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Rethinking resistance.

AS THE PUSH for tar sands pipelines escalates and the legal channels for fighting them become exhausted, some environmentalists are reconsidering the value of civil disobedience, which Sierra Club Canada (SCC) executive director John Bennett describes as "breaking an unjust law or breaking a law to draw attention to an unjust law."

After the Sierra Club USA ended its 120-year ban on civil disobedience in February by blocking the sidewalk outside the White House gates to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, SCC began rethinking its own stance. Bennett is drawing on his extensive history in the environmental movement--with Greenpeace, the Green Party and others--and the opinions of SCC members across the country to navigate and update the organization's perspective. Staff, volunteers and donors who responded to a recent internal survey were overwhelmingly in favour of taking up civil disobedience. With decisions coming to a head on Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, as well as retrofits of the Kinder Morgan and Enbridge Line 9 pipelines, are the times desperate enough to call for desperate measures?

A\J: What sparked this renewed debate?

John Bennett: It wasn't so much a spark as a smoldering fire. After two decades of government lip service to action on climate change, the Keystone and Northern Gateway pipelines symbolically commit our countries to at least another generation of inaction and have become the lines in the sand--the moment in history when our societies either change direction or doom our children to catastrophic climate chaos. Civil disobedience was chosen by the Sierra Club in the US to dramatically demonstrate the urgency of acting now.

What arguments are guiding the debate?

Some in the SCC family argue that we have achieved a great deal with scientific campaigns, using facts to mobilize public opinion and convince government to act. This is how we won on toxic pollution, acid rain and many other issues. Since it worked, why risk our position by embracing civil disobedience?

Others believe that when faced with a situation where science is no longer the basis of policy making, governments no longer attempt to garner the support of the majority, and the stakes are catastrophic, civil disobedience is justified, if not required.

Why is SCC considering this tactic?

It's not a tactic. It is how Western society develops. Every step toward liberty has been aided by those who refuse to obey, and demand that right be done: the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, the American Revolution. All major advancements have been achieved with some form of civil disobedience.

What advice would you give organizations or individuals considering when to use civil disobedience?

Civil disobedience is spiritual as well as political; it has to come from a place deep inside of us. Superficial people don't inspire.

On the practical side, get some training to prepare the participants, too.

Laura McDonald interviewed Bennett. AV also asked a range of environmentalists for their perspectives on the utility and use of civil disobedience. Consider their arguments and get involved in the conversation at

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Title Annotation:civil disobedience and environmental protests against oil sands development
Author:McDonald, Laura
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2013
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