James M Dow

environmental disobedience



In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in environmental disobedience, ecosabotage, and militant environmentalism concerning the issues of climate change, conservation, agriculture, and other environmental issues. Environmentalists of many stripes have argued that we are undergoing an environmental crisis: the usual levers of political action— voting, calling your local, state, federal representatives, attempting to change laws, lobbying in Washington, DC, boycotting, etc— have been ineffective at changing minds. Most legal, moral, and “culture war” battles surrounding environmental issues have been lost, especially since Reagan’s propaganda war on environmentalism. However, human relationships to the natural world continues to create natural disasters, human suffering, and moral crises. A key question is what is the appropriate political action to take in light of this environmental crisis?

For instance, last year in North Dakota at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, indigenous groups and environmental groups engaged in collective actions to protest the Dakota access pipeline. The kind of solidarity that emerged at Standing Rock, the degree of interest by academics and intellectuals, and the public response was unprecedented. However, the discourse around some of the direct action tactics taken at Standing Rock was either non-existent or not informed by the literature on the ethics of environmental civil disobedience. The key question has changed over the years, since it used to be that people asked “Is environmental civil disobedience morally justified?” Some argue now that environmental civil disobedience is necessary. The shift is in the ethical questions has more to do with tactical issues, namely how and when is civil disobedience, ecosabotage, e.g., monkeywrenching morally justified.

The difficulty with introducing the issue of environmental civil disobedience is twofold.  First, the lack of perspective-taking between environmentalists— those that believe that the non-human natural world has value that is worth protecting— and the non-environmentalists— those that believe that the non-human natural world is a resource for humans only. Environmentalists are often taken to be Chicken Little alarmists by non-environmentalists, but that may be caused by a lack of knowledge of the environmental crisis. Second, the usual laws and values that govern issues having to do with human beings have legal and ethical frameworks already that do not require the creation of new value systems. From the point of view of non-environmentalists, it seems radical or extreme to engage in acts of civil disobedience for the environment.

While there are articles that have discussed environmental disobedience— the best summary example of which is Hettinger’s (2001) article “Environmental Disobedience”— I would argue that the literature thus far has not addressed four important issues: 1) the tension between accounts of civil disobedience independent of environmental concerns and the specific concerns of the environmental disobedient; 2) a narrow focus on a consequentialist framework for justifications for environmental disobedience which leaves out conscience/commitments of the agents engaging in the acts of disobedience, the deontology of environmental disobedience is unexplored, in particular questions about moral respect for the environment; 3) a meditation on the concept of violence that is employed in arguments for and arguments against environmental disobedience; 4) which is most controversial, a failure to recognize how political violence in general has been justified as a means to directly or indirectly bring about new values.  In this post, I will focus on the first issue. Later posts will address issues 2-4.

Any discussion of environmental disobedience needs to first address the objection that one ought never to break the law no matter what. Because environmental civil disobedience involves law breaking, for instance trespassing at a logging site and chaining oneself to a bulldozer, one might argue that breaking the law is never justified. However, as Hettinger argues, “Legal obligations (what the law demands) and moral obligations (what valid moral principles require) are conceptually distinct and it is not plausible that legal obligations invariably outweigh conflicting moral obligations” (499). Hettinger argues that the question of whether moral obligations outweigh legal obligations depends upon whether the legislative institutions are just or not. However, as Earth First! Activists have argued, the legislative institutions in the US are not legitimate because they systematically ignore the values of nature. It may be that a blanket rejection of the legitimacy of the system is too extreme, but so is the assumption that because one lives in a mostly just democracy, that therefore there are no instances in which lawbreaking is justified. From the point of view of an environmentalist, we do not live in a mostly just democracy. The usual routes to giving voice to environmental values have failed to have lasting impact on laws, society, and culture in the US. There is little to no one representing the interests of the non-human natural world in our educational system, our media, or our government.

Thoreau says that “it is not desirable to cultivate respect for law, so much as for right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any tie what I think is right” (1849, 7). But, the general attitude of disrespect for the law neither compels morally nor convinces legally. As Hettinger points out, the person justifying environmental disobedience must be able to appeal to conscience and commitment as a framework within which the political actions are justified. Environmental disobedients also must be able to justify the breaking of the law through balancing a respect for the law beyond the one broken and the desire to express a general respect for the rule of law.

