The Right Side of the Law

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels? — Henry David Thoreau, from Civil Disobedience.

“IT’S ABOUT A BROKEN HEART,” the young man says. “You go to the forest, and you see trees that have been growing for two hundred years cut to stumps. You look at this, and you say, this just has to stop.”

He’s walking fast, talking to me on his cellphone from a distant place. I can hear him trying to catch his breath. “The only thing you can do is put your body between the trees you love and the machines that destroy them. You put it all on the line — your body, your livelihood, your reputation. Maybe your life.”

He’s not in the images on these pages, but I would not be surprised if he were. The forest he loved was a spirit-lifting place of slanting light and slippery trails, all smelling of sweet bracken fern and pine. The last time I was there, I waded through wildflowers between rough trunks so tall they disappeared into fog. It was a sobering thing when much of that forest burned, but more terrible still when chainsaws felled the trees that the fire had left standing, the living and the dead. When bulldozers shoved the charred spars into burn piles, they took away even the nourishment that might let a forest flourish in that place again. When loggers cut the living trees, they took away the hotspots of life that would spread back over the burnt land. What is a person supposed to do when machines move in to reduce ancient trees to profit, ash, and dust?

Years ago, that same young man was part of my environmental ethics course. Together, we debated the moral justification for civil disobedience and direct action. We read and reread St. Augustine — “an unjust law is no law at all” — and struggled to understand our obligations. But the world is complicated. It’s hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong, and too great a moral certainty can be its own kind of injustice. Cedars, huckleberries, birdsong — entire forests fell as we reframed the questions, reducing us to a silence close to despair. Only now am I beginning to understand the moral power of that sorrow.

Maybe civil disobedience isn’t about justice and obligation. Maybe it’s about love. Maybe we’re called to act in defense of the green, growing world not from an obligation to disobey laws that are destructive, but from love for what is being destroyed.

Love isn’t only a state of being; it’s a way of acting in the world. Love can bring people to their knees, bewildered and grieving. And sometimes it can bring people to a line drawn across a narrow mountain road, quietly, sorrowfully, to say, this is not the way. That road ends here.

Kathleen Dean Moore is an Oregon author and activist. Her newest work is a music/spoken-word performance with pianist Rachelle McCabe about the moral urgency of the global extinction crisis.