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Civil disobedience, moral obligation, and the fossil fuel industry

[Ed. note—Todd Davidson, Scott Yoos and four others are currently scheduled to go trial on February 22, 23 and 24. Todd is facing a criminal trespass charge, and Scott and a few others were charged with resisting arrest.]

I was arrested on the BNSF railroad tracks on May 15, 2016 along with 51 other human beings who had decided that it was morally necessary, an obligation of duty to the world. It was the Anacortes Pacific Northwest Break Free From Fossil Fuels weekend, which was part of the 2016 Global Break Free From Fossil Fuels Direct Action Event—one of the  largest environmental mass protests to date. Over 40 different affinity groups participated in some aspect. It is long past the time of niceties of well–behaved speech and action if our world is going to avoid the acceleration of the already observed catastrophic climate change that threatens every living ecological support system on this planet.

We have seen the majority consensus scientific evidence for human-caused climate change, and we have seen the non-stop denial of the fossil fuel industries and their willful destructive attempts to subvert the alternatives while forcing ever more destructive extraction processes on the people and the planet. Many of us see that we need a society that recognizes that the interconnected biosphere and the regional bioregions are holistically evolved systems that support human life, liberty, and our pursuit of happiness. That degrading and destroying these biologic support systems is the major threat to human survival right now. That this threat is the consequence of the fossil fuel-military industrial complex as it exists, as it has taken over the legal, regulatory and political spheres of influence, and as it insists on proceeding and expanding in defiance of the scientific and real everyday evidence we can all see unfolding. And now with the Trump administration the denials and the danger are accelerated.

I have not billions of dollars, I have not a law firm and lobbyists and elected lap dogs at my beck and call, I cannot harass or scare or bribe nor blackmail representatives to do the right thing by offering or withholding money, I do not sit on the boards of influence and power on Wall Street, I cannot throw around majority ownership threats to get fossil fuel companies to do anything, I do not own or control own major media outlets, I do not own any banks, nor have majority stockholding privileges in any large influential corporations. My Senator and Congresspeople don’t respond to my petitions except with curt letters about what they are doing that is so great. What I do have is this one body, one voice, one conviction, that continuation on the present course of fossil fuels driving the economy and political process presents a real definable provable factual threat to the well-being of every person now living on planet earth and all future human beings. And where I can I will take my body and use it to stop the gears, mechanisms and systems of destruction.

My case for taking action and doing civil disobedience comes from basic simple moral ethical considerations starting with my thoughts on some well-known academic treatises often presented in college courses related to philosophy and ethics. First I want to visit Peter Singers, “World Hunger and Moral Obligation”.

To approximate Singer’s ideation from world hunger to Climate Change:

1st Premise:

If we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable significance we ought to do it.

2nd Premise:

The overwhelming evidence demonstrates that the future with continuation of fossil fuels use, industrial agriculture and the military-industrial complex growing and expanding as planned based on a fossil fuel economics is going to be extremely bad in myriad forms.

3rd Premise:

The sacrifices necessary to stop and reverse climate change are minor, almost insignificant compared to the possible future catastrophes if we continue and stay the course we are now on. My stopping an oil train, blocking an oil tanker or drill rig in a kayak, turning off a pipeline, blocking construction, stopping traffic, causing some economic distress is a minor sacrifice—as well as my own possible arrest and conviction for some perceived harm. In addition it is clearly demonstrated by economists that deconstructing the fossil fuel industry and building the alternatives, the needed sacrifice, is economically viable, on the order of less than 5% of annual Gross Domestic Product, but is in fact being blocked and filibustered in every way— political, economic and militarily—by our leadership..

4th Premise:

If one accepts the first three premises, which I do, then, we ought to do something to stop and reverse human-caused climate change.

I note sadly that our political economic society has not accepted basic reason and moral logic and instead is following the course as dictated by pure immoral individualistic monetary power and politics. This makes it impossible for the citizens and democratic processes to prevail with truth and evidence and reason, even with overwhelming evidence and majorities on our side. Also studies show that the desires of the majority to do something is outweighed in the current political climate by the wants of those who control the wealth of the nation, pre-empting and ending all real meaningful discourse.

