Can environmental direct action ever be justified?

Under the conditions of a legitimate democratic government (majority rule achieved by fair, inclusive elections), what is the appropriate response when the policy of such a government runs counter to the deeply held beliefs of a minority group? This is the dilemma of the minority democrat.

The usual answer to the dilemma is that the minority group must accept the democratic process. This means working to change policy by the customary means of political campaigning: fighting elections, lobbying representatives, influencing public opinion, marches, rallies, etc.

There are other options, however. For example, by breaking a law in some minimal way and submitting to arrest to generate media attention, activists use civil disobedience to influence public opinion on certain policies and projects. In a civil disobedience action the immediate victim is the activist. Even so, some would say that civil disobedience cannot be supported because it entails law-breaking, although the history of civil rights protest can usually be cited in defence of civil disobedience.

Other forms of protest action such as tree-sitting, pulling up crops, chaining oneself to gates or machinery, tunnelling, and so forth, are usually described as direct action. The immediate intention of direct action is to make a project impossible because it has become too dangerous (usually to the activists who have put themselves in harm’s way) or is no longer economically viable. Therefore, because it attempts to inflict some significant cost or loss on the opponent, direct action differs from civil disobedience both in degree and in its intended consequences.

Familiar targets of such action are the felling of forest blocks, the development or commercial production of GE crops, mining activities or road building. The ultimate goal of the action is the protection of biodiversity, habitat, planetary climate or a traditional/indigenous way of being threatened by a particular policy or project.

However, if the justification for civil disobedience is only arguable at best, is it at all conceivable that there are justifiable grounds for greens to carry out a direct action which intentionally inflicts a cost or loss on another? In some situations the answer is yes, according to political scientist Mathew Humphrey. In an article published in 2006 in the journal Political Studies, he argues that there are circumstances in which ‘non-democratic’ environmental direct action may be justified.

Humphrey begins his exploration by rejecting some potential grounds for the justification of direct action. Firstly he argues that “attempts to tie environmental outcomes directly into the meaning of the democratic process fail” (p.311) because, in a liberal democracy, the decision of ‘the people’ generally defeats all other sources of authority (though there are exceptions – see the next paragraph). Attempts to overturn such a principle can only lead to authoritarianism, which greens must reject.

Secondly, Humphrey looks at arguments based on liberal theories of justice. The protection of minority rights is generally accepted in democratic societies as being superior to the wishes of the majority in situations where the majority attempts to impose a demonstrably inequitable outcome on the minority. In some situations, therefore, justice arguments undoubtedly succeed. For example, given that the burden of pollution falls disproportionately on poor and marginalised peoples, there exists an injustice that demands redress. The North American environmental justice movement, driven largely by people of colour and by women, and profiled in the work of Robert Bullard, is an instance of that wholly justifiable struggle for redress.

In other situations, where the impact of a policy falls largely on biodiversity, habitat or the earth’s climate, environmentalists’ justice arguments are often based on the principle of ‘inter-generational equity’. Humphrey finds this concept problematic for two reasons: the difficulty of allocating rights to non-existent entities (ie, future generations); and the lack of certainty that policies advanced by present-day environmentalists will indeed deliver justice to future generations.

Therefore, if the demands of environmentalists for, say, greater efforts to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases have been deemed to be secondary to other priorities by the people in a free and fair democratic process, and thereby rejected, what else can greens do, other than talking, writing, campaigning and voting? If direct action to protect the earth’s climate cannot be supported by arguments based on democratic process or justice, what justification do greens have for taking direct action?

Mathew Humphrey finds an opening in the standard principles of state policy legitimacy. These principles suggest that, because of the open-ended nature of the democratic process, government policy is simply accepted by the people “for the time being” (p.321). Therefore the policy choices made by a government must be broadly reversible. Obviously, the impact of policy pathways on particular individuals cannot be reversed, but the policy foundation of decisions on matters as diverse as tax rates, school systems, the age at which alcohol may be legally consumed, and levels of welfare benefit can always be revisited and revised at the community or national level.

The key point for greens is that this principle of policy reversibility does not apply for many environmental issues such as global warming, species extinction and habitat loss: we cannot revisit and revise the consequences of policy decisions on such critical issues because the decisions are irreversible. Humphrey argues that policy irreversibility provides the justifiable grounds for direct action. Direct action is, therefore, an extra-democratic last resort, the “one-shot political strategy” of those who “do not have the luxury of accepting a ‘provisional’ democratic settlement” (p.322) simply because a political campaign after the fact of an irreversible decision is meaningless.

From a green perspective, I must add another necessary condition for justifiable environmental direct action that Humphrey does not address: the direct action must be non-violent. I should emphasise that at no point does Humphrey attempt to justify the use of violence but, given that greens are unequivocally committed to non-violence, this must be another explicit justifying condition.

Furthermore, as I have discussed previously, I believe that greens cannot interpret the meaning of ‘non-violence’ narrowly to cover only acts of physical violence against people, property or the natural world: non-violence must exclude the use of emotional violence (eg, inflicting fear on others) and structural violence (eg the use of institutional or organisational power against marginalised people).

Therefore, because any green political activity is, by definition, always non-violent, for greens engaged in direct action the additional challenge is to stay true to the non-violence principle. Direct action protest undoubtedly demands considerable creativity in designing the action, and courage in carrying it through. But most of all, it demands rigorous honesty about what actually constitutes violence, and what sort of action is not permissible. That is why the non-violence principle provides deeply committed green activists with the sternest test of all.

For a wonderful example of environmental non-violent direct action, read about the recent protest by the Aberystwyth Rebel Clown Army here.


Mathew Humphrey (2006) Democratic legitimacy, public justification and environmental direct action. Political Studies, 54, 310-327.


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