Is civil disobedience for the environment undemocratic?

Miriam Meissner

Have you recently joined an environmental civil disobedience movement or action? Did this action involve blocking a street, occupying a coalmine, gluing yourself to a building or any other type of action that temporarily disturbed so-called ordinary citizens in their everyday lives? Are you considering joining such an action in the future?

If that’s the case and if you followed the media reporting on such actions, then you will – next to much positive and endorsing coverage – also have come across the following accusation: ‘What you’re doing is undemocratic!’

What a bummer! Ultimately, you might have joined the action because you wanted to serve democracy, rather than harm it. If you joined the actions of Extinction Rebellion, then you were rebelling – among other demands – for democratic innovation via the installment of a Citizens Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

Nonetheless, fellow citizens – at least some of them – perceived your form of protest as undemocratic. Some may have called your actions a threat to democracy. Others may have called you egocentric or attention seeking. Some may have accused you of enforcing your political will on that of others. This is quite a critique to digest and you might question your actions in response. To find an answer, I suggest the following thought experiment:

Imagine someone retrospectively criticized the Civil Rights Movement, which fought against racial segregation, or the Suffragettes, who fought for women’s right to vote, as undemocratic.

Both movements to some extent disturbed citizens in their everyday lives. So, were they attention seeking? Were they forcing their political will on that of others? Were they undemocratic?  What would you respond?

Of course, I don’t know for sure what you’d say, but I guess that you’d either say that their cause was so vital that it justified supposedly ‘undemocratic’ measures, or that their cause was excluded from the democratic order of the time and therefore had to be pursued through means that go beyond the standard democratic repertoire of voting, marching, campaigning, signing petitions, and so on.

For instance, you might argue that you cannot expect people who experience the injustice of racial segregation on a day-to-day basis to just wait and see until political leaders may (or may not) come around to taking their call for justice seriously. Or you might say that the Suffragettes had no other option but to engage in civil disobedience, because they had no access to the democratic practice of voting. What else should they have done? How can you vote for a right to vote if you don’t have one? Sign a petition?

Let’s now take this back to contemporary environmental civil disobedience movements and see if similar criteria apply. The first question to ask then would be: Is the cause that these movements pursue so vital that it mighty justify supposedly ‘undemocratic’ measures?

How you answer this question necessarily depends on whether or not you agree with scientists, environmental movements, UN Secretary General Guterrez and many others in considering today’s climate and ecological crisis a ‘direct existential threat’. Given that humans are dying already of extreme weather events, food and water shortages, air and water pollution and related environmental pressures, it is far from exaggerated to consider this crisis an existential threat. Animals and plants are hit even harder. Entire species are going extinct every day. Moreover, threats to life and health will amplify – especially if humans keep on emitting, polluting, deforesting, etc. Scientists have warned that ‘within 8 decades, [global] warming has a 50% probability of subjecting the global population to catastrophic (>3 °C) to unknown risks (>5 °C)’. In this context, ‘a 4 °C warming … would subject … almost 74% of the world population to deadly heat’.

The question if the cause that environmental civil disobedience movements pursue is vital can therefore be answered with a clear YES. Protesters are fighting for their lives, for the lives of their children, for the lives of other people and for the lives of other species. This can – as in the case of Civil Rights or the Suffragettes – justify supposedly ‘undemocratic measures’. If you argue this way, you essentially argue that the end justifies the means, which is possible – depending on your moral philosophy.

Yet, there is a second, perhaps more important, point to make – the point that environmental civil disobedience movements are not undemocratic at all but that they are, on the contrary, counterbalancing an existing democratic deficit.

The climate and ecological crisis is also a crisis of global and intergenerational democracy.

Given that the Suffragettes were denied their right to vote, voting for their cause was not an option. Their cause (women and their right to vote) was systemically excluded from the democratic system of the time.

