Thursday, December 12, 2013
It's Time We Realized That Our Fight is With Our Own Governments
It's time we realized that Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Gas are not the enemy. They're corporations simply doing what corporations do. They make money and maximize profits for their shareholders. They just happen to be trading in high-carbon commodities of the sort that are steadily making life on our planet untenable.
They're not your enemy, not really.
Your enemy are the men and women who regulate and license, empower and defend the Fossil Fuelers. These are the people who populate our provincial legislatures. These are the people who sit on both sides of the aisle in our House of Commons. These are the people in whom we vest all the powers needed to protect us and our kids and grandkids and generations beyond. These are the people who, holding our collective power and the legal duty to exercise it as trustees for us, do not use it to protect us.
It's sort of like hiring an armed guard to secure the bank door who, instead, unlocks the door, opens the vault and ushers the robbers in. What can we do about it? That's the focus of an essay by Jeremy Brechert calling for "A Non-Violent Insurgency for Climate Protection."
Scientists and climate protection advocates once expected that rational leaders and institutions would respond appropriately to the common threat of climate change. As Bill McKibben said of Jim Hansen and himself, “I think he thought, as did I, if we get this set of facts out in front of everybody, they’re so powerful — overwhelming — that people will do what needs to be done.”
That, as we know, didn't happen. This year sees the fifth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC. Diluted but nonetheless dire warnings are given. Our enemies, from their legislative pulpits will murmur gravely that this is indeed the greatest threat facing mankind and, after an appropriate moment of solemnity, will turn on their heels and ignore it.
Twenty-five years of human effort to protect the climate have failed even to slow the forces that are destroying it. On the contrary, the rate of increase in carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels tripled between the release of the first IPCC report in 1988 and today.
Too many of us still think of political leadership as we understood it back in high school. We haven't recognized how much it has changed or what that means for us and the future of our country. We think that Justin Trudeau or Tom Mulcair is going to put Canada back on the right track, to lead us out of the perils that seemingly loom in every direction. That's garbage, they're not. That doesn't happen in a corporatist state. The United States is what happens in a corporatist state. It is a nation in which a corporation is vested with political rights and soon perhaps even human rights.
The globalism that Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney did so much to implant and nurture has led to corporatism and the inevitable corruption of democracy required in the evolution of corporatism. Corporatist states don't need leaders. Technocrats like Stephen Harper suffice. Complex issues such as climate change, equality, peace are beyond their remit and, hence, are simply shuffled into the wings to gather dust. This reality reinforces Brechert's call for a non-violent insurgency.
Insurgencies are social movements, but movements of a special type: They reject current rulers’ claims to legitimate authority. Insurgencies often develop from movements that initially make no direct challenge to established authority but eventually conclude that one is necessary to realize their objectives. To effectively protect the earth’s climate and our species’ future, the climate protection movement may have to become such an insurgency.
The term “insurgency” is generally associated with an armed rebellion against an established government. Its aim may be to overthrow the existing government, but it may also aim to change it or simply to protect people against it. Whatever its means and ends, the hallmark of such an insurgency is to deny the legitimacy of established state authority and to assert the legitimacy of its own actions.
A nonviolent insurgency pursues similar objectives by different means. Like an armed insurgency, it does not accept the limits on its action imposed by the powers-that-be. But unlike an armed insurgency, it eschews violence and instead expresses power by mobilizing people for various forms of nonviolent mass action.
After closely following the massive strikes, general strikes, street battles, peasant revolts, and military mutinies of the Russian Revolution of 1905 that forced the czar to grant a constitution, Mohandas (not yet dubbed “Mahatma”) Gandhi concluded, “Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled.” Shortly thereafter he launched his first civil disobedience campaign, proclaiming “We too can resort to the Russian remedy against tyranny.”
The powers responsible for climate change could not rule for a day without the acquiescence of those whose lives and future they are destroying. They are only able to continue their destructive course because others enable or acquiesce in it. It is the ordinary activity of people — going to work, paying taxes, buying products, obeying government officials, staying off private property — that continually re-creates the power of the powerful. A nonviolent climate insurgency can be powerful if it withdraws that cooperation from the powers-that-be.
Social movements that engage in civil disobedience often draw strength from the claim that their actions are not only moral, but that they represent an effort to enforce fundamental legal and constitutional principles flouted by the authorities they are disobeying. And they strengthen a movement’s appeal to the public by presenting its action not as wanton law breaking but as an effort to rectify governments and institutions that are themselves in violation of the law.
For the civil rights movement, the constitution’s guarantee of equal rights meant that sit-inners and freedom riders were not criminals but rather upholders of constitutional law. For the struggle against apartheid, racism was a violation of internationally guaranteed human rights. For war resisters from Vietnam to Iraq, the national and international laws forbidding war crimes defined civil disobedience not as interference with legal, democratic governments but rather as a legal obligation of citizens. For the activists of Solidarity, the nonviolent revolution that overthrew Communism in Poland was not criminal sedition but an effort to implement the international human and labor rights law ratified by their own government.
The Legal Case for Insurgency.
The Justinian Code, issued by the Roman Emperor in 535 A.D., defined the concept of res communes (common things): “By the law of nature these things are common to mankind — the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.” The right of fishing in the sea from the shore “belongs to all men.”
Based on the Justinian Code’s protection of res communes, governments around the world have long served as trustees for rights held in common by the people. In U.S. law this role is defined by the public trust doctrine, under which the government serves as public trustee on behalf of present and future generations. Even if the state holds title, the public is the “beneficial owner.” As trustee, the state has a “fiduciary duty” to the owner — a legal duty to act solely in the owners’ interest with “the highest duty of care.” The principle is recognized today in both common law and civil law systems in countries ranging from South Africa to the Philippines and from the United States to India.
The sad fact is that virtually all the governments on earth — and their legal systems — are deeply corrupted by the very forces that gain from destroying the global commons. They exercise illegitimate power without regard to their obligations to those they claim to represent, let alone to the common rights beneficiaries of other lands and future generations to whom they also owe “the highest duty of care.”
But protecting the atmosphere is not just a matter for governments. Indeed, it is the failure of governments to protect the public trust that is currently prompting the climate-protection movement to turn to mass civil disobedience. Looked at from the perspective of the public trust doctrine, these actions are far from lawless. Indeed, they embody the effort of people around the world to assert their right and responsibility to protect the public trust. They represent people stepping in to provide law enforcement where corrupt and illegitimate governments have failed to meet their responsibility to do so.
I expect these arguments will be the foundation for Canada's first true, non-violent insurgency for climate protection, the fight against the Northern Gateway pipeline. When that happens, the question you will need to ask yourself is whether you, whose lives and future they are also destroying, will acquiesce and thereby enable them to crush the insurgents. It makes no difference where in Canada you live. You'll have to decide.