12. ACTIVIST ETHICS
The final issue to examine in more detail is that of ethics: what is acceptable
activist behavior and what is not, and why? Ethics must be considered in any activist
endeavor, but they are of the greatest importance in those situations that demand
the strongest tactics, in other words, civil disobedience, direct action and agitation.
Said another way, where does activism end and rebellion begin? What are the most
extreme steps (or means) that we can justifiably take?
(Note: this analysis is an extension of the discussion in Section
11 of Chapter 6.)
To begin, civil disobedience is acceptable in many circumstances, and it actually
enjoys something of a historical tradition. American revolutionaries helped set
this example, as in the Boston Tea Party, and we can emulate them. Indeed, in
dictatorial countries you are civilly disobedient merely through expressing your
own opinions and your right to freedom of assembly.
In more democratically developed countries, though, the issue is never this clear.
Each case where you are tempted to civil disobedience must be considered on its
own merits. But, in general, those actions that a substantial portion of the public
supports are, prima facie, justifiable. Law also evolves, but sometimes
it has to be helped even pushed along.
Of course, all of the consequences must be considered. If the civil disobedience
injures other people, particularly if it physically injures them, then it is almost
certainly unjustifiable. Financial injury, though, particularly if it is not suffered
by a person, but rather by an institutional entity, is a different matter.
As a case example of this, consider trespass, such as the lock-down by activists
of a company logging road to an old growth forest, a forest that via influence
peddling the government has given to the company for free. In this case the company
may feel that it owns the forest, and that it is suffering an injury if
it cant cut the trees down right now. However, I, for one, would
consider such trespass, such civil disobedience, justifiable, and I am certain
that many other people would think this way as well. (This has been proven by
the public support given to Earth First! actions in the Pacific Northwest and
elsewhere. Indeed, even the mass media has at times supported these types of actions,
such as with CNNs coverage of Julia Butterfly Hills Headwaters Forest
treesit, and through the favorable representation of the Earth First! character
in the Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World.)
As an analysis of such direct action, the ethical end is to protect forests, and
other wild habitats, and other forms of life that are exploited by humans. The
justifications for this are that the social system has broken down, the rule of
law is false it is fundamentally and insupportably unfair only for
the wealthy and institutional few; and that nature and life must be defended from
such a system, and from torture and extermination. The ethical means, then, include
trespass, and, in certain cases, property destruction and animal liberation. The
unethical means, which are never used, are violence against individuals.
But, what about the earlier question of violence directed against activists? Arent
you entitled to defend yourself?
Accepting violence against ones person is a form of condoning it.
- Ramona Africa
It is interesting that the struggle for gay rights really began at the Stonewall
riots in 1969 in New York Citys Greenwich Village, when gays fought against
police harassment and abuse. This uprising initiated, and served as a symbol of,
their resistance to the discrimination to which they were (and still are) subjected.
There is a significant debate in the activist community over this issue. Some
activists argue that civil disobedience should always be non-violent; that you
do not fight back when you get a police boot to your head. This group is effectively
arguing for an unethical means to an ethical end: not defending yourself (in this
sole case unethical is not also unacceptable), to limit escalating the violence,
and also to avoid giving the police and the media a reason to label activists
as revolutionaries, rioters and terrorists. The opposing side says, basically:
If someone kicks me in the head, I fight back!
Since, as was demonstrated with the Civil Rights movement, non-violent civil disobedience
can achieve significant gains, the tactic of not fighting back should be preserved.
However, no one who practices self-defense should be maligned, as this is his
or her right. Also, another option, for activists who will not submit to assault,
is to pursue other tactics.
The next type of situation, that of agitation, has similar ethical issues. By
agitation, I mean such things as encouraging indigenous groups to defend their
homelands against corporate exploitation that has been permitted by distant, central
governments. For instance, much of northeast Cambodia, which is known as Rattanakiri
Province, is pristine rainforest occupied by such fauna as tigers, and also the
Kreung people. (They are a minority group in Cambodia; the majority are Khmers.)
But the central government in the capital Phnom Penh, run by Hun Sen, who though
the head of an elected government is essentially a dictator, sold
logging rights to the province to an Indonesian timber company. (This occurred
while Suharto was still dictator of Indonesia.) Agitation in this instance means
encouraging the Kreung to defend themselves, to destroy the bulldozers making
logging roads, and also the chainsaws and the sawmills, on their land.
(Note: last year Hun Sen sold logging rights in Mondulkiri Province, south along
the Vietnam border from Rattanakiri, to a Chinese company. Mondulkiri is also
a highland area with great cultural diversity. The local people are fighting the
destruction of their ancestral forest, including with direct action tactics.)
In this case the ethical end is the protection of homelands and forests, and the
wildlife and indigenous cultures that occupy them. The justification is that the
sale of exploitation rights, from dictator to dictator, was illegal
it was the act of an illegal regime and also that it did not reflect
the desires of the local people. The ethical means are the destruction of the
timber companys equipment. Unethical means would include killing the actual
loggers, or the majority Khmers. (The loggers are Khmers as well.)
