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Extinction Rebellion protesters block Flinders Street in Melbourne, October 2019. Image: Julian Meehan, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

I became aware of the threat posed by human-induced climate change when I was six. In 1989, concerns were focused on the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer, and the warming of the temperature was known as the Greenhouse Effect. In the years since, the Greenhouse Effect has given way to Global Warming and then to Climate Change. Humans have caused more greenhouse gas emissions in the last thirty years than in all the years since the industrial revolution. A supreme effort was made by activists in the 1980s to avert the coming crisis, but this was a time when neoliberalism was at its peak and the free market reigned. President Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof in 1979; in 1981, Reagan ordered them removed. That was before some current world leaders were born. As Naomi Klein puts it in On Fire: The Burning Case For A Green New Deal, ‘one could scarcely imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face-to-face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet.’

A growing number of people now believe that near-term social collapse is inevitable. In this context, 17-year-old activist Greta Thunberg is able to speak with a gravitas that eludes adult leaders when she says, ‘we can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations, or we can continue with our business as usual and fail’. Today’s young people are not yet invested in the carbon economy. They have not lived long enough to fall into the false consciousness of neo-liberalism. Furthermore, they are coming of age in an era where the milestones of success that previous generations have aspired to no longer ring true. It is perhaps inevitable then that leadership on climate would come from the young, requiring traditional hierarchies to be put aside along with single-use plastics. Even with the looming climate crisis, the Australian Greens—the only political party built on environmentalism—still fail to win widespread support, and mainstream parties remain at least partially committed to fossil fuels. Author Amitav Ghosh calls this era the ‘Great Derangement’—a period likely to be remembered as a time when humans persisted in their dream of eternal economic growth while marching blindly towards societal collapse. As Ghosh observes:

At exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture where the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics and literature alike.

The school strikers, admonished to get back to school by the coal-fondling prime minister, seem to have an intuitive awareness that their education is preparing them for the wrong future.

The school strikers, admonished to get back to school by the coal-fondling prime minister, seem to have an intuitive awareness that their education is preparing them for the wrong future. They are coming of age at a juncture in history where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a notoriously conservative body whose worst-case scenario predictions have always fallen far short of reality, forecasts a temperature rise of 4.3C by 2100 if business-as-usual continues. Australian thinktank the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Change believes a rise of three degrees is likely by 2050 and would mean the end of civilisation as we know it.

Against this backdrop, calls for civil disobedience abound. The term was popularised by Henry David Thoreau, who argued in 1949, as opposition to slavery was rising in the US, that citizens have ‘the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.’ Civil disobedience has been central to the success of many non-violent resistance movements including the American Civil Rights Movement, Gandhi’s campaigns for independence from the British Empire and the Suffragette Movement in America and Britain. The push for environmental activists to embrace civil disobedience has been spearheaded by activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR), whose handbook This is Not a Drill proclaims: ‘To not cooperate has become a moral imperative—a survival imperative’. XR’s strategy is of non-violent, disruptive, civil disobedience and its tactics have provoked fierce disagreement even between staunch allies. The group has become notorious for the blocking of roads in the name of disrupting business as usual and their direct action has also included blocking Murdoch newspapers from distribution. Protesters who are in a position to do so deliberately risk arrest and jail, in a strategy protesters call ‘weaponising privilege.’ XR’s demands include zero emissions by 2030, the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly selected by sortition to replace the sovereign role of parliament, and that the media ‘tell the truth and act as though that truth is real.’

Thoreau believed that civil disobedience was needed in order to slice through the inertia of the masses. He bemoaned the inaction of the majority, who:

Will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give up only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them.

In order to give more than a cheap vote, he suggests, one ought to refuse to pay tax to an administration that is sanctioning unjust practices and to refuse to participate in its processes. The tax man, for instance, should resign his post.

Criticisms of XR’s tactics have ranged from the banally authoritarian (how dare they block traffic and mess up people’s day) to the provocatively anarchist (their definition of non-violence is too restrictive and rules out many justifiable acts). One of the more nuanced objections to XR is that their actions do not actually break the laws against which they are protesting, and therefore do not amount to civil disobedience in its truest sense. The idea that citizens have an obligation to disobey laws that are unjust, and that officials should refuse to discharge duties for conscientious reasons is linked to a natural law understanding of social relations. While legal positivism holds that the legitimacy of a law is derived from the fact that the law was passed by a sovereign with a valid claim to power, natural law holds that there is a universal set of moral standards that exist independent of the government of the day. Natural law is linked to a belief in universal human rights, such as the right to life and the right to freedom of political opinion. Relatedly, the Enlightenment theory of the social contract is that the legitimacy of the state’s authority over individuals is derived from the consent given by individuals to surrender some of their freedom in order to have their rights protected and the social order maintained. Many climate activists believe the social contract is now broken, as governments have failed to protect their subjects’ most fundamental right to a life on a habitable planet. In the face of this failure, disobedience is mandated.

Acts of civil disobedience tied to demands for radical action on climate change can broaden the discussion and join the necessary dots between climate justice and social inequality.

Attend any meeting of activists engaged in civil disobedience and you are likely to hear talk of the Overton Window. A concept introduced in the 1990s by US theorist Joseph Overton, the Overton Window refers to the parameters of what is acceptable in public discourse at a particular time. Ideas and policies that fall outside the Overton Window are unable to succeed as they will not win public support and therefore are not viable. Extinction Rebellion protestors believe that the Overton Window can be deliberately shifted over time. This allows a movement to focus on a long-term public benefit rather than being constrained by the policies that are currently viable. Acts of civil disobedience that are tied to demands for radical action on climate change can broaden the discussion beyond the unambitious targets put forward by mainstream political parties. They can join the necessary dots between climate justice and social inequality. They can also move more traditional forms of protest away from the margins and closer to what is perceived as the sensible centre. Such shifts must happen and they must happen fast if we are to achieve the radical changes we need to halt human-induced climate warming and break out of the atomised individual thinking that has allowed its escalation.

British Professor of Sustainability Jem Bendell has observed, when talking to students about the imminent collapse of civilisation, ‘a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward’. Once we accept that our lifestyle and economic system is unsustainable and to blame for our predicament, we can start putting aside the habits and priorities we learned when we were growing up in the twentieth century. Importantly, we can also cease our unquestioning acceptance that what is right is synonymous with what is legal. Unlearning everything that we thought we knew may be easier for children than for adults—climate psychology therapist Caroline Hickman has observed that the children who are engaged with the climate crisis are ‘nowhere near as afraid as the adults are.’

Disobedience is at the heart of the only sane response to the climate emergency. The situation we find ourselves in demands a wild iconoclasm. Disobey unjust laws. Upend the hierarchy.

We no longer have anything to lose.