This week, climate activists disrupted the UK’s oil supply, because they believe they face a desperate choice. Nonviolent resistance now, or the unthinkable violence of climate change later.
“There is a need to break the law,” says Just Stop Oil’s Melissa Carrington, “so we are not guilty of greater crime.” But is she right?
In so-called liberal democracies, we have a default obligation to obey the law. It’s a moral duty, as well as a legal one. It’s part of our implicit contract with the government we elected, which provides us, in return, with the protection of justice. But what happens when that government doesn’t keep its side of the bargain?
Then, according to numerous political thinkers, we not only can, but very possibly should, break some laws: peacefully, publicly and on principle. The aim? To bring policy into line with what justice actually requires.
Henry David Thoreau gave this a name: civil disobedience. John Rawls, as pivotal a social contract thinker as you are likely to find, thought it could be good for social stability and justice, so long as it challenged longstanding, serious injustice. And what could be more unjust than supporting an industry that kills people?