What threshold must be reached before ordinary people decide it’s necessary to break the law?
Throughout history, people have resorted to means beyond the law in order to advance moral causes. In fact, there’s hardly any major struggle in history that didn’t involve breaking with the established legal logic of the time. The law often changes in response to law-breaking, and the cause becomes a celebrated one.
Whatever that threshold is, it has now been reached for the venerable Sierra Club, the USA’s oldest and largest conservation organisation, with 1.4 million members. Michael Brune, the Club’s Executive Director, announced last week that they will support civil disobedience for the first time in their 121-year history. This is significant far beyond the limited coverage that the announcement was given.
Brune stated, "For civil disobedience to be justified, something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest...For Thoreau, the wrongs were slavery and the invasion of Mexico. For Martin Luther King, Jr., it was the brutal, institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South. For us, it is the possibility that the United States might surrender any hope of stabilizing our planet's climate."
Their decision has been motivated by the Hurricane Sandy disaster and the Keystone XL pipeline project, and no doubt other factors such as the news that 2012 is among the ten warmest years on record.
Ordinary environmentalists and conservation activists - often confined to the protection of one particular species or area, now have the potential to create a huge movement to stop climate change, the issue that trumps them all. And I’d say it's needed more than ever. With Kofi Annan's Global Humanitarian Forum stating that 300,000 people a year now die because of climate change and predictions that this could accelerate to 5 million a year - or 100 million by 2030 - we are clearly in the grip of a crisis so large that no man-made law can take precedence over it. It is, therefore - to re-fashion a phrase – “better to break the law than break the climate.”
To some, this may seem ridiculous. But when put into perspective, it makes complete sense. If millions will die as a result of climate change, it is not ridiculous to invoke earlier struggles where the law was broken in order to achieve change. The scale of potential death – one hundred million by 2030 - is so large that it deserves to be taken as seriously as any previous cause. One of the problems of being an environmentalist is the frustrating struggle to make people comprehend a problem so vast and yet so seemingly distant and easy to ignore. This is despite having not only the clear moral case to act, but also something that no other cause has ever had in its favour – peer-reviewed science.
Nevertheless, people are waking up and realising that the odd march, lobbying and electoral action isn’t going to solve the climate crisis. There is now no choice but to augment this with a willingness to actively confront the crisis and anyone that stands in the way of a future for our children. This is not something to be relished – it is the grim reality that we are forced into a position of having to be prepared to go to jail to stop the climate crisis.
Ordinary people have to be prepared to follow the example of the brave young US students arrested over a Keystone XL occupation, Frontline Action on Coal (the group reported to be behind the hoax that wiped $300 million off Whitehaven Coal's share value), Tim DeChristopher (who disrupted a US oil and gas auction with bogus bids) and the ‘Greenpeace six’, to name a few. No people were harmed – just the wallets of those who would profit from lack of action on climate change.
In the UK, the equally-venerable National Trust should follow the lead of the Sierra Club. They have already successfully flexed their muscle over the government's proposed forest sell-off. With 3.7 million members – more than ten times the combined membership of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats - they could play a huge role in mobilising a new environmental mass movement. And it couldn’t come at a time when we need it more, with the UK government committed to a 'dash for gas', a huge, wasteful road-building project and with climate change starting to make its effects more known worldwide.
It's time for the National Trust, the RSPB (1 million members), the various Wildlife Trusts (800,000 members collectively) and other conservation groups to return to the radical visions of their 19 century founders – direct action might be the only thing that can save us from a burning planet. Time to step up.