Environmental Civil Disobedience: Ethics and Politics

by Oscar Delaney

Scientists, health practitioners and other professionals are increasingly turning to environmental civil disobedience to stymie the collapse of the natural world.[i] Many fear that civil disobedience imposes an undue cost on society through a breakdown of law and order, and therefore cannot be justified, especially in a fair democracy where we contribute to making the law. I argue, however, that political inequalities and the narrow, restricted form of our democracy make direct extra-legal action morally permissible.

To limit the scope of my analysis, I will focus on a single example of civil disobedience that exhibits certain key characteristics relevant to justifiability debates. Zoe is deeply concerned about the impacts that climate change will have on her fellow Australians, foreigners, future people, and the biosphere generally. She chains herself to a large bulldozer that is being used to clear ground for a new coal mine. In doing so, she successfully prevents work for a few hours, but is then arrested and removed from the site.  All but the most radical theorists agree that the illegality of this action provides some moral reason against it, so the burden of proof is on Zoe and her philosophical friends to show the ethical defensibility of her protest in the context of Australia’s liberal democracy.[ii] Some moral reasons to obey the law exist regardless of the political regime they were created under, such as the undesirability of devolving into lawlessness and the hassle of paying fines or otherwise receiving punishment.  Here, however, I will focus on the reasons for obedience that are peculiar to democracy, specifically that we should respect the current fair political compromise, that we should participate in democracy and so should not transgress its edicts, and that we should engage in persuasion and civic dialogue rather than forceful imposition of our own values through civil disobedience.

While democratic governance is fairer than more authoritarian forms, I argue that existing structural inequities legitimate extra-electoral democratic action in the form of civil disobedience. Peter Singer considers an instructive model society of a university residential college: members may differ as to what decision procedure they prefer, some may think the oldest students know best and should decide, others the brightest students, or the richest, or the most popular, and short of resorting to force, the only fair compromise is for every student to get one vote, whence they may freely choose to devolve responsibility to a chosen subgroup, or to retain power in the body politic.[iii] Because this is a fair arrangement with equal rights for all, if one member imposes her wishes on the rest extra-democratically she tramples on the rights of her fellows to have equal say. As Singer himself notes, the key question is to what extent this conclusion scales up to actual liberal democratic societies.[iv]  We still have an obligation to obey the law insofar as we value democracy over other political systems and want to express our support for it by obeying democratic dictates,[v] but various scholars argue convincingly that actual democracies are so far removed from the ideal of political equality, that the “fair compromise” reason carries little weight. Val Plumwood wonders how democracies have failed so lamentably to protect the environment, when a majority of people profess some ecological concern.[vi]  She concludes that it is not democracy that has failed ecology, but rather liberal political and neoliberal economic power structures that have overcome both democracy and ecology to entrench the interests of elites over the rights of most people and animals.[vii]  Hence, the status quo is very far from a fair compromise, and the political underclass are justified in engaging in civil disobedience that, as in Zoe’s case, actually helps restore a richer, better democracy that values everyone’s interests more equally. Erica Von Essen concurs, preferring to reframe Zoe’s actions as “dialogical disobedience” that “is a democratic corrective act that contributes to a reinvigorated public debate on a contentious environmental issue” which seems reasonable given the significant media attention and public discourse such protests can garner.[viii] Thus, the political and economic inequalities of contemporary Australian democracy that mean many ordinary individuals like Zoe are collectively outweighed by a few powerful vested interests makes Zoe’s actions justified on this front.

