Conscientious Protectors

As an increasing number of activists are prepared to risk arrest in order to defend the Earth against fossil fuel capitalism. What role might climate psychology play in their defence?

The Duress or Necessity Defence

Activists threatened with prosecution are making increasing use of the “Duress Defense” (by Circumstance) in the UK and the “Necessity Defense” in the U.S. Is there a role for mental health professionals to play?

The 'valve turners': Activists faced jail time to briefly stop the flow of ...

As fear mounts and the consequences of harmful actions against human life and nature from dangerous policies and actions becomes ever more apparent, outrage at expanding, unchecked threats that increase our peril can be expected to rise as well. In the effort to protect society, and seeing it as the lesser of two evils, a growing number of individuals will be willing to break the law – risking arrest and even incarceration. Like the Conscientious Objectors, from whom they get their name, these Conscientious Protectors, will be acting on deeply held principle: at this time of accelerating danger to the planet they have no choice: either they take action to protect life, or by their inaction they will be complicit in its destruction.

The Legal Case for the Defence

The legal profession is the first line of defense for Conscientious Protectors – offering an increasingly used option:
in the UK Conscientious Protectors may plead the “Duress by Circumstance” defense.
In the US Conscientious Protectors may plead the “Necessity Defense”.

The criteria needed to mount the defense revolve around key concepts: the danger is objective, the threat to bodily or other harm is serious, the response was proportional, and the act was one a reasonable person could be expected to take.

For details:

In the US the defense is grounded in both common law (based on precedent) and in many jurisdictions by statutory law (the policy is spelled out). No statutory Federal law exists.

Could supportive mental health professionals help Conscientious Protectors defend themselves?

The legal system will be more responsive to the defense when it is shown that an individual’s life “story” and personality profile reflect the values that led to the decision to break the law. This is where the experienced mental health professional has a role to play:
In the hands of a competent professional, a psychological profile can be drawn, showing that key characteristics are consistent with the individual’s history, thereby reinforcing the themes of the defense and key points the lawyers will want to make.

Examples of key characteristics of Conscientious Protectors include that they:

- can break free of “group think”
- move from silence or apathy to action
- view themselves as personally responsible
- recognize dangers to society and the natural world (even when authority suggests otherwise)
- have the foresight to see how conditions will evolve to cause harm down the road
- are motivated by ethical/moral reasons (as opposed to financial for example)
- have a high degree of empathy
- are distressed by social injustice
- are willing to sacrifice personal safety and freedom in favor of a higher cause
- manage the anxiety at seeing harm by taking action even if this may cause personal difficulties or sacrifice

An effectively drawn psychological profile is no small act of support to the conscientious protector. A conviction on even a minor offence can follow a person “around” in official matters; some individuals will be charged and convicted of felonies. A convincing psychological portrait can make the difference between freedom and a long term in prison. The following sections outline some of the sources for this defence.

Psycho-Social Considerations.

“The Bystander Effect”: In the aftermath of a violent murder in New York City (Kitty Genovese 1964) unfolding reportedly in front of scores of people who did nothing to stop it, studies were launched to answer a horrified populace unable understand how this could have happened. Social psychologists identified the “bystander effect” - driven by the diffusion of responsibility of a crowd, the anonymity, the feeling of not knowing what to do or the fear of not being effective, not recognizing the urgency - and the influence of the on the spot social norm – not taking action is normal – because that is what everyone else is doing. Often, due to this herd mentality, in contrast, when one person chooses to take action more will follow and successful interventions take place – and with the required urgency. 

“The Upstander “effect”: While the name “upstanders” was originally given to children who speak up when they see someone being bullied, it may be legitimate to broaden the term to include all those who speak up or take action when a form of “bullying” takes place - in this case when individuals speak up at seeing, unfolding in front of them, practices. and policies that are clearly harming society and the natural world.

Just as social forces lead to a bystander effect, those same forces, by promoting powerful social norms, can lead to an expanding “Upstander Effect”.

“Upstanders” have been particularly active in campaigns to block the delivery, permitting and building of infrastructure for the use of fossil fuel s- pipelines, compressors, plants). The magnitude of the harm from burning fossil fuels is not only an immediate threat, but building infrastructure all but guarantees using an economic rationale for their continued use for decades to come.) 

