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Sierra Club to Embrace Civil Disobedience

For the first time in its 120-year history, group’s board gives OK for breaking the law

When Mike Brune landed in the executive director’s chair at the Sierra Club just about three years ago exactly, I wondered whether he would be able to bring a new fighting spirit to the United States’ oldest environmental organization.

Thoreau The history of social progress in America gives civil disobedience a
special resonance. In his 1849 essay, "On the Duty of Civil
Disobedience" Henry David Thoreau argued that people should not
permit governments to overrule their consciences and enable it to
make them the agents of injustice.

It looks like the answer is Yes.

In an article posted yesterday on his Club blog, Brune announced that for the first time in the group’s 120-year history the organization’s board of directors has agreed to let its officers engage in civil disobedience.

Brune writes:

“We are watching a global crisis unfold before our eyes, and to stand aside and let it happen — even though we know how to stop it — would be unconscionable. As the president said on Monday, "to do so would betray our children and future generations." It couldn't be simpler: Either we leave at least two-thirds of the known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, or we destroy our planet as we know it. That's our choice, if you can call it that.

The Sierra Club has refused to stand by. … At this point, we can't afford to lose a single major battle. That's why the Sierra Club's Board of Directors has for the first time endorsed an act of peaceful civil disobedience.”

The unprecedented act of civil disobedience by top Sierra Club staffers (including, I’m sure, the always camera-ready Brune) is likely to occur sometime around the “Forward on Climate” Rally being organized by A permitted demonstration will be held on the National Mall on Sunday, February 17; campaigners are hoping that at least 20,000 citizens will show up to demand immediate and concrete action on climate change and to call on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. According to one organizer who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, a non-permitted, civil disobedience-style protest will probably happen in the days leading up to the February 17 rally.

The Sierra Club’s forthcoming participation in a civil disobedience protest marks an important shift for one of the country’s largest green groups — and for the American environmental movement as a whole.

I want to be careful about fetishizing non-violent direct action. It is just one tool in campaigners’ social change toolbox. Smart litigation, careful research, the marshaling of top-notch science, petitions, letter writing campaigns, and house-by-house community organizing are all equally important tactics for advancing an environmental political agenda. But there’s no question that civil disobedience is unique. As Brune noted in yesterday’s letter, the history of social progress in America gives the tactic a special resonance. Brune wrote:

“Such a protest, if rendered thoughtfully and peacefully, is in fact a profound act of patriotism. For Thoreau, the wrongs were slavery and the invasion of Mexico. For Martin Luther King, Jr., it was the brutal, institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South. For us, it is the possibility that the United States might surrender any hope of stabilizing our planet's climate.”

Keystone XL ProtestPhoto by Milan Ilnyckyj/tarsandsactionThe weeks-long White House protests against the Keystone XL pipeline in August 2011 during
which some 1,200 people were arrested was the largest display of civil disobedience on an
environmental issue since the anti-nuclear power protests 30 years ago.

By echoing some of the most courageous moments of US history, civil disobedience delivers new moral force to a cause. The act of breaking the law — even if it’s something as symbolic as sitting down in the street — has a profound emotional impact, for both the law-breaker and for any witnesses. Nothing communicates passion and intensity better than having handcuffs around the wrist. No other tactic sparks inspiration the way civil disobedience can.

The Sierra Club’s willingness to engage in civil disobedience is the latest evidence of a new spirit of militancy among environmentalists. No doubt you remember the weeks-long White House protests against the Keystone XL pipeline in August 2011 during which some 1,200 people were arrested. As far as I can figure it, that was the largest display of civil disobedience on an environmental issue since the anti-nuclear power protests 30 years ago. It was quickly followed by a demonstration in which 12,000 people encircled the White House to protest the tar sands pipeline. The pressure tactics worked: In January 2012, President Obama delayed the pipeline, though construction on a southern portion is already underway, something that itself has inspired fierce opposition.

Fear about the cascading consequences of global climate change is fueling the tactical escalation. In the simplest terms: We’re running out of time to avoid the worst impacts of a warming world. At this point, the Sierra Club evidently agrees, something new is needed to communicate to citizens and political leaders the urgency of the climate crisis. As Brune wrote: “We have a clear understanding of the crisis. We have solutions. What we don't have is time. We cannot afford to wait, and neither can President Obama.”

In my opinion, this escalation of tactics is coming none too soon.

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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