Day 56: Environmental Radicalism: Civil Disobedience?

Today is day 56 of my 365 Days of Living Deliberately blog, and I want to continue with some of the thoughts that I have had concerning the final presentation that I was able to attend at the 19th Annual Summit on Environmental Law & Policy at Tulane University.  On Saturday afternoon, I attended a panel discussion titled: “Radical Environmentalism: Civil Disobedience?”  The focus was on whether or not radical environmentalism and civil disobedience are effective strategies for pursuing change.

First, Todd Myers, who worked for Washington State Department of Natural Resources and now is Director for the Environment, Washington Policy Center, claimed that he thought civil disobedience and radical environmentalism create big problems because the people involved are emotional.  He held up two large, thick state manuals and said that the public is intimidated by so much to understand and that with lack of understanding comes emotionalism that doesn’t help the supposed cause.  He also said that it’s difficult to get scientists involved with environmental radicals because scientists believe that they are committed to a disinterested approach and that radicals are basically “true believers” who don’t carefully examine the facts.

Mr. Myers mentioned several times that environmental radicals end up making the personal political and that it’s difficult to have a rational discussion in public with such people. When it comes to environmental injustice and minority and other communities that suffer, he basically told the audience to protect the planet by doing such thing as buying a Prius.  Also, when it comes to the problem of bee eradication, for example, he said that GMO’s don’t have any relationship to the demise of bees and that becoming a beekeeper is the way to save the bees.

The counter-argument to Mr. Myers was Randy Hayes, Co-founder of the Rainforest Action Network and Executive Director of Foundation Earth: Rethinking society from the ground up. The following is Foundation Earth’s mission statement:

“Foundation Earth is a think tank that goes beyond research to put ideas into action. This is our humble beginning. Our mission is to bring an earth-centered economy into reality through a major rethinking of society implemented via outreach campaigns.We will accomplish this initially by examining the dimensions of a much more sustainable economy, argue for it, and provide advisory services to social movements concerning economic system changes and transformation. We will work with the big ideas, operational plans, and strategies and push initiatives through the windows of opportunity as they open!

There are five proposed areas of focus: economy, law, education, environmental health, and emerging technologies. This is a research institute that then uses its findings for advocacy with the media, educators, policy makers, and the public to inspire transformation of society. We are unaligned with political parties.”

Mr. Hayes first discussed how environmental radicalism is in effect our democratic responsibility and is based on the immutable principles of science and the laws of nature and on our rights as described by Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the Declaration of Independence:

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Mr. Hayes then described how revolution has been an honorable tradition for Americans, starting with our nation’s emancipation from King George.  He mentioned Gandhi and King who also used radical measures and civil disobedience to create change. He described the three main components of civil disobedience: 1) to stop  national, international, or transnational corporations from engaging in an injustice 2) to respectfully disagree with a situation or policy in a compassionate way 3) to rebel against something that is deeply unfair and wrong, not something that is superficially important.

Mr. Hayes argued that we should always base our environmental decisions on the precautionary principle, namely, when in doubt, play it safe, and choose the option that doesn’t pose risks.  He said that making safer choices may cost industry in the short-run, but that if industries didn’t externalize the costs of their pollution, then they would have to address the true costs of making their products.

He said that with the knowledge we have about fossil fuels, nuclear energy and waste, and the threat of global warming and climate change, we need to use common sense and to learn how to rely on renewal energies. He said that civil disobedience is one tool in the toolbox necessary to promote a sustainable planet.

Mr. Hayes ended by saying that the word radical means a root part, a basic principle, and that if we want to do more than attempt to fix our environmental problems, we must have more than a bandaid approach. We have to get to the roots of the problem.  We have to get radical.

In the question/answer period, when questioned by an audience member about his affiliation with an certain questionable industry, Mr. Myers got angry, defensive, red-faced, and emotional, and he cut off the moderator who was attempting to reign him in.  In the end, Mr. Myer exhibited the emotional characteristics he accused radical environmentalists of having while Mr. Hayes displayed measured respect, civility, and an aura of peace, gentility, and kindness.