As well as being a fair compromise, democratic systems are sometimes taken to imply consent given we participate in governance, but the paucity and indirectness of participation renders this into a minor critique. Democracy can be viewed as a procedure to weigh competing interests against each other and choose, hopefully, a socially beneficial outcome.  Singer analogises democracy to a sporting arbitration: two opposing players have competing accounts of what occurred, and after each makes her case, the umpire adjudicates.[ix] In this case, Singer rightly argues that it would be immoral for one of the disputants, upon receiving an unfavourable umpiring verdict, to carry on believing and acting as if she emerged victorious, as the act of participating in third-party arbitration is reasonably taken to imply consent to being governed by the outcome, so it would be duplicitous to disobey, and exploitative of other parties who are acting obediently.[x] Likewise, in democracy it is arguably the case that voting in elections, lobbying MPs, donating to campaigns, and other political actions are a sign of agreeing to be ruled by the social contract embodied in the government. Considering the principle of universalisability, it would be unfair to retract this consent when I disagree, because if everyone acted this way collective decisions would be meaningless, causing arbitration and democracy to fail. As with the fair compromise case, this participation argument seems far stronger in more direct, properly equal democracies. If Zoe was part of a town of a thousand people who collectively owned mining rights in the surrounding area, and she had made her strong case for climate justice to not allow the new mine, but her side had narrowly lost the ensuing vote, there would be strong moral reasons to accept the will of the majority.[xi] To see this, consider the alternate scenario where Zoe wins the vote, and the miners defy the majority by opening a new mine anyway: we would like to say the miners acted wrongly, and so by symmetry it seems fair to say Zoe should abide by the free and fair vote too.[xii]  However, in real life there is no popular vote on whether the mine should be built, just national and state elections every few years, involving many electorally important issues. These elections are better than nothing but they are also very blunt instruments for discerning the will of the people on any particular issue, particularly when elections are significantly swayed by the rhetorical elite in the media and their financial backers. So, Zoe has not directly participated in the decision to open up a new mine. Australia’s compulsory voting system also contributes to this argument: that which is done by necessity cannot be taken as consent. Hence, participation may entail fractionally more obligation to obey in a democracy than otherwise, but this is easily outweighed by the pro-democratic nature of actively participating in the decision making through civil disobedience.

Fair compromise and participation within a democracy are reasons against civil disobedience of any sort. Now I turn to special reasons not to engage in environmental civil disobedience in particular. John Rawls’ seminal scholarship on political ethics includes discussion of civil disobedience, where he argues that to be deemed civil and hence possibly justifiable (by his lights) disobedient individuals must seek only to persuade, admonish and otherwise dialogically engage with the majority and the authorities, rather than to directly obstruct the lawful execution of the majority’s wishes.[xiii] Moreover, Rawls argues that activists must appeal to existing public conceptions of justice rather than impose their private, eccentric, moral or religious frameworks on a confused and unwilling majority.[xiv] Thus, Rawls greatly limits the scope of civil disobedience to largely symbolic acts that question authority without directly preventing its action. A canonical example for Rawls could be Rosa Parks’ refusal to vacate her bus seat for a white passenger, as this appeals to public moral frameworks of justice and equality and is more symbolic and expressive than directly obstructionist. Many environmental activists feel, however, that traditional means, including a civilly disobedient sit-in at a politician’s office for instance, are less effective than more direct actions like Zoe’s precisely because they are too symbolic and do not tangibly cost polluters.[xv] Further, preserving climate stability is a global intergenerational public good, so failing to effectively prevent new coal mines by not acting systematically harms many unknown people and animals, making either course of action potentially morally problematic.[xvi] Indeed, some writers argue that the debate is shifting from attempting to justify environmental civil disobedience, to attempting to justify avoiding disobedience.[xvii] In this essay however, I focus on justifying disobedience, recognising that individual circumstances differ so wildly that a general admonition to engage in disobedience appears untenable. Rawls’ vision for disobedience is rather conservative in that because activists are only justified by appealing to pre-existing public morality, disobedience cannot be a tool to expand the moral circle and reach new heights of political ethical achievement; rather, it simply corrects some narrow misapplications of the broader current public sentiment.[xviii] This places too much faith in the wisdom and responsibility of the majority, as all too often existing moral frameworks fail miserably to respect the interests of all affected parties.  Singer is particularly concerned that Rawls’ overweening emphasis on political justice precludes disobedience on behalf of animals, who are excluded from the political community and so are moral patients but not victims of injustice.[xix] While a degree of humility is justified and even required in considering the act of disobedience,[xx] as Zoe may be mistaken about facts of the matter or relevant moral principles, I posit that our democracy would be better off if conscientious and deeply-considered people occasionally saw fit to defy the majority for the sake of the least well off. We must reckon with the possibility that the public moral indifference towards new coal mines is correct and thus that Zoe’s activism is uncalled for, but equally we must consider the chance that the majority is indeed selfishly misguided and that mitigating climate change is of deep moral importance. Individual moral agents and would-be dissidents must weigh these factors up for themselves to decide whether the gravity of the issue is sufficient to overcome the fact that most people are morally unmoved by it.  While it may seem unsatisfactory and anarchy-inducing to leave the decision of whether to obey the law up to an individual, we have no other choice, as the law only imparts decision-making authority should we choose to respect it.[xxi]

