Doesn’t the Earth have certain inalienable rights that are self-evident?

By Steve Hanley on, April 23, 2019

“When is rebellion against your own government justified? That question haunted the thinkers at the foundation of modern political philosophy. In the dark masterpiece that is The Leviathan, published in 1651, Thomas Hobbes infamously told readers that direct action against the state can never be right.

“John Locke replied with Two Treatises of Government, which argued that citizens have a right to overthrow a government that fails to protect their life and liberty. It’s from Locke that people in the west indirectly take much of their understanding of how citizens stand in relation to the state. The shadow that haunted Locke and his contemporaries was one familiar to any reader in the 17th-century. That is, tyranny: the frightening possibility of an unjust king who abuses his subjects.”

The words of John Locke, along with the writings of Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and other luminaries of The Enlightenment, were very much on the minds of the framers of the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Doesn’t the Earth have certain inalienable rights that are self-evident? Was what they did so different from what climate protesters are doing today? And if not, why do we vilify the activists of today and lionize those of the past, calling them heroes and patriots?

“In the second decade of the 21st-century, citizens of the industrialized world are trapped inside a broken logic that makes two contradictory demands of us,” Mattin writes. “We know we can’t go on with the carbon-fueled lifestyles that are destroying the environment. Meanwhile, we know we have to go on with those lifestyles. Not because we want to wreck the planet. But because we want to be able get to work in the morning. To light our homes at night. To visit our sick aunt on the other side of town. To have a social life. To just exist.

He characterizes our dilemma as knowing we can’t go on like this — plundering the Earth until it can no longer support human life. “That is an impossible predicament, and increasingly there’s a kind of psychic strain associated with it. People can live a contradiction for so long. But at some point it has to break.

“For the rising numbers of people  —  still a tiny minority overall —  committing to direct action on the climate, that breaking point has surely come. They’re motivated by a sense of urgency. And also by a growing fear that our democracies are not able properly to cognize or take action on looming ecological breakdown.” Certainly those living in the United States are seeing a government determined to ignore the climate emergency for as long as possible.

Fighting For Change Within A Broken System

Just as the authors of the Declaration of Independence provoked a revolution, so too will the ideas of David Mattis if carried out. “The system we inhabit is now stuck,” he writes. “Its internal logic is one of perpetual, carbon-fuelled growth and rising affluence  —  a logic that demands we keep turning the wheels of techno-capitalism ever faster. Meanwhile, the external reality is one of a finite environment that makes perpetual growth impossible, and looming ecological breakdown that demands that we stop turning those wheels. Pulled in two different directions at once, our system is frozen, motionless, in danger of being ripped apart.

“That stasis can’t hold forever. Extinction Rebellion and other movements like it are the first, faint signals that change is coming. The consequences of their action — blocked roads, lost productivity  —  are more than just an inconvenient but necessary reminder of the damage we’re doing to the planet.

“They are a reflection of the deep contradiction that currently has our system locked in a death spiral. In them we can see the first glimmerings of something new  —  the beginnings of a search for a new vision of our collective life. That is a journey we can no longer postpone, whatever the inconvenience. Indeed, inconvenience is going to have be part of the point. The structural changes we need to make are vast. But we can’t hide from the truth any longer. The resistance is justified.” (emphasis added)

One thing is painfully obvious to anyone who cares to look. The United States does not have a justice system. It has a legal system, one that treats those with money and power very differently than other people. The concept of Equal Justice Under Law emblazoned in the front of the Supreme Court building is a concept honored most often in the breach rather than its observance.

We Need A Semi-Miracle

“This is not the time to be realistic, this is the time for humanity to completely change course,” Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder, tells the BBC. “This is not about fiddling around the edges, and adding a few solar panels to a few roofs; we have left it so late that we have to step up in a semi-miraculous way to deal with this situation.”

So here’s a question for the CleanTechnica community: Are we doing enough? Instead of hopscotching the world for headlines from the world of renewable energy and sustainability, should we be encouraging people to become more involved in civil disobedience if the powers that be refuse to recognize the climate emergency? In the era of pervasive digital surveillance by governments foreign and domestic, can we lawfully do so without winding up in a jail cell next door to Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning? How much should we be willing to risk to make our feelings known?

One part of David Mattin’s treatise rings true — the existing political institutions in many countries, especially the United States, appear to favor those who would destroy the Earth for their own gain rather than those who would save it for the benefit of us all. What would the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence do if they were here today and saw what the government they created has come to?

If they operated on the principle that radically changing the government is permissible — even required — when the interests of a civil society demand it, shouldn’t actions that honor that principle be applauded rather than suppressed? Shouldn’t ordinary citizens be able to declare their independence from voracious fossil fuel companies?

One thing that should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer is that some 230 years after it was formed, the government of the United States as envisioned in 1787 has failed, putting the Earth and all its people at risk. What to do about it? That is a question we all must answer for ourselves.