Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Reader Responses to Risk and Disobedience
distributed 1/28/11 - ©2011

In the January 21, 2011, Eco-Justice Notes, Risk and Disobedience, I explored strategic questions about civil disobedience. I ended by writing, "Those are hard questions, and I haven't answered them for myself, yet. As I wrestle with those choices, I will value your thoughts, your experiences, your support, and your prodding."

Quite a few readers have responded to my request with thoughtful and insightful comments. Here are eight of those replies (slightly edited, and anonymous for this posting), followed by some of my musings that I sent back to them.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

========== Response #1 ==========

I can't cite the exact source, but I recall Dr. King saying, "if what you believe in is not worth dying for, then it's not worth believing in." 

Most of us are not ready or willing (at the conscious level) to die for what we believe in.  (I'm not counting family, etc., here because I don't see my family as a cause).

Giving up our lives for our beliefs calls for the exact type of sacrificial giving that Jesus spoke of ("Take up your cross and follow me"), and the fate Dr. King suffered.

So, short of death, we can look into our hearts and find our unique way of taking risks, standing up and being counted and how that plays out specifically in our lives.  Boycotting the products of exploitative industries, using our purchasing power to support righteousness (i.e. fair trade), and investing in socially responsible companies can have a synergistic effect if we all did our part.  "All gave some, some gave all," as we hear during speeches on Veteran's or Memorial Day.

So, I plan to undertake non-violent civil disobedience, I'm just looking for the right thing to do to reach the people who are causing the grief, and the one's to whom we are making a witness. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when and where. 

Thanks so much for bringing up this jugular topic. Maybe someday I'll be writing to you from jail.

========== Response #2 ==========

My concern when observing the escalation of violent events, still no possibility of deterring assault weapons with mega-magazines of ammunition, unstable/doped individuals in communities that allow the carrying of concealed weapons; is that overt displays of civil disobedience even (or especially) for creation care sake will further "fan the fires" of hatred and anger toward "the other". For example, in nearby Escondido, CA a group recently met at a Presbyterian Church from against creation care advocates.

Rather than civil disobedience, can we grow our efforts of civil healing with greater collaborative efforts to invite community members on all "sides of the political, secular and religious spectrum" and "across the aisles" (as it were) re: issues and locales of mutual interest and concern?

For example, a headline in the Science section of The New York Times dated March 16, 2004 read "Side by Side, Palestinians and Israelis Repair a Ruined River." Imagine that! To comprehend the ecology of a river and the human systems that impact it requires ecological intelligence emerging across the conventional boundaries of disciplines. For Israelis and Palestinians to join together in an endeavor to heal across the chasm rent by hatred, fear, and violence is a still larger design challenge having to do with the connections between human ecology, natural systems, and the possibilities of forgiveness and redemption. Ecological design aims toward this kind of healing in the awareness that health, healing, wholeness, and holy are one and indivisible. (Most of this paragraph is a quote from: Ecological Design Intelligence, David W. Orr. His essay appeared originally in Resurgence, September/October 2004.)

Likewise, in an article about the "peak oil crisis and civil unrest" there is a call to our leaders, "All this is by way of saying that there is a serious downside to simply ignoring the realities of the current situation and relying on hope rather than leveling with the American people. By failure to guide the country to real solutions to real problems, our leaders are risking increasing violence as the frustrations of an unknowing people continue to grow." (This quote is from

It appears that Transition cities are methodically moving in more sustainable directions, as are religious creation care groups, interfaith and secular eco-justice actions and advocates. The following could be what McKibben calls, "A campaign for mass action". When looking at group numbers, plus and major environmental education and advocacy groups, could those combined numbers of people all "tell the marketplace" something? Increasingly on set days/times globally, could we all en masse stay out of our fossil-fueled vehicles, eat only homegrown, and purchase only locally-grown/made products??? Healing tactics can send empowering messages to ALL.

========== Response #3 ==========

In retirement and with substantial savings, it would be hard to put myself at risk except the risk of bodily injury (and with my hard head that would be difficult to do).  My hope is that McKibben and others would take the risk of telling the world that our earth cannot support even 3 billion humans except at the barest of energy levels and surely not 7 or 9 billion.  Instead they wish for a discovery that will solve our overpopulation problem rather than advance the truth.  The words of a Martin Luther King, Jr haven't reduced our military spending or belief that war can solve a problem nor have they made clear to our government that quality of life doesn't come from increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.  I guess I just question giving people hope rather than giving people knowledge.

