Review: The Violence of Climate Change: Lessons of Resistance from Non-Violent Activists

1] Kevin O’Brien’s rich and stimulating new book The Violence of Climate Change: Lessons of Resistance from Non-Violent Activists evokes the North-American Christian tradition of non-violent activism as a resource for resisting the destruction and suffering brought about by climate change. How might the commitment, courage and ingenuity of iconic non-violent activists such as John Woolman, Jane Adams, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez help us achieve climate justice? Writing in a lucid, compelling style, O’Brien directs his book mainly at concerned people of relative privilege who feel defeated by the complexity of climate change, yet realize that they are contributing to destruction and suffering by simply living their day to day lives. O’Brien’s premise is twofold, namely, a) climate change is “a wicked problem of structural violence,” and, b) precisely as a problem of structural violence it is not unprecedented, but should be seen in continuity with other more familiar forms of systemic injustice and violence, such as racism and classism. Indeed, it is this continuity that allows for a turn to the tradition of non-violent activism, a tradition that predates climate change as an area of concern. O’Brien writes, “Concerned people know that we face new challenges, but in order to face them well, we need reminders that we have resources from the past with which to do so” (35).

[2] The first two chapters of O’Brien’s book unpack his two-fold premise, namely that climate change is a form of structural violence and it can be addressed effectively by the tradition of non-violent activism. Chapters 3 through 7 each bring the witness of one of his non-violent protagonists to bear on a particular issue related to climate change. The structure of this part of O’Brien’s book is deceptively straightforward. On one level, each chapter draws on the biography and activism of one iconic witness for inspiration and encouragement. Thus he asks what lessons might be gleaned from John Woolman’s subversive refusal to wear clothes produced by slave labor, Dorothy Day’s unwavering commitment to pacifism and her courageous radical love for the poor, or Jane Adams’s commitment to democracy on the local and global level. At another level, however, O’Brien relates the lessons gained from these social activists to more abstract ethical dilemmas surrounding climate change; issues such as the relevance of “personal austerity,” the balance between social justice and “the good of all species,” the moral implications of proposals to “technologically engineer the climate,” and the claim that “the industrialized world owes a ‘climate debt’ to the global poor” (12). In other words, as O’Brien sets out to demonstrate that the tradition of nonviolence offers inspiration and encouragement for concerned people, he at the same time draws on this tradition’s main witnesses for answers to recurring ethical dilemmas in debates on climate change. The result is a very interesting, multi-layered book that is an excellent teaching tool for courses dealing with the ethics of climate change, both at the graduate and undergraduate level.

[3] The validity of O’Brien’s project centers on his claim that climate change is indeed a form of violence. He moves from a rather generic definition of violence (violence as selfish action that causes harm) to a discussion of structural violence (violence caused by social systems) (32). Although it is not always clear how these two definitions relate to one another, O’Brien’s point seems to be that both these definitions apply to climate change. Following the distinction between direct and structural violence first coined by peace studies scholar Johan Galtung, O’Brien explains that as a form of structural violence, climate change is the result of “countless small decisions and developments in politics, economics, and technology” and is “not caused by one person’s decision, and no individual can stop it” (2). He quotes the Lutheran ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda who, in her book Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological and Economic Vocation (Fortress Press, 2013), insists that while climate change may not have one actor it is a form of violence in that it “degrades, dehumanizes, damages and kills people by limiting or preventing their access to the necessities for life or for its flourishing” (Moe-Lobeda, 72; O’Brien 32). And, as Moe-Lobeda observes, because structural violence typically “remains invisible to those not suffering from it,” relatively wealthy people living high carbon footprint lives can still ignore climate change or pay only lip service to the severity of the crisis. (33) Here is also where O’Brien’s first, more generic definition of violence seems relevant. For whereas climate change may not be a direct form of violence, it still is a form of violence for which some can be held more responsible than others.

[4] This recognition may perhaps do very little for concerned citizens already troubled by their complicity in climate change, yet O’Brien claims that the very act of acknowledging this complicity opens up the possibility for repentance which is a necessary step in breaking the cycle of despair, indifference and passivity. He writes, “the move to repentance is crucial, as privileged people must learn to think and behave differently, to remake social systems, and to turn away from violence” (33). Because the tradition of non-violent resistance aims at changing social systems, the tradition of non-violence is a helpful resource: “[W]hen violence is structural, resisting violence is about creating structural change, opposing the systems that leave some people destitute, disenfranchised, or dejected” (43). Faced with the structural violence of slavery, segregation, economic disparity and unjust labor practices, the five towering protagonists featured in this book worked “actively to create a more equitable, more democratic, and more empowering society” (44). O’Brien, however, does not turn to the tradition of non-violence to find a solution to climate change. His concern is with climate justice. This is not to say that he thinks that all we can do is adapt to climate change. Rather, he emphasizes that the effects of the alterations to the atmosphere by anthropogenic climate change will be a reality for many generations to come. The concern therefore is to find equity in dealing with climate change.

[5] While O’Brien is right to call on the tradition of non-violence to achieve climate equity through systemic change, he does not really engage the use of non-violence in actions of peaceful civil disobedience. He operates with a two-pronged definition of non-violence “as (1) a commitment to actively oppose violence (2) without the use of violence” (3). He believes, however, that privileged citizens resisting the violence of climate change are generally not tempted to use violence, and, hence, that the second dimension of his definition of non-violence is less relevant. Yet those of us engaged in non-violent civil disobedience, for instance by standing in solidarity with the water-protectors at Standing Rock in North Dakota, often encounter armed police forces and, hence, do need to practice restraint in the face of violence. O’Brien’s book is oddly silent about this type of non-violent activism, in spite of his discussion of Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, both legendary examples of civil disobedience.

[6] O’Brien does appreciate, however, that non-violent activism against the violence of climate change asks for courage, self-discipline and perseverance. Indeed, in addition to discussing the commitment of his protagonists in the face of structural violence, he provides examples of courageous activism by other concerned citizens, such as the environmental activist John Francis, who decided to fully abstain from motorized transportation (72). Ultimately, however, O’Brien’s way is not the way of the cross. Whereas there is a role for personal sacrifice and principle, he stresses that at times more is achieved by knowing how to compromise. It is interesting, therefore, that his discussion of the Biblical tradition of nonviolence pays scant attention to the figure of Jesus, who was rather uncompromising in his non-violent resistance to imperial powers. Instead, O’Brien’s reading of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), arguably the most radical text on Christian discipleship, presents a middle road between principle and pragmatism.

[7] This assessment of O’Brien’s project does not diminish the accomplishment and significance of his book as a resource for environmental ethics courses or adult education classes. It also should not get in the way of seeing the critical importance of his book’s message: that we should look at these powerful non-violent activists of the past for courage, creativity, wisdom, and vision to resist the violence of climate change and work towards climate justice.

Hilda P. Koster

Hilda P. Koster serves as Associate Professor of Religion, Concordia College, Moorhead, MN.