Psychological Considerations:

Much of this focuses on the benefit of taking action in the face of anxiety. Moods are the primary determinants of the content of our thoughts (“mood congruent cognition”) In the cognitive regulation of emotions: Coping Dispositions, Cognition and Emotion, Krohne et al: 2002, 16 (2), 217–243 show that good moods produce good thoughts and negative moods produce negative thoughts. Negative moods, they find, breed focus on the self, while positive moods do just the opposite – they promote focus on the outside world. Krohne has suggested that few of us are likely to “have the goal" of staying in a bad mood – so taking action that has us thinking about others - focusing on the outside world - is a way to achieve “mood repair”. That humans benefit greatly from redirecting stressful thoughts of personal discomfort towards actions that provide for the common good is now well documented in studies of brain function.

Taking psychologically restorative action, in the hands of a Conscientious Protector confronted by struggling with anxiety at scenes of present harm and future dangers, becomes a healthy coping mechanism, to deal with highly threatening conditions.

In his book “Yes – 50 Secrets of the Science of Persuasion” Robert Cialdini writes “For the most part, research has demonstrated that fear arousing communication usually stimulate recipients to take actions to reduce the threat.” (p.35)

We also know from experience: taking action to correct a troubling situation is a healthy coping mechanism for distress because it replaces the feeling of helplessness with a feeling of empowerment.

Individuals with the profile of a Conscientious Protector may find that the legitimate response, in this era of constant threats to the very survival of the natural world, is to take action that may require breaking the law in non-violent civil disobedience. 

Legal/Ethical Considerations:

The traditions, precedents, conditions and circumstances mentioned below encourage pro-social behavior– from stewardship of nature to ethical leadership generally. They should not be considered drivers of the decision to engage in civil disobedience as a Conscientious Protector but rather understood as consciousness raising backdrops.

English common law requires coming to the aid of a person in peril under prescribed conditions – when a family member, employee, guest on one’s property etc. is in harm’s way; In the U.S. when any person is in peril ten US states spell out that seeking aid or notification of the authorities is required (In France The Penal Code declares that failure to render assistance to a person in danger is a crime – potentially punishable by imprisonment. Photographers of the dying Diana were initially charged with criminal failure to render assistance).

Defence of Children and Young People:
Climate change is an existential threat to all of us, but the threat is particularly menacing for young people who will be at the center of the storm, literally, when conditions become more violent, the harm accumulates, and the inevitability of the destruction becomes more apparent.

Many young people know well that they are in harm’s way. Some say they will not have children - because of the exposure to anticipated climate chaos and especially because of the carbon costs of putting another person on the planet. Some have admitted, painfully, that they are hoping for a pandemic to wipe out the offending species – humans. I have been told of discussions about “rational suicide” – and indeed have commented publicly on one suicide that was reported as triggered by the climate crisis.

A near universal legal and moral obligation for many professionals having contact with children (see addendum below) is to report evidence or even suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Failure to do so violates both the law and professional ethics in the UK, in all 50 states and US territories, and most other jurisdictions around the world. In some areas failing to report actions towards any vulnerable person – including the elderly and disabled – is a punishable offense.

Of no small interest to mental health professionals should be the call to recognize all violence being done to children either by inaction or insufficient action on climate.

As defined by the World Health Organization and children’s advocacy groups, whether from direct acts of aggression or from neglect – (abandonment, living under conditions injurious to well-being) or, emotional and physical injury intentionally inflicted on children is considered child abuse. Given the current injuries, losses, displacements and deaths from extreme weather events as well as the dark scenarios of the future that are scaring and scarring children today, in the context of accelerating degradation and peril, whether we acknowledge it today or not, our progeny will recognize it for what it is: child abuse. In the case of inaction on governments’ part, it will be experienced as state sponsored.

Professional ethics:
In their code of ethics professional health organizations and communities declare that members must take responsibility to care for the health of the public and betterment of society.

These legal and ethical underpinnings should be considered as mental health professionals assess the actions they may be disposed to take personally as well as with the evaluations they may make of the necessity and duress defenses of Conscientious Protectors.

Faith Based Considerations:

Every major religion has a statement calling for stewardship of the earth. Many specifically making a call for action on climate change.
In the Jewish tradition: Tikkun olam” is our collective duty to “repair the earth” through social action and the pursuit of social justice.
Among Catholics, Pope Francis not only wrote his encyclical “Laudato Si” spelling out our duty to care for each other and the whole of the natural world, but he specifically said climate change is a “sin”.
An international symposium of faith leaders, academics and policy makers has gathered to discuss a unified call to action on climate to the world’s 1.7 B Muslims.
Patriarch Bartholomew; was one of the first to specifically call on followers to take action on climate. He has declared: “The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility…”

An error in translation? Hebrew scholars tell us that while translations of Biblical text state human “dominion" over animals – the correct meaning is quite a bit more “evolved” humans, in the corrected translation, have instead a grave responsibility to protect animals.

