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Some Philosophical Assessments of Environmental Disobedience

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 April 2010

Extract

Since the late 1970s there has been within the world-wide environmental movement increasing dissatisfaction with moderate or reform environmentalism, and more radical tactics have been advocated and used to respond to the human destruction of nature. These range from typical kinds of political protest, such as rallies and marches, to environmental civil disobedience and the more militant environmental actions known as ‘monkey-wrenching’, ‘ecotage’, or ‘ecosabotage’. The use of these ‘ecotactics’ has led inevitably to controversy in the environmental movement itself and in public discussions of environmentalism in North America and elsewhere. The same cannot be said, however, about academic philosophy, where it is rare to find assessments of these actions or of their connections to the wealth of philosophical ideas in environmental ethics and ecophilosophy. At the same time there are many traditional philosophical theories that have implications for these kinds of behaviour even though the theories were constructed originally without examples of ecotactics in mind. In particular, theories about the nature and justifications of civil disobedience provide yardsticks by which some forms of environmental disobedience can be assessed, and I will turn to two widely known philosophical accounts, those of John Rawls and Carl Cohen, to consider how well they accomplish this task.

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Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 1994

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References

1 For historical accounts of radical environmental protest, especially in the United States, see Scarce, 1990 and the introduction to List, 1993.

2 Recent exceptions include Michael Martin's careful evaluation of ecosabotage (1990) and, to a lesser degree, Bill Devall and George Sessions on ‘ecological resisting’ (1985) and Arne Naess on ‘direct action’ (1989).

3 This case is based on a series of actions that were undertaken by the Cathedral Forest Action Group and some members of the radical environmental group Earth First! in the summer of 1984, in the western Oregon Cascades. They were reported in local newspapers and in the Earth First! journal, excerpts from which are reprinted in List, 1993, pp. 195–201.

4 This case is modelled after actions of Paul Watson's Sea Shepherd Society in the North Pacific, in the summer of 1990, and is excerpted in List, 1993, pp. 169–171 and 177–184. Watson's appeal to ecological laws is reported in his book Sea Shepherd (1982) and in a talk he gave on ‘environmental advocacy and civil disobedience’ at the Public Interest Law Conference, University of Oregon Law School, Eugene, Oregon, March 1990.

5 Michael Martin has shown that philosophical theories of civil disobedience can provide insights into less civil forms of environmental disobedience, such as ecosabotage, and has fruitfully utilized Cohen's analysis of civil disobedience with this idea in mind (Martin, 1990, p. 298).

6 Cohen adds a third difficulty that I will not consider, the problem that these laws could at best justify direct civil disobedience rather than indirect.

7 Martin is so convinced that this critique is correct that he thinks it applies to any use of higher laws to justify ecosabotage. See Martin, 1990, p. 299, note 29.

8 Recently, Kristin Shrader-Frechette has nicely outlined the reasons why ecologists have difficulty understanding basic ecological processes. See Shrader-Frechette, 1993.

9 I am indebted to Professor Shrader-Frechette's work for clarifying some of my own thoughts about the functions of ecological principles in ethical reasoning.

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