Learning about civil disobedience

by Milan on January 31, 2011

in Activism, Civil disobedience, Climate change, Coal mining, Ethics

Based on my limited understanding of the tactic, civil disobedience seems well suited to certain kinds of societal problems. Specifically, it seems to hold promise in cases where the problem being addressed is society-wide, such as racism, and where there is a very strong moral claim to be made. It also seems well suited to situations where, at the beginning at least, those upholding a sound moral principle are seriously outnumbered and outgunned by those who want to keep violating that principle.

All these things make me think civil disobedience could be well suited to responding to climate change. Does that seem plausible to others? NASA climatologist James Hansen has engaged in several acts of civil disobedience, resisting mountaintop removal coal mining.

What would be the best historical examples to consider, in order to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon of principled resistance to unjust laws? Also, which books, essays, and speeches would be most useful for developing a fuller comprehension.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

. January 31, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Related: But if Not

Tristan February 5, 2011 at 9:01 am

The best theorist of civil disobedience, or non-violent resistance, which I’ve read is Gene Sharp. They key idea there is that civil disobedience is not about getting along, or about compromise – but is the most effective form of resistance because it is more powerful than violent resistance. The idea of holding violence “in reserve” if non violence doesn’t work is simply, according to Gene, a stupid idea.


Milan February 5, 2011 at 12:55 pm


It would also be useful to read some accounts from practitioners, especially from the slavery abolition and civil rights movements.

Tristan February 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Slavery abolition and the civil rights insurrection are important examples, but right now the relevant example of civil disobedience organized towards a specific end is the democratic protest movement in Egypt.

Milan February 7, 2011 at 8:29 am

Why do you see that as a close parallel?

To me, it seems like whether a particular dictator hangs on in the face of public opposition or not has relatively little to do with altering the energy basis of the global economy. Slavery seems like a much more pertinent example, since slaves literally provided much of the motive power that kept the economy running.

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