Democracy, Environmentalism, and Direct Action
In his piece Democratic Legitimacy, Public Justification, and Environmental Direct Action, Matthew Humphrey argues that public justification for environmental action is contingent upon what is being protected by direct action. He believes that if the policy or damage caused to the environment is irreversible, direct action may be justified under two instances: protecting future generations and providing political representation for marginalized groups. To better understand Humphrey’s argument, there are some critical conditions and definitions that we must establish. First, the context of the article deals with direct action under a legitimate democratic principled government. Legitimacy to Humphreys rests on the concept of reason-giving, the idea that governing institutions provide reasons for their policy decisions that are inclusive, accessible, and allow a deliberative procedure to occur with their constituents before decision making. Reason giving is important because it establishes a dialogue between those in positions of authority and those they represent, and a commitment to such dialogue becomes embodied in the democratic procedures. Thus, when a policy emerges from these conditions, it is perceived as a fair process and sound decision. This process allows for policy outcomes to be accepted by all, even when some may not agree with them. Legitimacy is grounded in this commitment to dialogue with people, who represent the most legitimate source of authoritative decisions.
Second, what is direct action, and when is it justified? In this context, the intent is to target the perpetrators of irreversible policy/actions and not petition a third party. In other words, it is an action that creates urgency and not merely appeals to be communicative. The situation that demands such activity is a grievance that the Democratic process has either failed to address or a loophole in policy that is being exploited and will cause irreversible harm unless they desist. But if democracy is an accepted majority rule establishment, even if it is irreversible, is it not the case that a decision has met the majority’s satisfaction? In the first instance, yes, but in the latter, no. In the first example, the government has democratically established that some process continues despite its irreversible nature. It is also understood that even in fair processes, not everyone will agree. However, since we have established that legitimacy is the key to accepting outcomes, if actions or policies invoke non-reversible circumstances, they lose their legitimacy. An appeal to cease them is necessary to appeal to justice. Due to the nature of the permanent destruction possible from irreversible actions, immediate and direct action is justified to limit what is lost. Humphreys defines this as losses occurring between time t and t + 1.
The issue that arises with the argument of irreversibility justifying direct action is twofold. First, it begs the question of whether all irreversible actions are equal, and two, it opens up a “Pandora’s box” where any group opposing what they deem as non-reversible policy can now invoke the concept of irreversibility to counter it with direct action. To the first argument, Humphreys believes they are not all equivalent. His argument as it relates to environmental goods is as such. If it is the case that environmental goods represent an exogenous element that defines and provides meaning to humans and that its irreversible loss creates a situation in which its outcomes would deprive human lives of some source of meaning, then “authentic nature” represents “a non-substitutable good and [is] … different in kind from other goods…[it] constitutes a special category among goods that is irreversibly destroyed.” (Humphrey 324). The second issue of opening up Pandora’s box would fall back on the argument for the first issue in that not all irreversible actions are equal, and as such, not all demand direct action.
In this article, Humphreys seeks out when direct action is justified in a legitimate, democratic society. He has established that legitimacy is key to accepting policy outcome decisions and that the loss of this legitimacy could, in turn, justify direct action, specifically with regards to the irreversible policy as it relates to the environment. Even if we assume Humphreys’ appeal to justice can justify direct action, I would still disagree with his argument that not all irreversible actions are equal. If moral conventions govern one’s relationship with environmental entities, how can one individual’s moral principles supersede another? In this event, how do we stop the justification of direct action on the premises of irreversible action from turning into moral warfare with no regard for governing authorities or even those we disagree with? It is easy to place our moral convictions above those of others, but who would put someone else’s beliefs or even the concept of the greater good above their own, even if it may cause some irreversible damage?