The CleanTechnica community is fiercely committed to addressing climate change. We post hundreds of stories each month about advances in wind and solar power, breakthroughs in laboratories that may lead to better, cheaper, smaller batteries, and proposals for dramatically reducing carbon emissions. But are any of us prepared to go to jail for our beliefs?
Jail Is Not A Fun Place To Be
During one of my 37 careers (so far), I was inside prisons on numerous occasions serving legal notices on inmates. I know the sound — like a bank vault slamming shut — the doors make when they close. I have seen the rows of inmates all dressed in prison jump suits shuffling their way to lunch or the exercise yard.
These people have no access to the internet. They have no cell phones or Facebook friends. They are not going to Florida on vacation or helping their children blow out the candles on a birthday cake. They are cut off from the outside world. And if some administrator decides they belong in solitary confinement for a day, a week, a month, or a year, there is no recourse. Not a soul on the face of the Earth can help extricate them from their predicament.
My wife and I applied for drivers licenses in Florida yesterday. We were asked if we had ever been arrested. Fortunately, we were both able to say no, but what if we were climate protesters and had run afoul of the authorities? What if we had been motivated to join the Standing Rock movement in 2017 and been arrested for our trouble?
Every employment application asks if you have ever been arrested, not whether you have ever been convicted or found not guilty. Getting arrested is enough to put you in a special class of citizens, those who have limited employment opportunities, limited access to government programs, and limited life options. Nothing and no one can ever erase the digital trial that follows people who have been arrested until the day they die — or afterwards, in some cases.
Arrests At The Extinction Rebellion
1006 people who are part of the Extinction Rebellion were arrested in London last Monday because they dared disrupt polite society to drive home the urgency of what must be done to prevent the extinction of human beings from the face of the Earth. How dare they?
Sadiq Khanm the mayor of London, told the BBC that 9,000 police officers have been dispatched to handle the Extinction Rebellion protests since April 15. “I’m extremely concerned about the impact the protests are having on our ability to tackle issues like violent crime if they continue any longer,” he said. Law and order. Older readers may recall that being the same alarm sounded by Richard Nixon, America’s first psychopathic president, in the 60s. Tyrants always find “law and order” to be a convenient excuse for locking up those who disagree with them.
On the same day, which happened to be Earth Day, two protesters scaled the iconic globe outside Universal Studios in Hollywood and dared to unfurl green banners emblazoned with an hourglass and the words “Climate Change.” Authorities intend to charge them both with felonies, which could lead to them being incarcerated for their little stunt for up to 10 years, according to the Washington Post. Does that seem fair to you?
Why Arrest Protesters & Not Polluters?
Which raises this question: If protest is a criminal offense, then what is deliberately spewing so much pollution into the environment in search of profits? If organizing other people to protest injustice risks getting you labeled a terrorist, what is conspiring with other corporations to so alter the environment that nothing can live on Planet Earth any longer? If those with a social conscience are consigned to jail cells, what of the oligarchs who thumb their noses at civilization while they count their money?
The Extinction Rebellion Manifesto
The Extinction Rebellion was founded last October following a call by 100 prominent scientists in the UK for immediate action on climate change. Here is part of the group’s manifesto, as found on its website:
Humans cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or of science with impunity. If we continue on our current path, the future for our species is bleak…When a government wilfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm… it has failed in its most essential duty of stewardship. The ‘social contract’ has been broken, and it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and to rebel to defend life itself.
The group is calling for “legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025” and the establishment of a new national Citizens’ Assembly to oversee climate action. Some would see that as a call to overthrow the existing government.
When Is Civil Disobedience The Right Thing To Do?
In Medium, writer David Mattin asks, “Should we turn to civil disobedience to avert looming ecological disaster?” Another way of putting is to ask, are you willing to get arrested, go to jail, and forever alter the future course of your life for something you believe passionately in?
He writes, “When is rebellion against your own government justified? That question haunted the thinkers at the foundation of modern political philosophy. In the dark masterpiece that is The Leviathan, published in 1651, Thomas Hobbes infamously told readers that direct action against the state can never be right.
“John Locke replied with Two Treatises of Government, which argued that citizens have a right to overthrow a government that fails to protect their life and liberty. It’s from Locke that people in the west indirectly take much of their understanding of how citizens stand in relation to the state. The shadow that haunted Locke and his contemporaries was one familiar to any reader in the 17th-century. That is, tyranny: the frightening possibility of an unjust king who abuses his subjects.”
Does The Earth Have Inalienable Rights?
It’s fair to say that the words of John Locke, along with the writings of Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and other luminaries of The Enlightenment, were very much on the minds of the framers of the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Doesn’t the Earth have certain inalienable rights that are self-evident? Was what they did so different from what climate protesters are doing today? And if not, why do we vilify the activists of today and lionize those of the past, calling them heroes and patriots?
“In the second decade of the 21st-century, citizens of the industrialized world are trapped inside a broken logic that makes two contradictory demands of us,” Mattin writes. “We know we can’t go on with the carbon-fuelled lifestyles that are destroying the environment. Meanwhile, we know we have to go on with those lifestyles. Not because we want to wreck the planet. But because we want to be able get to work in the morning. To light our homes at night. To visit our sick aunt on the other side of town. To have a social life. To just exist.
He characterizes our dilemma as knowing we can’t go on like this — plundering the Earth until it can no longer support human life. “That is an impossible predicament, and increasingly there’s a kind of psychic strain associated with it. People can live a contradiction for so long. But at some point it has to break.
“For the rising numbers of people — still a tiny minority overall — committing to direct action on the climate, that breaking point has surely come. They’re motivated by a sense of urgency. And also by a growing fear that our democracies are not able properly to cognize or take action on looming ecological breakdown.” Certainly those living in the United States are seeing a government determined to ignore the climate emergency for as long as possible.
Fighting For Change Within A Broken System
Just as the authors of the Declaration of Independence provoked a revolution, so too will the ideas of David Mattis if carried out. “The system we inhabit is now stuck,” he writes. “Its internal logic is one of perpetual, carbon-fuelled growth and rising affluence — a logic that demands we keep turning the wheels of techno-capitalism ever faster. Meanwhile, the external reality is one of a finite environment that makes perpetual growth impossible, and looming ecological breakdown that demands that we stop turning those wheels. Pulled in two different directions at once, our system is frozen, motionless, in danger of being ripped apart.
“That stasis can’t hold forever. Extinction Rebellion and other movements like it are the first, faint signals that change is coming. The consequences of their action — blocked roads, lost productivity — are more than just an inconvenient but necessary reminder of the damage we’re doing to the planet.
“They are a reflection of the deep contradiction that currently has our system locked in a death spiral. In them we can see the first glimmerings of something new — the beginnings of a search for a new vision of our collective life. That is a journey we can no longer postpone, whatever the inconvenience. Indeed, inconvenience is going to have be part of the point. The structural changes we need to make are vast. But we can’t hide from the truth any longer. The resistance is justified.” (emphasis added)
One thing is painfully obvious to anyone who cares to look. The United States does not have a justice system. It has a legal system, one that treats those with money and power very differently than other people. The concept of Equal Justice Under Law emblazoned in the front of the Supreme Court building is a concept honored most often in the breach rather than its observance.
We Need A Semi-Miracle
“This is not the time to be realistic, this is the time for humanity to completely change course,” Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder, tells the BBC. “This is not about fiddling around the edges, and adding a few solar panels to a few roofs; we have left it so late that we have to step up in a semi-miraculous way to deal with this situation.”
So here’s a question for the CleanTechnica community: Are we doing enough? Instead of hopscotching the world for headlines from the world of renewable energy and sustainability, should we be encouraging people to become more involved in civil disobedience if the powers that be refuse to recognize the climate emergency? In the era of pervasive digital surveillance by governments foreign and domestic, can we lawfully do so without winding up in a jail cell next door to Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning? How much should we be willing to risk to make our feelings known?
One part of David Mattin’s treatise rings true — the existing political institutions in many countries, especially the United States, appear to favor those who would destroy the Earth for their own gain rather than those who would save it for the benefit of us all. What would the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence do if they were here today and saw what the government they created has come to?
If they operated on the principle that radically changing the government is permissible — even required — when the interests of a civil society demand it, shouldn’t actions that honor that principle be applauded rather than suppressed? Shouldn’t ordinary citizens be able to declare their independence from voracious fossil fuel companies?
One thing that should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer is that some 230 years after it was formed, the government of the United States as envisioned in 1787 has failed, putting the Earth and all its people at risk. What to do about it? That is a question we all must answer for ourselves.