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An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

– Martin Luther King

The Rio+20 Earth Summit ambled towards a conclusion at the end of last week. What should have been a rallying cry of optimism and hope that we can avert dangerous climate change instead proved, all but conclusively, that our leaders lack the political capital and political will  to think beyond our immediate economic challenges.

The non-attendance of David Cameron and Barack Obama, for instance, signifies not so much a failure of leadership, as a structural weakness of democracy.The requisite political will can only emerge when doing what is needed for a sustainable future means commanding the popular support of the electorate. But at present, of course, it is electoral suicide to suggest that protecting our ecologies is fundamentally more important than growing our economies.

Unfortunately, the outcome of the ‘earth summit’ shows little sign of protecting the earth. There are no legally binding treaties, and instead delegates agreed to a document comprised mainly of open-ended and unenforceable promises. The negotiating text was condemned by NGOs where the word “encourage” appears in the document fifty times, “support” ninety-nine times, and stronger terms such as “must” and “we will” are used only three and five times respectively.

What to do?

Kumi Naidoo, the Executive Director of Greenpeace International, compared the struggle for sustainable development to the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, and suggesting that the weakness of world leaders’ commitment to action requires new waves of civil disobedience.

It’s a compelling idea, but it is not clear what kinds of civil disobedience Naidoo has in mind, or how they might spread through social contagion. Do we take to the streets? Boycott something? Prevent people getting on aeroplanes? Even if the modus operandi was clearer, for  civil disobedience to bring about seismic social or political change, as in the Arab Spring in Egypt, you need a clear message and mass support.  

Even if the modus operandi was clearer, for  civil disobedience to bring about seismic social or political change, as in the Arab Spring in Egypt, you need a clear message and mass support.  

Alas, that is not yet forthcoming. Indeed political leaders seem to reflect the general public’s attitudes, which suggest we have become less concerned by the issue at hand in recent times. For instance, the 2011 British Social Attitudes Survey revealed that less than half (43%) of British Citizens consider climate change to be dangerous for the environment and only 28% of us regard air pollution from cars as very or extremely dangerous (compared to 54% in 2000).

In the face of such widespread apathy, it is hard to imagine a critical mass of people prepared to take the risks involved in engaging in civil disobedience disruptive enough to bring about major change. Without wishing to engage in a counsel of despair, I am currently doubtful that people will spontaneously come together in the same sort of way that Egyptian citizens did in last year’s uprising, which toppled the Mubarak regime.

The challenge is principally one of scale. The Arab spring was a regional affair, whereas the climate change problem is global. It is difficult to envisage a mass international movement in the recession-hit world coming together to clamour for action.

It might help to have a charismatic, passionate and persuasive figurehead – a Martin Luther King for climate change. But who could that be? Al Gore seems to have run his course and some felt it might be Obama, but he spent his political capital on healthcare, and shows few signs of making climate change part of his re-election campaign.

But perhaps that’s no bad thing. Perhaps we should not wait for leaders, and the ‘leadership’ shown by the likes of Kumi Naidoo is precisely a call for collective action- a movement of peers inspired by each other, rather than a ‘follow-my-leader’.

However, this links to a related problem which is that the dynamics of global inequality, overconsumption, and unsustainable development are classic examples of The Tragedy of the Commons. All the actors in this tragedy are pursuing their own interests, despite the obvious fact that this leads to an outcome that is disastrous for everyone. As mentioned in a previous post on this blog, Climate Change is a pre-competitive issue: No planet, no competition. But we don’t seem to see that, and when we see it, we don’t seem to be able to stop it.

It is therefore over-simplistic to blame world leaders for failing to agree an effective binding treaty. Such a treaty would certainly have a big short-term negative impact on the electorate in the wealthier nations, and “the people” simply would not wear it. Even the modest Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was rejected by the US Congress, and was unpopular with the U.S. electorate. Moreover, as set out in this RSA blog, the electoral cycles of Western democracy seem to militate against long-term planning and global responsibility more generally.

In this context civil disobedience may have a role – in helping to change public opinion, shaking us out of our apathetic slumbers, and perhaps sowing the seeds for a climate change Spring, but we need to think boldly about where such action would come from, and what part, we might have in making it happen.

Thanks to Jonathan Rowson for comments on an earlier draft of this blog post.



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