Our society has become so sickly twisted by huge individualist wealth-hoarding and centralization of power in the fossil fuel industries that our leadership will not or cannot consider stopping harmful outmoded politics, economics, and industrial practices even where they require an insignificant sacrifice in order to ensure against a potentially much larger harm in the future. It is difficult to comprehend this failing considering that in the case of stopping climate change the actual benefits of massively reducing the fossil fuel sector of the economy and building its alternative replacement will begin almost immediately and accelerate rapidly, creating a future that benefits all of humanity in terms of quality of life and life itself. Massive benefits in exchange for the mere sacrifice of one sector of the economy and inconveniencing some few individuals who profit greatly from what is now in place– individuals who most likely will still profit and remain relatively well off in the new alternative green energy future.

We are so controlled by huge individualistic privately-concentrated wealth that it is unthinkable for these titans of historical wealth to even think of sacrificing anything for the good of anyone. And that is why we the people have necessity to go forth and do more than write and petition and stand around with signs and rally voters, we must actually take real world action and bring the gears of the machine to a stop, to bring the gears of the media and political process to shift and take notice.

Most of us humans who make up the 99% majority will actually sacrifice something of great worth to prevent great harm to someone or something we care about. And here we are talking about shifting the economy—nothing more consequential than other historical events such as the end of slavery, a good thing; the sacrifices required to win World Wars 1 and 2; or the loss of US manufacturing due to Capitalist free trade schemes over the last decades, a bad thing.

Now I want to visit the psychological ethical problem introduced by British Philosopher Philippa Root Foot, The Trolley Problem.

You are standing next to a trolley line, basically a railroad, at a track switch, and a Trolley is coming along. On the track are tied five people and there is no hope of your doing anything at all except throwing that switch and diverting the train onto the other track, but on that track stands one person who will surely be killed if you flip that switch.

You could do nothing, not your problem. Or you could flip the switch and save five people but end up killing the one person who had nothing to do with the whole thing at all. What do you do?

I believe 90% would choose to flip the switch and save the five.

Now instead, you are on a bridge and a vacant runaway trolley is coming and a large person stands in front of you and you see that there is a bus on the tracks with 20 people in it, and you are certain because you’re a physicist that if you just flip the large person off the rail they will fall on the track and be killed and the trolley will be derailed saving the 20 people in the bus.

You could do nothing, not your problem. Or you could push the large person off killing the poor person who had nothing to do with the situation but save 20 people. What do you do?

And I believe that because our society is ruled by individualistic and selfish economics and capitalistic academics another option is never considered: you yourself grab a heavy object sitting there and jump in front of the trolley, derailing it and killing yourself, making the supreme sacrifice in order to save 20 people!

The choice, physically pushing someone, creates a lot of doubt and uncertainty as the pusher is directly responsible for the death of the person pushed, whereas the switcher is disconnected from the death of the person down the track.

The moral question from Singer arises here: Should something of lesser value, one life, be sacrificed to save five lives which we would consider a greater value? And the civil disobedience aspect arises: would I myself sacrifice something of value to myself, my freedom, my well-being, my very life to stop something very bad from happening.

Now I return to the fossil fuel problem and climate change. Now you are standing at the threshold of a gigantic chasm called the certainty of a very bad very destructive train wreck, the climate change train wreck, and on the track is planet earth and everyone who lives on it, on the other track to the right sits the fossil fuel industry and all its related follies, Industrial petro-chemical agriculture and the fossil fuel military industrial complex. Coming down that track full speed ahead is The Denial Express and 100 cars loaded with pure gold plated political status quo bull shit. So what do we do?

Do nothing, as it is not our problem.

Or flip that switch and kill the fossil fuel industry, and as a bonus demolish the status quo paradigm which in this case is not even a difficult moral question as I will show.

You are on that bridge over the rail line and a large man stands in front of you at the rail and you see there is a trolley coming fast, there are five hostages tied to the track, named democracy, economics, environment, human health, and peace, and the large man turns to you and says, “hey, you, look at me, I tied those five to the track, and after this trolley runs over them I can collect big time! Pretty Smart eh?”

