Coal Versus Civil Disobedience at Power Shift ’09?

  • Published on February 26th, 2009

Can Green activists play the civil disobedience card… and still be taken seriously?

In the Green Options discussion forum, Tim Hurst recently posted a poll asking:

Is Civil Disobedience a Viable Green Strategy?

First, let me say that I’m a fan of civil disobedience in general.  I’ve studied my Gandhi and my King, and am usually staunchly pro anything that shakes up the status quo and causes people enough discomfort to look at themselves.

When it comes to the environmentalist movement, however, (and especially Power Shift ’09) I think we’ve lost that weapon in our arsenal.  Further, I think that playing the civil disobedience card as part of our proverbial hand (metaphor becoming mixed here) is actively problematic.  Granted, Power Shift is not involved in the planned March 2nd. event, officially.  But that is a line often blurred by the news, especially as many folks might take their Power Shift training and use it while they are still in town.

>>Read an interview with Power Shift organizer Jessy Tolkan at RG&B
>>More on PowerShift 2009 from Sustainablog

I was very influenced in my stance on environmentalism by Break Through, the book that was birthed by the “Death of Environmentalism” essay and that in turn birthed the Break Through Institute.  I’m a fan, despite being offended when the Bad Boys of Environmentalism called me out for my tree hugging brand of self-righteous indignation.

If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it, but in short: Nordhaus and Shellenberger are searching for a new brand of environmentalism, and their message is hyper relevant to this very discussion.   It’s something they hope can be “post-environmental,” because they think the Greenpeace/PETA brand has fatal flaws.  Not only does their confrontational method turn off many, but BreakThrough thinking would argue that it trivializes the scope of the problem.

If there is to be something that is “post” environmental, it will be something that gets us past images of men squatting in trees to protect the spotted owl, or women chaining themselves to oil tankers.  These images and these tactics, like it or not, trigger strong reactions in a lot of folks, the same folks that the environmental movement (or post environmental movement) has been attracting recently.

Herding Kittens

Eight years ago, in the run up to the war in Iraq, I covered a protest in Washington D.C. thrown together to voice opposition to the use of troops against Saddam Hussein.  I was struck then by the rag-tag group that represented the left: the coalition included Free Mumia protesters and a contingent from the South Korean Woman’s Liberation Dancers (Note: I could have gotten that groups’ name wrong.  The point stands).

As someone who is engaged and interested in Green, I’m excited for the potential of Power Shift ’09, but I’m also worried that a movement that has tried for so long to put its self in the mainstream risks relapsing into (perceived) wild-eyed liberalism.  It’s already hard enough to get people in the green energy world all moving in the same direction, right?  To me, protesting a D.C. coal factory, even if it is a worthy sentiment, is the anti-breakthrough.  I have seen literally nothing to suggest that “clean coal” is a legitimate reality.  I don’t think we should be opening more coal plants across this country.  I even admire folks willing to go through the hassle of getting arrested for what they believe.  But no matter how many people show up in suits at this protest, it will be undermining the serious lobbying efforts and tangible mainstream gains that the organizers of Powershift have worked for.

Of course, right now the vote is 76% to 23% for civil disobedience, so what do I know?

Image: via

About the Author

Alan Smith is a Freelance Producer in Brooklyn New York who’s been fortunate enough in the past to work on a Peabody award winning radio show (the Brian Lehrer show, WNYC Radio) and an Emmy nominated TV program (Brian Lehrer Live on CUNY TV). Other highlights include PhilanthroMedia, a new media company which works for social change with non-profits and foundations across the globe. In my spare time, I’m interested in the science and politics of the current green movement, and write about those things in and around whatever else crosses my grill at


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