========== Response #4 ==========

Yes! Excellent, timely, relevant and important message. I've been wondering for a while when McKibbon and the 350 movement might move in the direction of civil disobedience. I was part of the attempted civil disobedience in 2009 in DC alongside Bill, Terry Tempest Williams, Gus Speth and Wendell Berry (we didn't end up being all that disobedient), and I think I'm ready to try again.

[Peter notes: As I recall, the big act of disobedience in DC was very quiet because an announcement was made the day before that the power plant would be converted to natural gas, and the police were instructed to make few arrests. The threat of visible disobedience brought a win on the immediate issue, and the fear of public reaction inspired a very cautious response from the DC police, so no "shove" followed.]

========== Response #5 ==========

(This response from someone who had received a forwarded copy of Notes.)

Thank you ... for connecting me to this issue. (and I too enjoy the Denver Marade!) 

However Bill McKibben's idea is different and there are others with more radical ideas. The great thing about Bill is he has a huge following.

There are activist in Boulder. Some will be arrested like the Nuns who poured their blood on the nuclear missile silos - who did succeed in drawing media attention to the silos for a brief moment - and it' is a real shame more did not come from their willing prison time (see the film "Conviction") - and the missiles are still there.

If lots of activists get arrested, some of the public will think the country is under attack by radicals and the whole lot will be painted bad by the media - like the Vail Ski Lodge "Arsonists" and the guys who "torched the SUV's at the dealer" in the north west. A national backlash with unintended consequences. 

It's like trying to stop a carnival carousel by using a broomstick - or many broomsticks. Sticks will be broken in unknown numbers and it might slow down a little. If enough people died on the tracks that could make some difference, but I don't think we need to go there!. 

The "will" of the people is the "engine" burning the coal and it must be moved through media/internet - hearts and politics - on a national basis - to make a quick turnaround. There is a lot of inertia connected to the flywheel! 

If Churches of all types across The United States banded together, the politics will work. Churches together have enough capitol to get a hold of the media long enough to pull it off in a short time. 

But it should not be so hard. The Cesar Chavez grape boycott required 7% public participation to be successful!

Time helps and hurts - the cost of oil staying over $3/gallon - for a year - with a bad economy, will soften the people's attitude. And some Theater is needed. Movies, Commercials, and maybe a few arrested (is that just more theater?).

If there were to be country-wide global warming Marades of several hundred people (15 won't do) to each elected officials office during business hours, it would do much. But it's nearly impossible to organize that that these days. It's easier but less effective to block a coal train! 

I like the Church idea better. Our church would do something. I like the idea of a the National Preach-In on Global Warming 

Churches need a plan.

I will tell our pastor.

========== Response #6 ==========

Thank you for your ministry and for your latest issue of Eco-Justice Notes.  It struck a chord. 

Like your wife, I happen to be reading about the civil rights movement (Bruce Watson's book Freedom Summer.)  In addition, my teenage son and I have been watching old seasons of the reality TV show, Whale Wars  (Capt. Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conversation Society). We've had some good discussions about the Sea Shepherd's actions (what's right? what's too far? what's the moral underpinning? why the harsh break with Greenpeace?)  I read McKibben's article.  It reminded me of the profile of James Hansen ("The Catastrophist," Elizabeth Kolbert, June 29, 2009) in the New Yorker.  Hansen was arrested at a coal plant in WV.

Anyway, I want to keep exploring (both out there, but also in my own heart) about environmental civil disobedience.  We in Kansas are sick about the Holcomb coal-fired power plant, and now seem to be pinning our hopes on the EPA's intervention in an unjust licensing process.   What if this next hope is dashed?

========== Response #7 ==========

I think when you ask the question-what are you willing to sacrifice and your life could be one potential risk.  I don't see Bill McKibben putting himself on the line to lead the public like King did.

I think of a local story about the uranium mill that was given permission to start up in Western Colorado by the State of Colorado.  Our local news even ran a story about how anyone that interfered with the opening could be shot. That is the sorry state of things.

So I think that one has to really question if they are ready to die for the cause.  It is an important one.

========== Response #8 ==========

Very interesting thoughts on a subject I've pondered a lot. I've just spent two weeks living/sleeping in hospitals and hospice as advocate and comforter for my best friend, Edgar, who died Sunday. I mention this because Edgar and I were activist friends, and because, not surprisingly, I've been thinking about activism and death a lot lately.