Something similar is happening today. Those excluded from today’s democratic systems are not the necessarily the protestors themselves (as in the case of the Suffragettes) but those who suffer and will suffer the most from the life-threatening consequences of global climate and ecological breakdown. These are not the people who live and vote in the wealthiest countries of this world – those countries with the most damaging environmental footprints. Instead, it is people in countries such as Mozambique, who experienced two deadly cyclones within a period of two months in 2019 (with a death toll of more than 1000 people, and many more injured and ill).

Moreover, who will suffer most from the consequences of global climate and ecological breakdown are not the people who currently hold a right to vote. Instead, it is the young and the unborn who will suffer the most. It is the students from Fridays for Future and their toddler siblings. It is them, the newborn and the yet-to-be-born who will have to deal with food and water shortages due to droughts and heavy rainfalls, soil erosion and salinization, as well as ocean pollution and acidification. It is them who will have to deal with the global socio-political instabilities that will ensue from global resource shortages, flooding, and spreading diseases. It is them who, unlike their parents and grandparents, will not have the option any longer to stick their heads into the sand. They won’t have this option because they will be confronted directly with the material reality of climate and ecological breakdown.

What unites the people in Mozambique and the children of, say, the Netherlands is that they suffer or will suffer (to different degrees!) the most from the environmental crisis at hand while at the same time not having a means to democratically intervene in it. Of course, many adults in Mozambique have a right to vote. Yet, Mozambique is a country wherein the average inhabitant has an environmental footprint of 0.8 ha (for comparison: the average German has a footprint of 4.8 ha, the average Canadian 7.7). While global warming is already having fatal impacts on the lives of people in Mozambique, there is little that these people can do to stop the top carbon emitting countries in this world from changing their course.

This is why the current climate and ecological crisis is also a crisis of global justice and democracy. Industrialized countries’ such as the US, UK or the Netherlands have failed for decades to curb their enormous environmental footprints. Their failure is now harming the livelihoods of people in countries and regions such Mozambique or the Bahamas, among many others. Yet, the people from Mozambique or the Bahamas cannot vote in the US or Netherlands in order to change these countries’ policies. Similarly, there is little today’s youth can do about the fact that the democratic representatives whom their older fellow-citizens elected are utterly failing to protect their futures. There is little they can do about the fact that their governments are favoring the short-term interest of their current voter-base at the expense of their long-term right to a livable planet.

That environmental civil disobedience movements are proliferating today is not a threat to democracy. On the contrary, it is an emergency reaction to a long-term crisis in global and intergenerational democracy that is now coming to a head!

Add to this the fact that vested interests (such as the fossil industry) have been using their public influence and lobbying power in order to block effective environmental policies for many decades and it becomes crystal clear that the problem of contemporary global democracy is not civil disobedience. The problem of global democracy is that a limited number of citizens in a small number of wealthy countries has the right to vote for a small elite of governmental representatives, who then make decisions allowing a small amount of corporations to destroy the planet and future for everyone (and for their own profit)!

If you recently found yourself glued to a building with Extinction Rebellion or sitting in a coalmine with Ende Gelände, then you were not acting undemocratically but instead trying to build a grassroots counterweight to a structural democratic deficit that  is about to destroy everything humans around the world live for and by. Democratic thinkers such as John Rawls or Jürgen Habermas have highlighted that civil disobedience is legitimate if it is public, non-violent, accepts legal consequences and – importantly – if it is conscientious, serving a moral goal that is in the interest of society as a whole (such as justice and equality). I don’t think that there is any goal that serves humanity better than the protection of its home. Civil disobedience is in fact the necessary condition for democracy. As Habermas argues, it is a necessary ‘litmus test’ for democracy as it makes it possible to unmask the limits of democracy in dealing with conflicting moral stances over how society and the planet should look like in the future.

Today’s democratic representatives should therefore worry less about attention-seeking protestors disrupting ordinary citizens’ commute to the office. Instead, they should worry why ordinary citizens – citizens who have abided by the laws so far – increasingly feel compelled to take this measure of last resort in order to have their pleas for justice and life protection heard.

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