The underlying problem in such circumstances is: how can activists deal with the
fact that in the time that it will take to implement sustainable development worldwide,
an untold number of primary habitats, and the cultures and species that inhabit
them, will be destroyed? What do you do in the time that it takes for society
finally to realize that a one thousand year old tree has a superior right to that
of a timber company executive who wants to cut it down to make a profit? In other
words, when, if ever, is violence justifiable?
Said another way, in perhaps its most direct statement, would it have been justifiable
to kill Hitler in 1938?
I would argue that violence against another person is never justifiable, except
in self-defense. The risks of the slippery slope, of resorting to the tactics
of the enemy, and thence becoming the enemy, are too great. It is essential always
to remember that we are trying to construct a civil society. We are trying to
evolve from our present situation where violence is regularly viewed as the solution.
Activists must stay on the high ground. Our ends are ethical. Our means must be
ethical as well.
In this specific regard, though, in 1938 Jewish and Roma people would have been
completely justified in killing Hitler, and by 1941 this would have extended to
virtually everyone. (In 1938, large-scale imprisonment of Jews began. But prior
to this, in 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and ordered a boycott
of Jewish businesses, with the result that many Jews were assaulted. Also, this
was the year that the first concentration camp, at Dachau, was opened. Even earlier,
in 1923, Hitler attempted a putsch, and more than 1,000 shops were looted in Berlin
in anti-Semitic rioting. A case can be made that Hitler would have been a legitimate
target as early as this.)
But, to return to the present day, the need to be ethical is why so many activists
practice non-violence. However, it is also important to understand that, for the
most fervent of activists, this non-violence relates only to people (and other
living things). The destruction of property to save other life is viewed as defensible.
Of course, company spokespeople regularly refer to such activists as environmental
and animal rights terrorists, but this is wrong: they are not terrorists.
They do not create terror in the hearts of humans. Rather, they seek to end the
terror felt by other species that are under the domination of the unethical members
of our species. Such company representatives are just attempting to create fear
and to cloud the issue. They fight what is right, rather than correct their own
Even with these arguments, though, it is important to say one more time that property
destruction should only be considered in extreme circumstances. It is a last choice
tactic, when there are no other means left to stop the imminent destruction of
To continue the discussion, and to make the transition from activism to rebellion,
it is also important to recognize that the conditions in Western societies, even
with their many reprehensible ills, are nothing compared to the circumstances
of millions of people, actually more than two billion, in autocratic nations around
the world. Many of these people have to rebel; their circumstances, and the need
for self and family preservation, demand it. For example, if you are a member
of the Mon or Karen people in eastern Burma, and your government is intent on
eradicating you to consolidate its control and to sanitize a pipeline route,
you have to fight back. You have no choice. Passive resistance will not work.
(This holds for all the people of Burma.)
In such circumstances the ethical end is the survival of self, and family, and
the protection of livelihood and culture. The justification, once again, is that
the government is illegal. It was not elected. Rather, it is a collection of military
criminals. The people therefore are compelled to defend themselves and their culture,
and in this fight almost anything is appropriate. It is, after all, a war. The
only unethical means include to attack non-combatants (this implies that the battle
should be fought without the use of land mines), and to employ torture.
Further, associated environmental damage should be reduced to the greatest extent
Now, through all of this we can see that we have moved from a society which, although
it has serious problems, retains some order, to one where the social institutions
have changed their allegiance completely and actively campaign against the people,
and which is characterized by great disorder. And, somewhere along the way, we
must broach the issue of vigilantism. This is because when the system of law,
of society itself, breaks down to such an extent that people (and institutions)
cannot be held accountable for their actions, their victims are justified in taking
the law into their own hands. This is a return to our traditional approach to
justice: to natural law. Human Law will not defend you, so you have
to do it yourself.
It is at this point that it is important to discuss the problem of anger. The
challenge of activism is to see that it derives from reason, not emotion. However,
the latter can be far stronger: obsession regularly exceeds commitment. The quickest
way to bring about change is to use volatility, to replace fear not with courage
but with anger. And through this you will accomplish a change, a revolution, but
it will revert. And in the end you will have accomplished nothing, nothing
at all, and caused great harm in the process.
Given the severity of what we are up against, and the seriousness of our responsibility
which is nothing less than the defense of the earth what can we
do? As appealing as it might be to some, you do not shoot timber company executives
(or property developers, fur farm owners or laboratory scientists). But, for companies
that persist in their reckless destruction, of the environment, of other species,
and of the future of humanity, then virtually anything else, including civil disobedience,
direct action and agitation, is justifiable.
In a society where money is power and elections are just a facade to
maintain corporate control, direct action at the point of production is one of
the most effective places we can work.
- Timber Wars, by Judi Bari, an Earth First! activist who was critically
injured when her car was bombed, to stop her coordination of the defense of the
© Roland O. Watson 2005