It will be helpful to outline the conditions for civil disobedience here, however, in order to make clear and precise how environmental disobedience differs. If one engages in a compare and contrast between the literature on civil disobedience and environmental disobedience, the former tend to ignore environmental cases and the latter tend to ignore the conditions and distinctions of civil disobedience in a way that is clear and precise. One place to start is Kimberley Brownlee’s (2010; 2012) research on civil disobedience. Brownlee provides a criterion for civil disobedience that can be used to rearticulate the questions about environmental disobedience, a topic Brownlee does not discuss as a special case. Brownlee outlines 4 central features of civil disobedience: 1) conscientiousness; 2) communication; 3) publicity; and 4) nonviolence. She distinguishes between civil disobedience on the one hand and normal lawbreaking and other forms of dissent on the other hand. In the context of the justification question, she distinguishes between justifications for the motivation and justifications for the action. While Brownlee focuses on the right of civil disobedience and punishments for civil disobedience, the focus of this essay will be on the issue of the moral justification for environmental disobedience, with a special focus on how the ordinary cases of civil disobedience are difficult to extend to the environmental case.

The condition of conscientiousness involves the “seriousness, sincerity, and moral conviction with which civil disobedients breach the law” (2010, 4). The expression of conscience is usually an expression within the sensus communis, meaning an appeal to what anyone who taking the position an engaging conscience would see as a principle of justice that is not represented in the contemporary government, legal, or economic policy. Rawls central condition for conscientiousness is that the justice principles appealed to can be in principle at least shared in the court of public reason. “Civil disobedience is giving voice to conscientious and deeply held convictions; while it may warn and admonish, it is not itself a threat” (Rawls 1971, 366). Conscientiousness is necessary but not sufficient for civil disobedience, because militant actions and revolutionary actions can be conscientious without being civil. For instance, a revolutionary environmentalist may argue that political violence involving covert or secretive destruction of the infrastructure of global capitalism is justified in order to bring about anarchoprimitive bioregional communities. They may provide as the sole reason the idea that Bakunin thought violence was creative and they love Bakunin. A key question that arises as a challenge for the condition of conscientiousness in the context of environmentalism, however, is that the fact of public reason may not carry the possibility of sharing a common reality as easily as Rawls suggests, because as Callicott (1995) points out, engaging in environmental thinking itself is a radical form of conceptual activism. Even if the actions of the environmentalists are not themselves militant, e.g., attempting to stop clear cut logging by embedding metal spikes in trees or by monkeywrenching logging machines to bring the logging to a halt, rather than for instance, blocking a road or chaining oneself to a machine track or hanging oneself in an old growth tree.

The condition of communication involves both forward-looking aims and backward-looking aims (Brownlee, 5). The backward looking aims attempt to highlight an unjust law and the forward looking aims attempt to either highlight the need to overturn that law or to bring about a more just law in its place. Communication of moral responsibility and awareness of agency is central for the condition of communication. It is necessary to highlight who is to be blamed and shamed for the environmental wrong or ecological injustice that one wants to highlight, and then to articulate the intentions with which that law or policy has been carried out. The difference between everyday disobedience and environmental disobedience is that most civil disobedience in history has been direct but most environmental disobedience is indirect. Direct lawbreaking involves breaching a law the disobedient opposes in order to highlight that empathy for those effected negatively by the law is unjust. Indirect lawbreaking involves breaching a law that is unrelated to the law or cause that one wants to highlight as being unjust. Black students sitting at a lunch counter in a segregated diner in Alabama is a form of direct lawbreaking to highlight the injustice of segregation laws. Environmental activists that hang post-it note Banners in front of 3M’s offices to protest bad forestry practices are breaking trespassing laws and laws governing hanging from bridges. However, these laws are not themselves the ones they are highlighting. Instead, they are gesturing to unrelated concerns about the environment, namely 3M’s deforestation practices that are harmful to biodiversity.

