Non-Violent Direct Action and the Climate Movement
"Non-violent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."
"I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, and there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth."
Martin Luther King, Jr. 1963
Non-violent Direct Action as Philosophy and Method
Non-violent direct action is both a philosophy and a method of creating change in the world. As opposed to violence, which motivates revenge and retaliation and hence escalation of the conflict, non-violence seeks to avoid this vicious trap by refusing to participate.
The prominent US pacifist, Gene Sharp, coined the term 'political jiu-jitsu' (an extension of Gandhi's moral jiu-jitsu) to describe this concept. He argued that the attacks of the establishment on protesters backfires upon the establishment and throws out the balance that keeps things as they are. For example, when police arm themselves to oppose you, and you throw stones at them, you affirm their moral balance. Political jiu-jitsu requires unbalancing the opposition.
It is important to realise that the opponent frequently attempts to throw the non-violent practitioner off-balance by provoking them to violence. This helps the opponent to marginalise the message of the non-violent activist.
Non-violent direct action rejects the claim that the ends can justify the means. Practising non-violence requires tremendous self-discipline and courage and can involve facing extreme pain or even death. The fortitude of non-violence lies in its capacity to significantly decrease the moral legitimacy of opponents who persist in using violence. The lack of legitimacy of the opposition created through the use of non-violent strategies can serve to catalyse support and aid in building coalitions that not only condemn the violence, but also support he aims of the campaign.
For non-violent direct action to be successful in catalysing broad coalitions of support, it needs to be used as a tactic towards a campaign that is broadly supported, and it needs to be widely publicised through the media (so that the immoral behaviour of the opponents can be revealed). Gaining wide publicity requires being creative and organised, and using tension, confrontation and theatre to capture various media.
Examples of Non-violent Direct Action through History
The approach of non-violence was pioneered by the likes of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, amongst others. It has been used time and again throughout history, with successful results. Professor Brian Martin summarises:
Examples [of non-violence] from recent decades include the toppling of Phillipines dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 through “people power”, the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989, the thwarting of a coup in the Soviet Union in 1991, the ending of apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s, the resignation of President Suharto due to popular pressure in Indonesia in 1998, and the overthrow of Serbian ruler Milosevic in 2000.”
Types of Non-violent Direct Action
There are many different types of non-violence direct action. Sharp describes the spectrum of non-violent direct action as being divisible into three distinct categories, namely, nonviolent protest and persuasion (the mildest), noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention (the strongest).
The former involves actions that are symbolic, but that do not directly intervene in the opposed activity/practice/law/policy. Such actions may include vigils, marches, writing letters or organising 'teach-ins'. The purpose of this form of NVDA is to garner support for the cause, and build the non-violent movement.
Non-cooperation involves somewhat more direct and powerful activities, involving non-cooperation (as the title indeed suggests). Such activities may include strikes, boycotts, refusing to pay taxes, or refusing to obey unjust or immoral laws. Such activities may be directed towards corporations or governments and may be political, economic or social.
Finally, non-violent intervention aims to directly interrupt (intervene) in the opposed activitiy. Examples of non-violent intervention may include blockades, 'sit-ins' (where people sit in government or business offices and interrupt work). Sharp also includes “psychological interventions” in this category.
Sharp argues that these forms of direct action are effective because they undermine the moral legitimacy of the opponent. He argues that:
"Nonviolent action tends to turn the opponent's violence and repression against his own power position, weakening it and at the same time strengthening the nonviolent group. Because violent action and nonviolent action possess quite different mechanisms, and induce differing forces of change in the society, the opponent's repression. . . can never really come to grips with the kind of power wielded by the nonviolent actionists." (The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part II. Pp. 111-113).
Non-violent Direct Action and the Climate Movement
In all of human history there has never been a crisis on the scale of the climate crisis, so unfortunately there is no infallible template or model that we can follow to ensure success, and, ultimately survival. What we can learned from history, however, is that when people rise up and create a movement of mass civil disobedience, changes can be achieved.
This was the case with the salt marches that challenged British Colonial rule in India. This was also the case with the civil rights movement, which utilised illegal sit-ins and illegal marches to overcome segregation in the southern states of the USA. The suffragette movement was much the same: women (and men) marched in the streets, endured hunger strikes, comitted acts of civil disobedience and submitted to arrest and jail sentences in order to gain women's right to vote. These are simply some of the more well known struggles that utilised Gandhian non-violence philosophy and tactics to succeed in uprooting the status quo and creating change. Likewise, the campaign to protect the Franklin river in Tasmania from being dammed utilised non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to raise the profile of the issue - and put enough pressure on the Commonwealth government to intervene in State matters and ensure the Franklin dam would not go ahead.
Although we look back upon these campaigns and admire the courage, integrity and determination of those who achieved these changes, it is easy to dismiss the actions of those who are struggling in the present with the same methods of non-violent direct action and towards broadly similiar goals. This is quite natural. To break laws and struggle for what is morally right, is to challenge the status quo. This is, by it's very nature, a confronatational thing to do. In the process of socialisation that all children go through, it becomes deeply embedded in our very psychology that breaking the law is wrong and immoral (often with good reason). It is easy to dismiss activists who engage in tactics of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience as crazy or extreme, and being aware that we may be seen in this light can make it difficult to take such action. However, as uncomfortable as it may be at times, it does not mean that we shouldn't break the law strategically, if the law stands in the way of what we know is morally right. As Henry David Thoreau argued in his essay 'Civil Disobedience': "it is not desirable to cultivate respect for the law, so much as for the right".
In their times, all of the people who engaged in struggles for change encountered harsh criticism, because they were breaking the law to challenge paradigms and ideas that were deeply rooted in the conciousness of their times. All of these movement started out small - how could they have been otherwise? It is only from little things that big things grow.
If you are someone who thinks that non-violent direct action is not for you, we challenge you, because we are not going to achieve the change that is required if the climate movement stays its current size. It is only when people take non-violent direct action despite their fears, when grandparents, parents, students, teachers, doctors, labourers, emergency service workers, business people and more, put themselves on the line for a safe climate, that we will achieve the breadth and depth of movement to create change.
Writing letters will not cut it. Installing solar panels on our roofs will not cut it. Marching on the streets will not cut it. These are all good things to do, but we need more. We need all the power of the social movements, combined and multiplied by one hundred. We need to show them that, on top of making the necessary changes to make our own lives more sustainable, we will make sacrifices. We will get arrested. We will stop their work if they try to build new power stations. We will go on strikes, and we will do all this until we see change. States are not moral agents: people are. Thus, it is the responsibility of people to impose moral standars on the state and on powerful instititons.
Sometimes social movements take many generations to achieve their goals; sometimes they can win in just a few years. Ultimately, it depends on how deeply rooted the problem is. In the case of climate change, the long timeframes over which we must struggle mean that often our successes seem imperceptible. But changs is happening. Six years ago, I could barely imagine that in a few years time there would be 2000 people surrounding Parliament house and demanding action against climate change, as was seen after the climate summit at the beginning of 2009 ... that there would be hundreds of people of all ages who were willing to peacefully block the entry into parliament house until they were arrested and taken away, as we saw prior to the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 ... that there would be scores of people willing to take peaceful direct action to stop coal trains from travelling in or out of the world's biggest coal port in Newcastle, as we saw on the clsoing day of the conference in Copenhagen.
Thinking about this gives me comfort and encouragement that, although change happens slowly, it is inveritably happening. I urge us all to think creatively about how we can continue to allow the climate movement to flourish, and how we can empower it to force real action on climate change, domestically and globally.