1849, to explain his refusal to pay a tax to help subsidize the U.S. war with Mexico and his opposition to the government’s position on slavery. (He was imprisoned for a very short period of time.) Northern California today has a War Tax Resistance (NCWTR) movement that is affiliated with the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee. Thoreau’s tradition lives on, if only among a select few. But how is splashing paintings (more specifically splashing the glass protecting valuable paintings), and gluing oneself to pavement similar to not paying taxes to protest slavery, war and militarism? Is contemporary climate activism a modern update of Thoreau’s civil disobedience?

Thoreau’s argument was that he would not support the U.S. government by paying taxes. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time 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.” He added, “I cannot for an instant recognize as my government [that] which is the slave’s government also.”

Thoreau’s civil disobedience was based on his perception that the government was pro-slavery and that because the war with Mexico would increase the number of slaves states, he could not in good conscience pay his taxes to support the government. His argument was anti-government. “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually,” he wrote.

What about the climate activists? Is their civil disobedience also a rejection of the State?

In January 2020, a Swiss judge, Philippe Colelough, exonerated a group of climate activists who had trespassed and occupied a Swiss bank to demand an end to its funding fossil fuel projects with the following argument: “Because of the insufficient measures taken to date in Switzerland, (italics added) whether they be economic or political, the average warming will not diminish nor even stabilise, it will increase,” he stated, pointing to the country’s melting glaciers.

“In view of this, the tribunal considers that the imminence of danger is established,” the judge decided. “The act for which they were incriminated was a necessary and proportional means to achieve the goal they sought,” he ruled; their goal being greater government intervention to save the climate.

Along the same lines, according to its website, “Just Stop Oil is a coalition of groups working together to ensure that the government commits to ending all new licenses and consents for the licenses and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the U.K.” It demands that the U.K. government make a statement to that effect.

Superficially, then, Thoreau was advocating the priority of individual conscience over the rule of law and majority opinion. Thoreau was, in many ways, a drop out. He spent two-years in a tiny cabin in the woods near Walden Pond to better connect with Nature, far away from the corruption of urban life. For Thoreau, like for his fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, God spoke through Nature, not through society or politics. His protest of not paying taxes was an individual protest. While he himself was against the government’s policies, he made no direct demands on the government.

Just Stop Oil and the Swiss activists are different. Their movement asks governments to make specific statements and to implement particular policies. While Thoreau’s disobedience could be interpreted as asking the U.S. government to change its slavery policy, his civil disobedience was more personal than political.

Thoreau’s disobedience had many followers. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were two obvious examples. Both King and Gandhi used peaceful, civil disobedience to achieve their ends. But both were part of political movements. Both were making direct demands on their respective governments, similar to the Just Stop Oil movement and the Swiss activists.

The distinction between direct and indirect demands on government is clarified in the social philosopher John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty. Writing like Thoreau during the time of contentions over slavery, Mill also advocated the priority of an individual over a government or society that he believed to be tyrannical. But Mill’s individual liberty was limited in that it should not interfere with another’s liberty. It had societal limitations. (The relationship between an ethical individual and an unjust society is powerfully developed in the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic Moral Man in Immoral Society.)

The current climate advocacy is an update of Thoreau’s civil disobedience.  It is, however, more political, more direct. It appeals to specific State action. As the Swiss judge wisely stated: “The act for which they were incriminated was a necessary and proportional means to achieve the goal they sought.” Hats off to the judge, and hats off to the creative ways the protesters have found to update and modernize civil disobedience.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.