Which leads me to: I am not at all convinced that civil disobedience or even activists dying, even lots of activists dying, would tip us toward sustainability. After all, neither Deepwater Horizon nor warmongering for oil - with eleven (human) fatalities, and (human) fatalities somewhere in the six figures, respectively - have phased the country at all. Such is the power of addiction to the energy equivalent of 100 slaves toiling almost for free for each of us Americans. The sense of entitlement is overwhelming.

So, before anyone thinks about dying for the cause - worthy though the cause may be - a convincing case needs to be made that this strategy has some realistic chance of success. And I just don't think that case can be made.

But I don't have the answer...and so am very interested in listening in on the conversation. Thanks for giving voice to our frustration that, as I would characterize it, "there just doesn't seem to be any way to get there from here."

+     +     +     +     +

I wrote back to these eight people with these thoughts:

Many thanks for your thoughtful response to last week's Eco-Justice Notes about civil disobedience. I've received 8 comments since Friday, all expressing truth and wisdom, and with a very wide range of perspectives.

As I reflect on your collective insights, I have a few thoughts that clarify and modify my own emerging thinking. Let me share them back to you. (If this seems to be headed toward an ongoing conversation, we'll look for ways of opening and streamlining the process, but for now I'll just stick with email.)

  1. I think you all are generally clear about the difference between civil disobedience and violence (one note names a few cases of "eco-terrorism), as well as other forms of protest/action (mass protests that are not "disobedient" such as the big events, boycotts and consumer action) -- and the fact that many people in our society don't understand those distinctions. They equate people blocking the entrance to a power plant with the burning of SUVs at a dealership, and may even feel as threatened by the simple act of gentle people asking questions. In terms of my Notes, I'm definitely focusing on the narrow range of (1) peaceful and non-violent actions which (2) push against some legal boundary such as trespass (3) for the purpose of forcing discussion about policies and actions. I think civil disobedience is generally most effective when it is targeted toward a narrow issue -- passage of legislation, change of a corporate policy -- and not toward a broad theme such as "ending global warming."

  2. Several of you raised concerns about disobedience stirring up a stronger counter-reaction. That's a very important strategic question. (18 months ago, some committed colleagues in Wyoming said that they would not be doing 350 events because that would just inflame their opposition in that coal & gas state.) In some sociological writing, this has been described as the "push-shove" effect -- a push by one group generates a larger shove back by another. Historically, I'd suggest that civil disobedience has been most effective when the "shove back" then provokes the decisive choice by the larger society that the initial actions are the noble ones. I think of one of the examples that I used in Notes, of the famous march in Selma, Alabama (where marching was "disobedient"). The violent response by police forces, broadcast on national TV, brought a huge outpouring of support for the civil rights cause. In a well-developed strategy of civil disobedience, maybe it is essential to plan for the extended stages -- when they shove us, then how do we react? If there is no shove (no mass arrests, no outrageous condemnations, etc.), then disobedience doesn't accomplish much.

  3. Which means that selecting the target is important, so that the "shove" can be anticipated, and the response well-planned. This is a piece of what several of you named about being willing to engage in disobedience if it seemed like an effective strategy. With huge and diverse causes like climate change (or human population, as one of you names), it is very hard to pick a great target. This is one of the places that Bill McKibben is asking for help.

  4. As I read through your responses, I'm also struck by a question -- do we, by silence, allow others to set the agenda and to win? Not that disobedience is the only or the best way to respond, but when groups are meeting in churches to organize against creation care, and when mining interests are threatening violence against any dissenters, a lack of response lets them win. This is one of the places where questions of faith and values join matters of practical strategy. As people of faith and commitment, when and how are we compelled to speak and be engaged?

  5. And let me affirm that disobedience is only one possible strategy. As response #2 describes, there are also approaches of civil healing, of building partnerships and collaboration, that are joyous and fruitful. Building those projects also demands deep commitment -- and potential risk -- from their leaders. In the Middle East, cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians on an ecological project is probably seen by many as an act of disobedience or even treason.

  6. Response #5 highlights an area of my great interest -- how can churches (and other faith communities) be decisive in bringing change? If many clergy and church leaders were in the forefront of a wave of disobedience, would that change the moral persuasiveness of the actions? Would that bring along enough second-tier supporters so that a "shove" would then meet with a huge outcry for the initial cause?

Again, thanks to y'all for helping to focus and clarify my thinking with your good responses. I hope you enjoy and are stimulated by reading the 8 comments (listed in the order that I received them).


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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