Rawls’ assertion that activists should be persuasive rather than obstructive is at the heart of how some theorists demarcate the boundary between civil disobedience and ecosabotage.[xxii] Zoe’s actions may be regarded as ecosabotage using the broadest possible definition, as her actions destroy abstract “property” by preventing profits from being made by the coal company for those few hours. Economically at least, her actions are similar in effect to if she had actually damaged a piece of equipment.[xxiii] Others propose that the defining feature of ecosabotage is that it is not public, and hence not (directly) dialogical, in which case Zoe is certainly not an ecosaboteur.[xxiv] It is clear that Zoe is harming the coal company, which some argue makes it impermissible.[xxv]  However, by the most plausible accounts the act/omission divide is a shaky one,[xxvi] and so if by harming the company Zoe can prevent far greater harm to more vulnerable people and animals, this meets her duties to aid those in need.[xxvii] Zoe-style direct action is also criticised as being unjustified when other avenues are available—legal, financial, social and political pressure can all also be leveraged—but the idea of requiring it to be a “last resort” breaks down on further analysis, as there are always more things one could try, so it is sufficient that civil disobedience be the least radical route with the greatest chance of success.[xxviii] Further, given the political inequalities Plumwood highlights, direct action provides something of a leveller playing field and so contributes to justice and equal democratic participation, as anyone can blockade machinery, regardless of whether they lack wealth, media-backing and political clout.[xxix]  Thus, Rawls’ caveat that disobedience should be persuasive and done within the limits of public morality, rather than obstructionist and morally zealous, carries some weight but it fails to consider the broader moral picture of preventing harm to innocents, forging luminary-led moral progress, and righting political inequalities.

Democracy’s participatory nature and its function as a fair compromise between competing claims to power provide some moral reason to obey democratic laws, but these are greatly weakened in actual democracies because of power disparities and indirect decision-making procedures. While exerting softer power through symbolism and persuasion is preferable to the harder power of physical obstruction, direct action is morally permissible given the scope of environmental threats and the limited historical efficacy of compliant means. Thus, environmental civil disobedience is morally justified even in democratic political structures, and can play a key role in preventing ecological crises.

Oscar studies genetics, maths, and philosophy, is a spokesperson for Youth Verdict and a philosophy presenter for gifted primary school students at Gateways.  He grew up in India where his parents were development workers, and is involved in Effective Altruism and climate activism.


[i] Hayley Bennett et al., “Should health professionals participate in civil disobedience in response to the climate change health emergency?,” The Lancet 395, no. 10220 (2020),https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)32985-X, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014067361932985X; John Lemons and Donald A. Brown, “Global climate change and non-violent civil disobedience,” Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 11, no. 1 (2011),https://doi.org/10.3354/esep00109; Charlie J. Gardner and Claire F. R. Wordley, “Scientists must act on our own warnings to humanity,” Nature Ecology & Evolution 3, no. 9 (2019),https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0979-y, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0979-y.

[ii] Michael Martin, “Ecosabotage and civil disobedience,” Environmental Ethics 12, no. 4 (1990): 298.

[iii] Peter Singer, Democracy and Disobedience (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 16-17; 30-35.

[iv] Singer, Democracy and Disobedience, 105-32.

[v] Singer, Democracy and Disobedience, 19-20.

[vi] Val Plumwood, “Has democracy failed ecology? An Ecofeminist perspective,” Environmental Politics 4, no. 4 (1995),https://doi.org/10.1080/09644019508414231.

[vii] Plumwood, “Has democracy failed ecology?,” 145.

[viii] Erica von Essen, “Environmental disobedience and the dialogic dimensions of dissent,” Democratization 24, no. 2 (2017): 311,https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2016.1185416.

[ix] Singer, Democracy and Disobedience, 45-47.

[x] Singer, Democracy and Disobedience, 45-50.

[xi] Not necessarily insurmountable reasons, however.

