Civil disobedience: is it a radical form of organization, or a meaningful way to resist unjust laws? Should laws be changed ‘democratically,’ and is civil disobedience a part of our democratic system?
These questions have been circulating around the arrest of Sierra Club U.S’s top leaders. Washington, D.C. police arrested Allison Chin and Michael Brune on February 13, along with nearly fifty other climate activists, for zip-tying themselves to the White House gates in protest of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Chin is president of the Sierra Club U.S, and Brune its executive director. The club is one of the oldest and most influential grassroots environmental organizations in the United States, and is affiliated with Sierra Club Canada. In the organization’s 120-year history this is the first time that it has overtly supported civil disobedience.
Sierra Club’s usual method is to compile scientific evidence and run scientific-based campaigns, ensuring that their claims are supported empirically and that their suggestions are sustainable. They present this information to the government, who, in an ideal world, would respond with appropriate legislation.
With a history of fairly docile (though still influential and important) tactics, why use civil disobedience now? In the age of flash-mobs and tabloids, is civil disobedience a fast way to garner attention? Is it the most effective way to mobilize a protest movement?
The problem is that both the U.S and Canadian governments are failing to respond to empirical data, and are powering forward with both the Keystone XL and Enbridge pipelines, regardless of public outcry or the predicted environmental costs. The data is no longer a factor – the governments know the risks and are ignoring them in favor of oil-industry interests.
Jackie Thomas, Chief of the Saik’uz First Nations, spoke out against this money-hungry ideology at a rally in Washington D.C. on February 17. Thomas says: "In Canada, the First Nations are always expected to be the sacrificial lambs for our government in terms of the economy, like the economy is a human being, like the economy is more important than our land and our water."
The rally, organized by the Sierra Club and 350.org, drew an estimated 40,000-50,000 people, many of whom donned signs begging Obama to address the imminent dangers of climate change. Protest groups included the Tar Sands Blockade, a group dedicated to the use of non-violent civil disobedience to prevent the further construction of pipelines.
While Sierra Club Canada has been hesitant to follow suite with acts of civil disobedience, John Bennett, its executive director, recently stated in The Province that Sierra Club Canada “is discussing [civil disobedience] for good reasons,” citing an estimated 4,000 environmental assessments that have been ignored by cabinet members in parliament.
Bennett states, “There are now rules preventing members of the public from participating in environmental assessments […] There no longer is an arm’s length process to determine the acceptability environmentally or otherwise of industrial projects. Thirty years of developing environmental policies to protect our air, forests and wildlife have been swept away.”
The obstruction of public participation is itself a non-democratic act—one that the Government of Canada seems willing to ignore.
Sierra Club Canada is now faced with the question of whether they should utilize civil disobedience as a meaningful way to resist the government’s undemocratic methods—or if, in doing so, they will lose conservative members of their support base. While civil disobedience has a history of success, it can also be considered a ‘radical’ form of campaigning—technically speaking, it operates outside of the law. The organization must employ Gandhian non-violence in a way that will not negatively afflict its image and isolate supporters.
The issue of citizen organization is crucial and imminent. As the government ignores scientific campaigns and reviews, and profit is prioritized above the sustainability of our planet, new forms of resistance must come into play, and perhaps the most effective solution to take a stance against the pipelines is civil disobedience. At the very least, it should remain an option for citizens and organizations as they explore ways to voice their opinions against institutions that threaten the vitality of our environment, the quality of our futures, and living standards for generations to come.