July 26, 2010

Social Carbon Banditry (Dept. of Modest Proposals for Keeping Civilization from Suffocating In Its Own Waste)

Attention conservation notice: A consideration of social banditry as a tool of climate-change policy. Sadly, this mockery apparently has about as much chance of actually helping as does action by the world's leading democracy.

Only on Unfogged would the comments on a post about visual penis jokes turn to a discussion of what, if anything, civil disobedience could do about climate change; but they did.

One of the goals of classic civil disobedience is to make maintaining an unjust institution costly, though I'm not sure how often it is put in these terms. Ordinarily, those who are disadvantaged or subordinated by a prevailing institution go along with it, they follow its norms and conventions without having to be forced. — whether because they accept those norms, or because they reasonably fear the retaliation that would come if they flouted them makes little difference. This makes maintaining the injustice a good deal for the oppressors: not only do they get the immediate benefits of the institution, they don't have to expend a lot of effort maintaining it. Mass civil disobedience disrupts this state of affairs. Even if the oppressors can live with the evidence of seeing that they are, in fact, the kind of people who will engage in brutality to retain their privileges, the time policemen spend working over Sunday-school teachers, etc., is time they do not spend patrolling the streets, catching burglars, etc. Mass civil disobedience, especially if prolonged, raises the cost of perpetuating injustice. The implicit challenge to Pharaoh is: "Are you really willing to pay what it takes to keep us in bondage?"

What does this suggest when it comes to climate change? Burning fossil fuels is not an act with any intrinsic moral significance. The trouble with it is that my burning those fuels inflicts costs on everyone else, and there is no mechanism, yet, for bringing those costs home to me, the burner. The issue is not one of unjust institutions, but of an unpriced externality. The corresponding direct action, therefore, is not making oppressors actually enforce their institutions, but internalizing the externality. I envisage people descending on oil refineries, coal mines, etc., and forcing the operators to hand over sums proportional to the greenhouse-gas contribution of their sales. What happened to the money afterwards would be a secondary consideration at best (though I wouldn't recommend setting it on fire). The situation calls not for civil disobedience but for social carbon banditry.

Of course, to really be effective, the banditry would need to be persistent, universal, and uniform. Which is to say, the banditry has to become a form of government again, if not necessarily a part of the state.

Modest Proposals; The Dismal Science; The Continuing Crises

Posted at July 26, 2010 14:30 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth