Should environmental activists support sabotage and destruction against major polluting companies?

ByJoris Graff

Should environmental activists support sabotage and destruction against major polluting companies?

This house believes that environmental activist organizations should start a campaign of sabotage and destruction against major polluting companies

Round 3 – Utrecht Online Open 2021

This motion was set in round three of Utrecht Online Open 2021 and was the most interesting debate I was allowed to judge this tournament. If a motion concerns the climate problem, then I am already interested. As far as I am concerned, the motion is also interesting because it offers the possibility for principled arguments (do environmentalists have a right, or even an obligation, to self-defense, even when it takes on violent forms?) and for the analysis of a large number of stakeholders (environmentalists themselves, large companies, the general public, the government). It is necessary for teams to go into detail about the motives of these different stakeholders and the way in which these motives are influenced by the motion. Below, I will briefly discuss some arguments for the proposition and opposition and the way in which these can be weighed against each other. Since in my debate hardly any attention was paid to principled arguments, I will omit them, which does not mean that these arguments cannot be effective.

One reason why I think that this motion is interesting is that perhaps the most intuitive argument for the proposition is also one of the least effective in my view. This argument is that large companies have a profit motive and when they have to spend more costs on security and repair for polluting activities, they are more likely to switch to sustainable production models. However, it is difficult to prove that these costs will be so high that they outweigh profound transformations in business operations. How realistic is it that radical environmentalists, who are likely to have relatively few resources, can deal such a significant blow to multinationals?

A more promising route for proponents is to focus on the implications of the thesis for political and public perceptions of environmentalism and issues. The team that was the second proposition in my debate did so most effectively on the basis of the (to me unknown) “radical flank theory”. This theory states that when a flank of an activist movement radicalizes, it has positive effects for the moderate majority of the movement. First, it makes it possible for moderate activists to present themselves as a reasonable alternative. Environmentalists are often seen as radical anyway, regardless of their actions. When they can point to a more radical flank, it helps improve their own image. Second, it leads to moderate activists becoming a more attractive collaborative partner for authorities. The government, naturally, wants to combat violence as much as possible and one of the ways to do this is to seek more cooperation with the moderate flank of the movement, thus removing the discontent that feeds radicalism and allowing the moderate movement to outstrip the radical activists. This makes it easier to obtain concessions from the government regarding ecological regulations.

The opposition, of course, tries to set up the opposite frame in which the perception of some of the environmentalists being seen as radical spills over to the entire movement, including the more moderate parts of it. When this is the case, negative consequences will, of course, follow. For example, the Opening Opposition in my debate tried to prove that this perception makes the government less inclined to cooperate with environmental movements, because they do not want to be open to the criticism of collaborating with radicals. The Closing Opposition tried to prove that individuals are less likely to make their consumption habits more ecologically sound, because they do not want to be associated with a movement that is seen as radical.

The crux of the clash over the social and political impacts of this motion thus boils down to how the general public will understand these actions and how this spills over to moderate activists. It is difficult for teams to win this clash because “the general public” is quite a diverse actor and different members are likely to react in different ways. That’s why nuance is important. Which parts of the public are most likely to be more positive or negative towards the environmental movement? Why are these parts of the public most important to ecological decision-making? Eventually, the Closing Government won the debate that I was judging because they provided two points of nuance that we felt were missing from the opposition (and the Opening Government): a) the way in which a group behaves has more influence on the majority of people’s perception of that group rather than the views of the group, meaning that moderate activists are likely to be judged more positively on their behavior than they are judged negatively on their ideological association with radicals and b) that people who tend to relate these actions to the entire environmental movement are in any case already likely to not think much of environmental activists and therefore the behavior of this group (and thus their influence on the government) probably changes little. The decision to let the Closing Government win, however, was not unanimous, indicating how much of a complicated discussion was required to win this central clash.

This motion is a good example of why it is important for teams to look beyond the obvious arguments (“Companies want to make money!” and “People don’t like violence!”) and delve deeper into the question of how motives of different (sub)groups play through in their behavior. As often happens in debates, this motion is not won by introducing the most intuitive points but by best linking the points to a convincing analysis of the psychology of the different stakeholders. This motion has strengthened my belief that much of debating is actually applied psychology.

Joris Graff
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Joris is a debater from the Utrecht Debating Society and the Groninger Debating Society Kalliope.

About the author

Joris Graff administrator

Joris is a debater from the Utrecht Debating Society and the Groninger Debating Society Kalliope.