21 February 2001
You have asked me to express an opinion about the state of mind of the protesters who have been arrested on Salt Spring Island. While I do not know any of them personally, I can give opinions about why, in general, people might commit such acts of civil disobedience.
In responding to your request for an opinion on such short notice, I solicited comments from other members of the International Community for Ecopsychology. I have attached contributions from thoughtful, mature, and well-educated writers in New Zealand, England, France, the United States, and Canada, describing their views of the importance of saving trees and the legitimacy of sometimes breaking the law to achieve this end.
Most acts of civil disobedience are built on the concept of their being a "higher law" which cannot be ignored. This belief was described by Henry David Thoreau in 1848:
"Can there not be a government
in which majorities do not virtually decide
right and wrong, but conscience? -- in which majorities decide only those
questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen
ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the
legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think we should be men
first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for
the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right
to assume is to do at any time what I think is right. It is truly said that a
corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a
corporation WITH a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by
means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made agents
In the 20th Century, these words have often inspired people to go to jail for their beliefs. In the nationalist struggles in India and elsewhere, many future heads of Commonwealth nations spent time in British prisons for their beliefs. The Civil Rights movement in the United States achieved legal equality for all races through a systematic campaign of lawbreaking. Despotic regimes have been overthrown in the Philippines and brought to negotiations in South Africa through campaigns of peaceful civil disobedience. More recently, environmental protesters went to prison in British Columbia to help achieve an agreement to protect Clayoquot. History has mostly been very kind to these lawbreakers, whose commitment has resulted in peaceful solutions to conflict and to the redress of injustice.
In the current situation, there are a number of possible motivations for the protesters. From a completely utilitarian perspective, a motivation can be found in terms of the public good -- the belief that private land is being used/abused in a way that negatively affects the welfare of many other citizens and the community as a whole. The wider community cannot, in this view, be properly compensated for these losses, creating an injustice in the view of the protesters and their supporters. The protesters may see themselves as democratically acting in the interests of this larger community.
A different utilitarian perspective arises when the welfare of future generations is taken into consideration. In the face of massive scientific evidence that current human economic activity will drastically reduce the quality of life for future generations, many people are almost overwhelmed with a sense of panic and the need for urgent action. This can easily lead to acts of personal commitment such as civil disobedience. Joanna Macy has described this as a psychological defense against "environmental despair."
The philosophy of Deep Ecology formulated by Arne Naess and others holds that nature has intrinsic value and needs protection just as human beings do. A believer in Deep Ecology sees him/herself as part of the web of nature, equal in moral standing to other parts. For these people, defending nature is seen as an act of self defense.
For many, the motivation for civil disobedience is religious or spiritual. The early Christian martyrs were punished for holding God's law higher than Roman law. Members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) have a long history of being conscientious objectors and lawbreakers in response to their Peace Testimony of 1660 and later documents related to slavery, women's rights, and other issues. The Quakers are currently working on testimonies on "unity with nature", reflecting the change in values taking place in contemporary society. Reverence for nature is central to Taoism, Buddhism, Wiccan, Shamanism, and many other religious/spiritual traditions. Environmental protection and reverence for nature have been parts of the Christian heritage since at least St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century.
The frustration of the protesters in this and most other cases of civil disobedience reflects the absence of alternative methods for resolving ethically-based disputes. With the failure of government to recognize the legitimacy of their concerns and support all parties in this dispute in reaching an agreement, the protesters have acted out of frustration; the same frustration that motivated Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. History shows that negotiated settlement is the usual outcome of campaigns of civil disobedience; it would seem better for everyone to do it now rather than punishing people for demanding such negotiations.
In most cases of civil disobedience the participants are peacefully and non-violently expressing their belief that the law is not serving the cause of justice as they see it. In this case they can find a higher law in religion, justice to future generations, community values, or justice towards nature. From a psychological perspective, these are all healthy motivations for action, including peaceful lawbreaking. These people have been faced with a contradiction between their consciences and the letter of the law and they have chosen to follow their consciences. Their conscientious objections would seem to have sound foundations in history, philosophy, and religious practice.
John Scull, Ph.D.
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