Blog-Post: Environmental direct action and civil disobedience

by Megan Blomfield.

Megan Blomfield is member of the Centre, and focusses her research on global justice and the environment. She mainly works on the ethical and political dimensions of climate change. You can read more on her recent research below!

On the 20th of March, the Sheffield Politics department organized a workshop on ‘Activism and Academia in the Anthropocene’. It was a great event, exploring different kinds of environmental activism globally, and the roles and responsibilities of academics with respect to environmental crises. I was there to speak about the relationship between environmental activism in the UK and traditional notions of morally permissible civil disobedience. 

In the philosophical literature, an account of civil disobedience that has been very influential, but also often criticized, is that given by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. According to Rawls, civil disobedience is a nonviolent, conscientious political act, done contrary to the law, which aims to bring about a change in governmental policy in a nearly just, democratic society. This is a context where there is a general obligation to obey the law, but where conscientious law-breaking may be justified if some citizens are being subjected to severe injustice; for example, to a violation of equal basic liberties through being denied the right to vote. Civil disobedience is supposed to serve as a form of public speech, expressing condemnation of such injustice to one’s fellow citizens, and calling on them to amend the terms of social cooperation.

It is in part because it is justified as an act of communication that such disobedience is supposed bear the markers of civility, such as publicity and non-evasion of punishment. Publicity means that disobedients should act openly, even giving advance warning of their actions to authorities. Non-evasion of punishment means that disobedients should willingly accept – and perhaps even seek out – the legal ramifications of their unlawful conduct. This is meant to express the sincerity of their cause and their general fidelity to the laws of their (nearly just) society.

This Rawlsian account of civil disobedience is often claimed to be too narrow. It is therefore not particularly surprising that many forms of environmental activism do not fit Rawls’s model, for example because activists work covertly to pursue their aims, or evade punishment. Many instances of environmental activism in the UK also diverge from the Rawlsian picture insofar as they do not seem to be directly targeted at laws or policies that treat citizens unjustly, nor primarily intended to communicate about injustice so as to eventually bring about a change in governmental policy. Instead, environmental activism sometimes involves blocking fossil fuel extraction directly, by physically interfering with operations or seeking to make them prohibitively costly.

Activists that aim to block resource extraction through direct action target a different dimension of state power to that considered by Rawls, who focuses on injustice in the state’s rule over citizens. Along with jurisdiction over the people within its territory, the state generally also claims two other dimensions of territorial right: first, the entitlement to decide what happens to the natural resources within its territory; and second, a right to control the borders of its territory by determining matters of entry, residency and citizenship status. Environmental activists who block fossil fuel extraction appear more to be targeting the second dimension of territorial right – contesting the state’s authority to determine what happens to certain natural resources. Some are also contesting state action within the third dimension of territorial right, by joining forces with activists opposed to injustice in immigration policy. These forms of activism call upon us to think beyond Rawls’s model of civil disobedience and consider what forms of resistance we might be permitted, or even required, to pursue, in a world of global, and interlinked, injustices.