Saving the Earth as a Legal Defence

guardian.co.uk reports on the trial of six Greenpeace activists who were charged with damaging a coal-fired power station.  The activists argued in court that their actions in damaging the facility (very minor damage – they graffitied the smokestack) were justified as an attempt to prevent the greater damage the power station would cause through its contribution to global warming. A series of experts testified to the damage that was already being caused by human-created climate change.

The jury cleared the Greenpeace activists of all charges.  Even allowing the defence in court seems to me to set something of a precedent, and certainly their acquittal will hearten activists and empower defence attorneys around the world, and hopefully help other juries to reach the same decision.

It’s fortunate that the damage was so trivial.  That no doubt helped the jury acquit.  But clearly more serious actions – disabling facilities for sustained periods, or even destroying them – could be justified by precisely the same defence.

Earth First and other environmental direct action groups have often tried to argue defences of justification in the past, but clearly the compelling evidence of direct harm to humans has made such defences much easier to mount than the more nebulous claims of sacredness, importance of the biosphere and so on.

I don’t know enough about the court system in the UK or EU to know if this verdict has any implications beyond setting an example and boosting morale, but it is certainly a welcome step in changing the balance of power between corporations engaged in Gotterdammerung capitalism and people trying to change things.

(For an interesting discussion of direct action, the environment and Gotterdammerung capitalism, and also a terrific read, check out Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, Antarctica)

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