The Violence of Climate Change

Lessons of Resistance from Nonviolent Activists

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Kevin J. O'Brien
  • Washington, DC: 
    Georgetown University Press
    , June
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Violence Of Climate Change: Lessons Of Resistance From Nonviolent Activists, Kevin O’Brien argues that the tradition of Christian nonviolence offers fruitful models for resisting climate injustice. O’Brien offers as exemplars “five nonviolent activists from the history of Christianity in the United States: John Woolman, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez” (9). O’Brien gleans from each a distinct lesson for climate change activism. The book is a creative, timely, and helpful contribution to the canon of Christian environmentalist literature.

O’Brien argues that climate change is a form of structural violence. His interpretation of the problem is refreshingly realistic in two senses. When describing climate change as a wicked problem—a common practice now—he is particularly keen to stress that it is not open to complete solution. His frankness is bracing. Second, whereas many writers take pains to say climate change is unprecedented, O’Brien emphasizes its continuity with other, more familiar forms of structural violence. This continuity allows a turn to a tradition of activism that predates climate change as an area of concern. He writes, “Concerned people know that we face new challenges, but in order to face them well, we need reminders that we have resources from the past with which to do so” (35). These two forms of realism are connected: by emphasizing that climate change is not completely revolutionary as a problem, he also tempers enthusiasm for complete, revolutionary answers.

While we should welcome this turn to the depth of religious activist traditions instead of placing hope only in novel moral innovations, O’Brien is surprisingly measured in his advocacy of his approach. He writes, “I am not trying to prove here that nonviolence is always the best way to resist violence, only that it is sometimes a viable form of resistance and has something important to teach privileged people who seek climate justice” (45). He regularly stops short of claiming that climate change demands or requires nonviolence as a response.

O’Brien acknowledges that his readers “have not been tempted to use violence to stop climate change” (45). But, if climate change activism is already being done “without the use of violence” and it is also not an absolute moral requirement, why should climate activists study nonviolence? O’Brien argues that nonviolence is a viable resource for resisting climate change on the basis that the latter is a form of violence and that nonviolence is a method for resisting violence. He gives a two-part definition of nonviolence: “1. a commitment to actively oppose violence 2. without the use of violence” (3). Since the second part (avoiding using violence) is, as he says, not a problem in this case, O’Brien turns to nonviolence for the resources it offers for the first part (resisting violence). The turn to nonviolence therefore depends on climate change being a form of violence. However, the book’s definition of violence is so broad (“an act undertaken by a human being who behaves as if they were alone and therefore causes harm to another creature” [31]) that any injustice seems to fit the description. Thus, since nonviolence is appropriate here only because climate change is described as a sort of violence and all injustices would also be violent by this definition, then we may wonder why climate change calls for nonviolent resistance any more than any other form of injustice. Why this movement needs this tradition in particular is not always clear in the book. This lack of specificity seems to stem more from O’Brien’s reticence to say climate change activism must turn to Christian nonviolence than from any conceptual confusions.

However, as soon as readers get to the chapters on the exemplars, they will begin to think that O’Brien has been too modest. Each begins with a concise and engaging biography and ends with a provocative and challenging lesson for climate change activism. The transitions from biography to application are so natural and seemingly obvious, you sense immediately that O’Brien is onto a deeper connection than just having discovered one “viable” resource among many. The ways Woolman confronts problems of privilege and complicity, Addams wrestles pragmatically with interlocking levels of injustice, Day relies on faith in the face of overwhelming challenges, King draws realistic hope from community, and Chavez sacrifices himself for his cause—all speak organically and directly to anyone engaged in the struggle for climate justice. There does seem to be something specific to nonviolence—perhaps the way that its self-imposed constraints demand creativity and introspection in translating conviction into action—that makes it a particularly apt resource for this particular struggle.

It is obvious that the book comes out of an astute intuition: confronting climate change requires us to face the full weight of the tragedy, alienation, and sin that marks the human condition. O’Brien grasps the need to turn to a tradition that has borne that weight without being bent or broken by it. While he is right that there are other traditions that may fit this description, there is something about religious nonviolence that makes it a particularly insightful and profound choice. I wish he had been a bit less hesitant to say so and to explore why.

Nevertheless, the book is an excellent resource for scholars and particularly for climate activists facing the discouragement common in their work. Graduate and upper-level undergraduate students and laypeople can all profit from reading this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Barr is a doctoral candidate in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kevin J. O'Brien is dean of humanities and associate professor of Christian ethics at Pacific Lutheran University. He is the author of The Ethics of Biodiversity (GUP), coeditor of Grounding Religion, and coauthor of An Introduction to Christian Environmentalism. He holds a PhD from Emory University.


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