Non-Violence and Environmental Action

Humpback Whale

Currently, in the Antarctic seas, Greenpeace’s ship Esperanza is chasing Japan’s whaling fleet.  Japan plans to take 900 minke whales and 50 fin whales for what they claim is scientific study, yet the whale’s final destination is Japanese restaurants and markets. 

Greenpeace believes in non-violent protest.  By chasing the whaling fleet the organization is attempting to interrupt the hunt–the Japanese cannot hunt when on the move–but not to damage the fleet.  Another environmental organization, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is also pursuing the fleet, but has selected a more ‘action-oriented’ role, including in the past sinking and ramming ships, though no lives have been recorded as lost due to their actions. 

In the past century non-violent protests have proven, at times, remarkably successful.  The practice was first put in use by Gandhi (but what inspired by everything from Hinduism and Buddhism to Leo Tolstoy), then later by Martin Luther King and the People Power revolution in the Philipines.  Non-violence has been a way for people without traditional means of power–wealth, status, and/or weaponry–to create powerful change.  It is also a largely held moral and spiritual belief; those who practice non-violence believe that violent action is never acceptable and in the end solves nothing, but only begets more violence.  Non-violence may mean non-cooperation with the powers-that-be, it may mean peaceful protests and marches, or direct intervention without violence–this is what Greenpeace is doing by interfering with the Japanese whale hunt without attacking the ships or crew involved.  Non-violence also means that if one should meet violence they should do so without re-acting: turn the other cheek.  Non-violent philosophy is vast and its practitioners diverse: this is only meant as a quick sketch of the philosophy.  

Greenpeace has used non-violence from the beginning of its inception: attempting to save whales (and bringing their plight to the media) and other species, as well as preventing toxins from being dumped into the ocean etc.  Their actions have made them heroes to some, and extremists to others.  Japan has labeled them as ‘environmental terrorists’: a hyperbole if ever there was one.   

I applaud Greenpeace’s actions and its commitment to non-violence.  While the organization is not perfect, and has made mistakes in the past, it serves as a reminder of the power of non-violence to wake people up to injustice.  The difficulty that Greenpeace faces, of course, is that the injustice in not human-to-human, but human to another species and a larger ecosystem.  This requires a leap in ethical views.  Do whales have rights? And if so what are they?  Should ecosystems have rights to protect them from ourselves?  These are questions that require addressing throughout our societies.  Can we really expect to preserve any natural part of our global, to conquer such issues as global warming and mass extinction, if rights stop at homo sapiens and do not extend to the water we drink, the forests that take in the carbon and keep our riverways clean, the innumerable species that share our planet.   

As for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, while I understand their frustrations and agree with their mission, I do not believe in their means.  Although they have yet to murder any person, their declaration of ‘any means necessary’ (including gloating about sinking ships), not to mention their grotesque use of a Pirate skull on their flag, only harms the cause of environmentalism and protecting species.  By taking the low road, they are proving themselves not dissimilar in means from the corporate and governmental forces they oppose.  

Personally, I believe that non-violence should play a larger role in the environmental movement.  Imagine: sit-ins for endangered species, marches on Washington for sustainable energy, boycotts against unsustainable fishing practices, protests against the coal and gas industries.  By doing so organizations and individuals risk being labeled as extremists (or even terrorists).  They risk being told that they care more about other species than their own, but more and more it appears that our species is just as dependent on the health of the global environment as any other species.    Secondly, can we really reasonably argue anymore that the one species is master of the earth, while all others proves slaves to our whims?  Does human-power make human’s right? 

It appears to me that for the average citizen–who believes passionately in these issues–non-violence may be one of the best ways to affect change, whether it is changing the situation or changing minds.  At the same time, one must attempt actions that are not easily disregarded as extremist and wacko (remember being called ‘green’ used to be a dirty word).  One guy chaining himself to a tree is fodder for mockery and cynicism, a thousand people surrounding a grove marked off for another box store may not appear so nutso.  A million people marching for action on global warming in Washington may just make history. 

Things are changing.  The green movement is no longer only on the fringes.  Perhaps, now is the time for other NGOs (or individual leaders) to look to Gandhi for inspiration.  If the practice of non-violence enmasse can overthrow an empire, perhaps it can also change the way we view our world.    


Author: jlhance

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