Hugh Bollinger
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On civil disobedience

By Reilly Capps This video went up on HuffPo yesterday. There is a great deal to be written about Tim DeChristopher and the future of peaceful civil disobedience in this country. The history of peaceful civil disobedience is been complicated and confusing. There have been acts of peaceful civil disobedience that were profoundly misguided, and ended up doing more damage than good. (Although one struggles to think of pertinent examples. Perhaps that's because peaceful civil disobedience is either effective or it's forgotten, like the guys who supposedly pay unjust parking tickets with pennies, or the pink-shirted women who routinely interrupt congressional events to protest war. Doesn't hurt anybody, but it doesn't help much, either.) Meanwhile there have been acts of peaceful disobedience that freed a whole race of Americans and helped give women the vote. Like Democracy, Americans didn't invent peaceful civil disobedience and we didn't perfect it (yet), but we did bring it to its fullest form, far earlier than the rest of the world grasped its real power. It was Henry David Thoreau who formulated it first, and Martin Luther King (along with Ghandi) who used peaceful civil disobedience most effectively. And that's part of why the story of DeChristopher is so compelling. (There is also the personal story of DeChristopher: his dad raised him on money he made working in the oil and gas industry.) He actually did something. He didn't just make a few cops go out of their way to book him in to jail, as 26 brave souls did after his sentencing. He actually derailed an attempt to drill on some very pretty land in southeastern Utah. He made Presidents take notice. He gave environmentalists a cause to focus their desires and their dismay on. And he started a movement that may have some legs. Whatever you think of the actual specifics of his protest, whether you think natural gas drilling is all that bad for the environment, whether you think we should be encouraging drilling at home so we don't have to import from ruthless dictators, you have to admit -- DeChristopher's protest succeeded hugely where so many have not. This was partly an accident. He sort of lucked into his position with that bidder paddle, never expecting to get as far as he did. He went to the auction thinking: I'm going to stop this. But he didn't have a clue how. DeChristopher's story is unusual, and not easily repeatable. The opportunities for peaceful civil disobedience in the fight against climate change seem extremely limited. He stopped a government auction that was later declared illegal, whereas most actions that cause climate change and environmental degradation are perfectly legal. In fact, they drive our economy, feed people, create wealth, and improve civilization. You would be hard pressed to label this whole system immoral. Even when drilling or pollution does go too far, most of the systems that work together to burn coal and oil and pump out harmful greenhouse gas emissions are closed. The policy is made in Washington, carried out by corporations that work in secret and are regulated by people who are often very cozy with the industry. A regular person is only tangentially consulted, such as when we vote for our representatives. Other systems, such as the treatment of southern blacks in the 1950s, required the daily complicity of average Americans, who actively enforced -- or at least did nothing about -- segregation laws, and were therefore more open to disruption by average Americans who refused to enforce those laws. Blacks had to agree to ride segregated buses. White waitresses had to agree not to serve them at the lunch counter. But perhaps there are more opportunities than we realize. DeChristopher didn't know there was an opportunity that morning. He had as much moxie as he had knowledge, and history teaches that moxie can be as important as knowledge. It was moxie that got him into the bidding room, and moxie that made him lift that paddle to bid on his parcels. It was moxie and determination -- not planning and strategy and reading Mother Jones -- that allowed him to find a small crack in the system, a small crack that, when he tapped it with a very small hammer, it brought the whole thing down. And so who knows where the other cracks are? More problems: with climate change, not only do the perpetrators include every single one of us, but the injuries inflicted by climate change are indirect. Who deserves blame for droughts and fires? How much responsibility will each individual person who drives an SUV bear when the Maldives are under water? How much will I be to blame when Manhattan is flooded? If you're looking for a place to practice civil disobedience, start thinking that the best place to start is with yourself, by reducing your personal use of energy, by investing in solar companies, by going to college to study electrical engineering -- all those things are low-level acts of civil disobedience, because they withdraw your support for the conventional fossil-fuel economy. The basis for all civil disobedience comes from Etienne de la Boetia, whose essay On Voluntary Servitude wonders why people cooperate with governments they do not support. That idea found flowering in our Declaration of Independence, in which Jefferson notes that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed, and that people are free to withdraw their consent at any time. Now we are engaged in the age of acceptance, in which we tend to accept everything all the time, and are swept away by currents of history we do not particularly like or understand because, just as we do with our iTunes and Windows updates, we keep saying and clicking and communicating "I accept" "I accept" "I accept," even when we do not understand what we are accepting. We all silently accept climate change every time we unthinkingly do things that will cause it. I speak as a hypocrite, about to board an intercontinental plane. How many micro-centimeters of sea level rise is this flight responsible for? If civil disobedience, at this point, is mostly personal, a series of decisions about what policies and companies and politicians we are going to withdraw support from, that doesn't mean it isn't civil disobedience. At least it is an occasional form of saying: "I do not accept." DeChristopher is more active than that. He wants people to block off mountaintops in the coal mining country of West Virginia. He wants people to block the halls of the capital. He wants mass peaceful protests. And they will be effective. Maybe as effective as all the flipped-off light switches in the country. And maybe somewhere along the line, someone else will find another crack.
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