[xii] Ned Hettinger, “Environmental Disobedience,” in A Companion to Environmental Philosophy, ed. Dale Jamieson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 500.

[xiii] John Rawls, “Duty and Obligation,” in A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 366.

[xiv] Rawls, “Duty and Obligation,” 365.

[xv] Martin, “Ecosabotage and civil disobedience,” 307-09.

[xvi] Simo Kyllönen, “Civil Disobedience, Climate Protests and a Rawlsian Argument for ‘Atmospheric’ Fairness,” Environmental Values 23, no. 5 (2014): 595-98,https://doi.org/10.3197/096327114X13947900181671.

[xvii] James M. Dow, “Environmental Civil Disobedience,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018), 795.

[xviii] Kyllönen, “‘Atmospheric’ Fairness,” 601-02; Peter List, “Some Philosophical Assessments of Environmental Disobedience,” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 36 (1994): 185-89,https://doi.org/10.1017/S1358246100006548.

[xix] Singer, Democracy and Disobedience, 87-92.

[xx] Hettinger, “Environmental Disobedience,” 502-05.

[xxi] Hettinger, “Environmental Disobedience,” 502-05; Rawls, “Duty and Obligation,” 389-90.

[xxii] Jennifer Welchman, “Is ecosabotage civil disobedience?,” Philosophy and Geography 4, no. 1 (2001): 102.

[xxiii] Martin, “Ecosabotage and civil disobedience,” 293.

[xxiv] Martin, “Ecosabotage and civil disobedience,” 294.

[xxv] Kyllönen, “‘Atmospheric’ Fairness,” 600-01.

[xxvi] Hettinger, “Environmental Disobedience,” 503.

[xxvii] Whether and when such “good-Samaritan” duties exist is itself controversial; however, I cannot explore the question here.

Kyllönen, “‘Atmospheric’ Fairness,” 601.

[xxviii] von Essen, “Environmental Disobedience and Dialogic Dissent,” 308.

[xxix] Plumwood, “Has democracy failed ecology?,” 134-68.


Bennett, Hayley, Alexandra Macmillan, Rhys Jones, Alison Blaiklock, and John McMillan. “Should Health Professionals Participate in Civil Disobedience in Response to the Climate Change Health Emergency?”. The Lancet 395, no. 10220 (2020): 304-08. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)32985-X. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014067361932985X.

Dow, James M. “Environmental Civil Disobedience.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy, 795-807. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018.

Gardner, Charlie J., and Claire F. R. Wordley. “Scientists Must Act on Our Own Warnings to Humanity.” Nature Ecology & Evolution 3, no. 9 (2019): 1271-72. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0979-y

Hettinger, Ned. “Environmental Disobedience.” In A Companion to Environmental Philosophy, edited by Dale Jamieson, 498-509. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Kyllönen, Simo. “Civil Disobedience, Climate Protests and a Rawlsian Argument for ‘Atmospheric’ Fairness.” Environmental Values 23, no. 5 (2014): 593-613. https://doi.org/10.3197/096327114X13947900181671.

Lemons, John, and Donald A. Brown. “Global Climate Change and Non-Violent Civil Disobedience.” Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 11, no. 1 (2011): 3-12. https://doi.org/10.3354/esep00109.

List, Peter. “Some Philosophical Assessments of Environmental Disobedience.” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 36 (1994): 183-98. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1358246100006548.

Martin, Michael. “Ecosabotage and Civil Disobedience.” Environmental Ethics 12, no. 4 (1990): 291-310.

Plumwood, Val. “Has Democracy Failed Ecology? An Ecofeminist Perspective.” Environmental Politics 4, no. 4 (1995): 134-68. https://doi.org/10.1080/09644019508414231.

Rawls, John. “Duty and Obligation.” Chap. 6 In A Theory of Justice, 333-91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Singer, Peter. Democracy and Disobedience. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.

von Essen, Erica. “Environmental Disobedience and the Dialogic Dimensions of Dissent.” Democratization 24, no. 2 (2017): 305-24. https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2016.1185416.

Welchman, Jennifer. “Is Ecosabotage Civil Disobedience?”. Philosophy and Geography 4, no. 1 (2001): 97–107.

Featured image by Rod Long via Unsplash


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