The Justifiability of Environmental Direct Action
Mathew Humphrey writes on the possibility of environmental direct action in a just democratic state. He recognizes this issue as part of a larger, and longer standing narrative that finds its home in any democratic state. This issue is “The possible conflict between the deeply held beliefs of an individual or group and the public policy of a democratic society”(310). Of course, this phenomenon has been the catalyst for many a civil disobedience to take place.
So we are asked to consider what conditions might look like for civil disobedience to occur in, i.e, what does the framework of our polity look like. Intuiting the popular calls to rebellion such as oppression by the ruling classes, or other corruption Humphrey addresses the two necessary parts of a democratic state as “legitimacy” and “justification”. Legitimacy, for Humphrey’s, is generally comprised of the values of legality, justifiability, and consent. As to justification, it is largely a project concerned with what Humphrey’s terms “reason giving” and these reasons are not affected so much by their truth value as they are “grounded in reasons that are ‘stable in the face of acute and sustained criticism by others and of new information”(313), an obstacle any subject is due to face in democratic deliberation. With these conditions in mind we move forward.
Moving to Humphrey’s section entitled “The Environmentalist’s Problem with Democracy” we encounter the main issue of tying environmentalist concerns and democratic procedures together. One of the more salient of the points made to this subject is a point Westra makes in their observation “… we believe that the choices and preferences of a democracy should be ‘viewed as absolute, beyond discussion”(314). This comment from Westra, someone regarded as an “environmental authoritarian”, hits on an issue that allows democratic states to make decisions but often leave swaths of the affected powerless. Though the decisions are not permanent, once they are decided they are indeed beyond discussion for a time. And so, for many an oppressed person, there has been no choice but to wait. Wait until the next voting cycle. Wait until someone in a position of power feels sympathy for your cause. But this ability to wait, time as a resource (of course technically finite) that allows for ebbs and flows of change , is a privilege of those of the human race. Our issues of waiting often have to do with renewable(or redistributable) resources such as money , power, or rights. But when the situation is deemed too dire to wait, civil disobedience is used a s a tool to communicate the need for change outside of the normal democratic process. But does it follow that civil disobedience is permissible in the case when the resources, like much of the natural world, in question are non-renewable?
As many of the resources of the natural world that human beings (under democratic regimes or not) are finite, the practice of essentially waiting your turn in the democratic process is not an effective strategy. Some, such as Westra, call for an infringement upon personal liberties such as consumption in an effort to lessen our effect on the environment. Of course, an enforcement of this would be undemocratic, even if it was helpful. If people want to make their habitat inhospitable that is their choice. Humphrey writes on this saying, “Environmental problems possess a complex political character, and so a democratic approach to the demands of environmental ethics is necessary”(319). However, I disagree with this statement. The democratic approach is one that is explicitly a means of governing human beings. To apply this system of governing to the rights of planets, animals, and finite resources is a project taken on with entirely too narrow of a scope.
Even if the only value of the natural world comes from some sublime good, there is still a value that is necessary to consider and preserve. There is space within the democratic process to justifiably resist policies which effect finite goods which all of us need to survive. This can be termed “extra democratic political activity in defense of irreplaceable goods”(324). In some instances the waiting game of democratic decision making is just too long and subsequently too destructive. In the case of finite goods (natural resources and space), the scope of democracy is too narrow. To subject the entire planet to a system of governing humans is a practice that will always fall short. But if it is the only system we have, we should also practice resistance in the face of grand injustices.
Humphrey, Mathew. “Democratic Legitimacy, Public Justification and Environmental Direct Action.” Political Studies 54, no. 2 (2006): 310–27. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9248.2006.00602.x.