And now you see if you just poke him in the chest he will fall backwards off the bridge and derail the trolley saving the five hostages.

What do you do? What do we do? What ought we to do?

Happily for all, ending the fossil fuel industry, pushing it off the edge as it were, or scaling it back 95% to appropriate uses could entail not harming anyone if it is done as a socialistic communitarian process, that is, rather than the way capitalism likes change where the entire sector is wrecked, bankrupted and millions thrown out of work and massive dislocation and poverty as when any number of industries were dismantled and moved overseas in the past, where for the high priests of economics destroying communities and throwing millions out of work for “free trade” and profit was justifiable desirable sacrifice.

We have a moral obligation to do the right thing, as there is no real significant sacrifice and no real moral conundrum in saving the world from climate change and killing off the fossil fuel industry. Plain and simple.

But alas, our leaders and the financialized world of capital control does not do anything but prevaricate and procrastinate and make vague plans about voluntary commitments to be met in the indeterminate future that any economist or realist knows is absurd as we cannot predict or know the future, we can only know what is here now and act accordingly now.

So what have we done, legally, nicely, without disturbing anyone, and for 30 years and more

Written letters to our elected officials; written letters to the fossil fuel industries; petitioned elected and regulatory agencies with massive signature support campaigns; gained the support of all the well-known environmental advocacy groups; formed countless local organizations to raise awareness; written endless letters to the editor; started initiatives; signed Initiatives; gone to rallies and protest marches; gone to hearings and testified; written comments to regulatory agencies opposing fossil fuel projects; educated the people and politicians on the issues; changed our own consumption habits; boycotted products we find offensive; tried to consume non-fossil-fuel-intensive products.

All the while the scientific consensus and the evidence against the fossil fuel industry has been mounting into an accelerating juggernaut pointing out clearly that something substantial should have been started long ago, and in fact one of the major fossil fuel corporations, ExxonMobil, has now been outed as knowing about this from its own closeted studies in the 1970s that, yes indeed, the fossil fuel-based economy will cause massive catastrophic climate change.

So I put it to the test. What ought we to do? What ought I do? For me, since the capitalist society is not taking action in a timely manner and is in effect creating a huge moral hazard, for me it is necessary to join others who are willing to sacrifice much, actually little in the larger picture, but willing to sacrifice freedom, to risk our bodies, and our fortunes, to enter into breach of the law and attempt to stop the hazard, to take actions to awaken people, to bring attention to the crises and to influence and shape public opinion and affect the actions of the political leadership. The sacrifice is worth it, nonviolent civil disobedience actions which harm no one except for interfering with the operations of the fossil fuel industry are absolutely necessary until such time as our political leadership and the economic system takes decisive action to wind down the fossil fuel industry with good plans to transition to the alternatives in a fair, measured and socially just manner but with no concessions to the continuation of the current fossil fuel industries.

For more and more of us the answer is clear: we must take action with our own bodies in solidarity with others and lay down on the tracks, block the ships, the trains the pipelines, the refineries, the coal mines, stop the drilling and the fracking and the production and movement of fossil fuels.

It is what we ought to do, what we must do; it is an absolutely necessary moral imperative.

Todd Davison has lived in Olympia since 1994 and is graduated from Evergreen in ‘96.  An armchair radical political economist (until recently), he is active in the Olympia Confronting the Climate Crises group and an outdoor enthusiast — biking, hiking, backpacking all over Cascadia with his Siberian Husky as much as possible.



  1. Donald T. Coughlin February 11, 2017

    Bourtai Hargrove
    Bernie Meyers
    Rod & Susan
    Joel Carlson
    Mary Spokane
    & many, many other dedicated souls to the cause…
    Thank you.
    Persist to Resist!

  2. Patricia A. Holm February 11, 2017

    Thank you Todd. What a wonderful article you have written. It clearly shows how much we have done, are doing and must do to save our civilization, which of course includes our children and grandchildren.

  3. Sky Myers February 11, 2017

    Todd, thank you for this article and for the work you do on behalf of all of us. You will likely find me at your side.

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