Mental Health Considerations

Building Resilience:
Becoming a volunteer: Studies show that the overall health, physical and mental, of retirees who take action specifically on the environment is improved: “Environmental volunteering linked to improved mental and physical health in retirees”

Bringing scary topics out in the open: Age appropriate discussions and the actions taken in response to threats helps children build their own psychological scaffolding – as they model themselves after those around them in the effort to cope and adapt. Whether a nuclear holocaust or a climate one – the findings will likely be similar because the elements and dynamics are more alike than different.

In studies looking at the impacts of nuclear war on children, it was determined that parents who talked about their fears gave kids an opportunity to talk about theirs.

“…While there is nothing to suggest any correlation between the ways parents approach the nuclear issue and the incidence of clinical symptoms in their children, it may be that in families which fail to face the issue children experience a more subtle kind of distress. In almost all the families interviewed so far, children seem to be protecting their parents from their own vulnerability and anguish by not mentioning their fears…When families face the nuclear issue together they can begin to find constructive ways of coping with their concerns. The large majority of children we interviewed responded positively to these opportunities for open discussion; they said they felt better knowing what others thought.” (Family Therapy Networker, 1982)

Solastalgia is a term coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe a form of psychological injury arising from human-caused damage or loss to the treasured places an individual calls home. The pain of these loses is more intense when a feeling of powerless to stop or change the process is experienced. Fighting off the mountain top removal that left vast tracts of once verdant land a grey moonscape, activists will remember the tears and frustrations of Larry Gibson, the hero of the West Virginian hollows who for 30 years hung onto his land through shootings, robberies, threats and offers of money from the mining companies that coveted his land. Living in a tiny house staring out from the lushness of his place into the ruins he would ask “Ain’t somebody going to listen out there”?

Additional examples of solastalgia in the Appalachian Mountains of West VA can be found here. communities affected by mountain-top removal coal mining practices can be found here. A google search easily turns up information on growing number of communities destroyed by wildfires.

Solastalgia was included as a condition affecting our mental health: The Lancet: “Climate Change on Human Health and Wellbeing” 2015 edition)

Biological transgenerational toll:
As we consider the biological underpinnings of the human need to take action against deteriorating environmental conditions, not only must we consider the deleterious immediate impacts of stress, but we must consider the long term impacts – which new research shows can also be genetic: Carried by an “on/off” switch – Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance” is the activation of a human gene for stress in the face of trauma that can be passed onto succeeding generations – compounding the overall emotional toll.

Undertaking psychological evaluations of Conscientious Protectors

Here are some tips for those from mental health professions who get involved in contributing to the defence of Conscientious Protectors.
Authenticity: The facts of the current issue evoke themes or experiences in an activists’s personal history.

Among the standard questions that unpack a psychological history, especially revealing are those that “get at” unconscious drivers of action and show the consistency of attention to the relevant issues in the facts of the case or incident. The more these factors can be shown in a convincing light – the more likely the legal system will find that the defense is credible.

What are
- your earliest memories? Feelings associated with them?
- key events in your life?
- dreams, fears, fantasies?
- how do you control or cope with anxiety?
- how would you describe your friends?
- your Interests, professional activities, academic background and skills?
The profiler will evaluate the answers to these questions alongside key characterological traits of a conscientious protector that suggest concern for others, sensitivity to danger, distress at social injustice etc.

An Example:
I don’t remember the circumstances precisely – but our first conversation was over the phone. Michael and I talked about tree planting to offset carbon emissions. He also talked about kids – and how he was involving them in the project. While the effort deserved praise – due to the demands of other projects I did not pursue additional conversations with Michael.

Several years later I got another call from him – after some reflection I remembered who he was. I called back – and left a voice mail. Many weeks later he responded.

Michael gave he a brief run-down of the case and the necessity defense he would be pleading, He had been charged with 2 felonies and 1 misdemeanor. In a coordinated effort, four other “valve turners” in 2 other states also temporarily shut down the Trans Canada flow of crude oil to the US.

After talking to his lawyer, it became evident that Michaels authentic defense would be a psychological evaluation showing that his life history was consistent with feeling action in this time of danger was a “necessity.”

I agreed to do the evaluation.

Outcome: Though the other valve turners successfully mounted the necessity defense and were sentenced to community service (confirm) – they were from other states – the judge presiding over Michael’s case refused to allow the plea to be entered.

Michael was found guilty and sentenced to a year in federal prison.

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