The condition of publicity includes the idea that the dissenters’ intentions are known publicly prior to the action and that the dissenter is willing to accept responsibility and punishment for that action in the public sphere. As a matter of tactics, however, the publicity condition can be challenged on the grounds that the political action could not be carried out if the disobedients’ actions were broadcasted in advance. For instance, if civil disobedients wanted to break into a nuclear power plant to show that the security systems do not work, then they could not broadcast their intentions ahead of time. In addition, the willingness to get arrested for one’s actions shows a fidelity to the law. However, environmental disobedience differs in some respects from civil disobedience cases, because the willingness to get arrested under the charge of trespassing is different from the willingness to get arrested for domestic terrorism. If some lawbreaking is presupposed to be given a charge, sentence, and punishment that is extreme for ideological reasons, for instance, the charge of domestic terrorism for photographing or filming unethical treatment of animals in factory farming, then the dissenter might be justified in not making intentions in advance public and not publically broadcasting the action with a willingness to be punishment. Arguably the covertness of the action is justified as a way to highlight the unjust punishment of domestic terrorism for the lawbreaking act of trespassing or taking photographs.

The condition of nonviolence is the most controversial condition of civil disobedience, because, while conscientiousness, communication, and publicity are central, the concept of ‘civil’ is usually tied directly to the concept of ‘non-violence.’ In addition, in the mainstream media, the focus of the moral assessment of the direct actions usually focuses on the assessment of political violence as if this is the core of ethical concern. One Kantian argument for why civil disobedience must be non-violent is given by Rawls. Since civil disobedience involves the expressing of a higher law or principle of justice, to engage in political violence in committing that action is inconsistent. One cannot at the same time will that a higher law or principle of justice be brought into being as violence against others occurs, because the interference with the ends of others is in conflict with the aim of bringing about justice. The central difficulty of this condition will occupy most the attention of this essay, since the concept of “political violence” has been contested in environmental activism. What is included in the concept of violence? The main debate is between those that restrict violence to bodily harm to oneself or to other human beings and those extend violence to include non-human animals, plants, trivial violence, and destruction of property or land.

Key questions: To what degree is non-violence necessary for civility? To what degree is non-violence sufficient for civility? One might for instance operate with a particularist conception of civility and suggest that non-violence as destruction against property is not necessary for civility because greater violence comes to animals and plants in a decimated rainforest from not destroying property than from destroying the logging equipment that causes deforestation. Another concern that is brought up in Edward Abbey’s MA thesis “Anarchism and the Morality of Political Violence” is to what extent we presuppose that political violence is necessary for new moral values to emerge as I will discuss in a later post. A pessimist about human nature might point out that historically, even in liberal democracies, there needs to be an amount of violence or destruction in order for new forms of justice to emerge.

In the justification for the political act of environmental disobedience, the two central questions: 1) To what extent could the moral aims of the act have been carried out without lawbreaking? And 2) To what extent is the act not a form of ecosabotage but instead something less violent? The contrast case against civil disobedience is often ecosabotage.  How that contrast is drawn mostly depends upon how we understand the type of political violence involved in the political actions and the extent to which we take those actions to be morally justified. The normative assessment of environmental disobedience usually tracks the degree to which it cannot be construed as ecosabotage. This should not be surprising considering that the major rent between Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherds had to do with where to draw the line between civil disobedience and ecosabotage, Greenpeace endorsing the former and Sea Shepherds arguing that the latter was also justified. As Jennifer Welchman (2001) has argued, “civil disobedience” is a pragmatic concept that aims to “regularly and reliably distinguish a form of social behavior for legal, political, and moral purposes” (99). If the concept being used in the present doesn’t fit with what the activists urge are civil disobedient actions, then while an ideal theorist may attempt preserve the concept, a non-ideal theorist might better ask for revisions in the concept to extend to the cases. In my next post I will consider Welchman’s argument that ecosabotage is a form of civil disobedience. While I will argue Welchman’s non-ideal argument is not effective, I will nevertheless attempt to argue against Rawls’ ideal view of civil disobedience.


Brownlee, K. (2010). “Civil Disobedience” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Brownlee, K. (2012). Conscience and Conviction: the Case for Civil Disobedience. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Callicott, J. Baird (1995). “Environmental Philosophy is Environmental Activism: the Most Radical and Effective Kind” in (1999). Beyond the Land Ethic. Albany, NY: SUNY Press pp. 27–44.

Hettinger, Ned (2001) “Environmental Disobedience” in A Companion to Environmental Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing pgs. 498-509

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, UK: Harvard University Press.

Thoreau, H. D. (1849) “Civil Disobedience” in Civil Disobedience in Focus. Ed. Hugo Bedau London, UK: Taylor and Francis pp. 28–48.

Welchman, J (2001). “Is Ecosabotage Civil Disobedience?” Philosophy and Geography 4.1: 97–107.



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