Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thoughts on Civil Disobedience

I have just finished reading "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau for probably the tenth time.  I usually try to read it once every 6 months or so, for inspiration.  I would like to share a quote from it that comes from the closing paragraph:

I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellowmen.  A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.

This paragraph strikes me as one that all permies will probably agree with.  We all hope to live in a State that is "just to all men" and women.  We look to treat each other (and nature!) with respect as a neighbor, and in many ways we do seek to be "aloof" from the system, or rather, the systems of dependence that most American's are umbilically linked to, such as the food system, energy system, etc.  Does the government stand in the way of people producing their own food? Or creating their own energy?  Is the government comfortable with people being able to take care of themselves, or does it crave dependence of the citizenry as a justification for its existence?  Some would say yes, and others would say no.  Thoreau would say it doesn't matter, that whether or not the government is standing in your way it is your personal duty to pursue that which you think is right, whether it be energy independence, food independence, or anything else... even at the risk of being imprisoned or persecuted!

"Civil Disobedience" was written 160 years ago, but it still makes poignant points about how people should live their lives today.  Putting conscientiousness ahead of personal wants or the demands of government strikes me as a very "permie-esque" way to think about things.  Right livelihood, appropriate technology, fair share; all of these paradigms are built around ideas that I believe Thoreau would've wholeheartedly embraced.  I also think that civil disobedience does not always have to involve breaking the law.  Simply refusing to participate in activities you deem as unjust is a form of civil disobedience, especially if refusing to do so is considered "outside the norm."  Some see designing your life to be in harmony with nature, designing your home to produce for you and others, growing your own food, refusing to eat GM foods, refusing to be a "typical" consumer, storing food, learning primitive survival skills, seeking personal energy independence, producing as much as I can for myself so that I can be taxed less by not having to buy so much, bartering, and many of the other things I am doing or learning in pursuit of my homestead, as odd or outside the norm (or even illegal).  But to me, pursuing this type of life is simply living the way I think I'm meant to live, and I suppose in some cases they could be considered civil (or social) disobedience.  I like to think that Thoreau would approve.

When discussing permaculture, homesteading, or self-sufficiency, if Thoreau comes up I know most people would probably assume Walden would be the book that's being talked about.  But I think "Civil Disobedience" carries a lot of important ideas that can be carried into permaculture and homesteading.  Do you agree that permaculture can be considered civil or social disobedience?  In what ways do you think you civilly disobey?

Thanks for reading!


  1. I just remembered I have a bookmark to an awesome resource on H.D. Thoreau, if anyone is interested in reading some of his work. Check it out at

  2. I read 'walden' years ago, but haven't yet got around to 'civil disobedience' yet. I'll try to check it out sometime-- you make it sound pretty worthwhile.

    "Do you agree that permaculture can be considered civil or social disobedience?"

    Social-- absolutely. You don't have to be a guerilla gardener to be a deviant permie-type. The very ideas of self sufficiency and sustainability run counter to the current of Western society. Subscribing to the beliefs we have is 'disobedient' in a way, even though what we do positively affects society in virtually every way. I'd say gardening in general isn't necessarily subversive, but permaculture methods represent a divergence from popular gardening culture, as you know. So, yeah, permaculture is social disobedience. By opting-out of the dollar economy, we're basically throwing that social contract in with the compost-- in contemporary society anyway.

    Is it civil disobedience? I think things get muddied up here. You talk a lot about 'the government'-- but I think you need to go deeper. Here in Canada, the federal government does a great job at things like managing wilderness and natnl parks, and they don't really dictate what i can and can't do with the property I live on (with the notable exception of restricting one crop i'd really like to grow :))

    At the county and municipal level, yeah, you have to be a little disobedient to get things done. We have chickens on our city lot-- until recently that was against a city bylaw. neighbourhood associations-- another form of government?-- repeatedly tell us we can't grow in the front yard. We just say 'fuck you, have some of our pears' and don't worry about it much, but it's definitely civilly disobedient.

    A lot of times these acts of civil disobedience are necessary to bring about change. All it takes is one publicized event to change public perception, and then the policy makers usually listen-- esp if it's an election year :)

    without having read the book, can i take a guess at his main point? that constant civil disobedience is necessary to maintain a government that responds to the will of its citizens.. ?
    I certainly believe this is so.

  3. I intentionally stay a bit vague when I refer to "the government." Mostly because I have readers like you who live in Canada and elsewhere, but also because (as you very effectively pointed out) local governments have more of an impact on what kind of permaculture, urban homesteading, etc., that one is able to practice where they are. So I posed it as a question, hopefully to spark thought about where an individual lives and how they are governed.

    As far as neighborhood associations, or in the US the dreaded Homeowner's Associations (which is essentially the same, but they are usually staffed by the most self-righteous and non-tolerant of anyone's neighbors instead of people who are interested in community... cue scary music) are certainly forms of government. Any body of people attempting to govern the way that an individual lives in and uses their space, money, time, etc., is a form of government in my book. And despite attention being paid overmuch to national politics, local governments are the ones which have the most impact on our day to day lives. I doubt the US FDA will ever really know or care whether or not I have chickens in my backyard (and if they did care I doubt they'd really be able to do anything about it), but the Calibri Neighborhood Association certainly does.

    Finally, good for you for telling them to go screw and have some pears. Hopefully your delicious fruits will plant the seeds of sustainability into your neighborhood association. (Sorry, I like to get cheesy once in a while.)

  4. Also Mark, I encourage you to read "Civil Disobedience" as soon as you have the time. It is an essay that comes in just under 9500 words, so it shouldn't take too long, even if you read it slowly and deliberately (which you should, it's pretty dense). You can find it at this link:

  5. thanks kyle, i'll read it this week.

    i know all too well the horrors of the HOA fascists. i just moved out of a townhouse complex where we were cited for every rule in the book, and many many more that weren't in any book. i swear i'll never live under that regime again!

    cheers. have a good monday!