Did Civil Disobedience Change the World?

This is a story I tell a lot. It's about how the world is changed, told via one book and it's journey through major historical events. The ideas come from a few places, but mostly from the 2007 book "Blessed Unrest", by Paul Hawken, which incidentally, was given to me by my closest friend and wife Claire.

- Ian McBurney

In 1836, following a trip to a natural history museum in Paris, Ralph Waldo Emerson published "Nature" his seminal essay that argued that everything in nature is
connected. One of his students was Henry David Thoreau, who took Emerson's idea and applied it equally to human society.  In 1848 Thoreau published an essay called "Resistance to Civil Government". The driving idea behind the essay is that "citizens are morally responsible for their support of aggressors, even when that support is required by law".  Martin Luther King Jr later described the concept as follows: "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."  Thoreau took this idea very seriously. He was jailed for refusing to pay his Poll tax, because it was being used to pay for the Mexican war, which he viewed as immoral. According to Thoreau, everything is connected and everything we do matters.

But the book's contents are somewhat of a side story here. After Thoreau died someone at a publishing house changed the title to "Civil Disobedience" and it's ideas immediately entered popular culture. We do not know the name of that person. The word 'disobedience' had not even appeared in the original text. But their simple act helped to change the world.

Fast forward 50 years and a young Indian lawyer in South Africa was part of a movement that was beginning to resist the racist authority. They had voted to burn their identity cards and risk jail, rather than obeying the law.  Someone (we do not know their name) at the Indian Times newspaper gave him a copy of Civil Disobedience, which helped solidify and explain his own passive resistance ideas. That young man was Mahatma Gandhi.

Fast forward to 1956 and another young man had just had his house bombed and had stationed armed guards outside. A friend arrived with a copy of Civil Disobedience and Mahatma Gandhi's biography. We do not know this person's name in popular culture either and yet a few days later King was espousing the concept of non violent resistance in his sermons for the first time.

We also do not know the name of the woman who set up the “Montgomery Progress Association” that elected Martin Luther King as the leader of the civil rights movement.  She stayed up all night to print the flyers for the Montgomery Bus Boycott that kicked off the American civil rights movement.

We know Rosa Parks. What we don’t know is that she was the fourth black woman arrested in the lead up to the Bus Boycott. An 18 year old woman had four
police officers drag her off the bus three months before.  Few know that Rosa herself had been previously assaulted by a bus driver. Following this, a white couple she worked for sent her to night school to study ... you guessed it; Civil Disobedience! Most of us have not even heard of this couple.  That night, December 1st 1955, when the bus doors opened, she was faced with the driver who had assaulted her. Not only did she get on the bus, but she refused to give her seat up to a white person, was arrested and the world changed again.

None of these people changed the world by themselves. The book Civil Disobedience didn't change the world either.  And this story is far too simple: thousands of other actors are unknown and left out.  We would not know the famous people in this story if many other people had not acted. Bad things happen when good people do nothing.  The world is constantly changed by many everyday people who do ordinary things. Every decision we make and every action we take matters.

Fast forward another 50 years and a phd by the name of Nicholas Christakis writes a book called "Connected: the surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives". He shows that when we have a friend who is obese we are 45% more likely to be obese ourselves. If we have a friend of a friend who is obese, we are 25% more likely to be obese. Even more amazing is that a friend of a friend of a friend (think about it: you probably don't know the person) who is obese makes us 10% more likely to be obese. The same is true for happiness and a range of health issues.   Nicholas's research demonstrates that “everything we do affects not just ourselves & not just our friends and relatives ... but also dozens, or hundreds & sometimes possibly thousands of other people.”

If we are to create a sustainable future we need to understand that every conversation, every purchase, everyreport, book, song, laugh and opinion is influencing change in the people around us and spreading far and wide through our community.  Mahatma Gandhi had a particular take on this. He said "be the change you want to see in the world".   He went further to describe how change becomes accepted over time:

“First they ignore you, 

then they laugh at you,

then they fight you,

then you win.”

As Paul Hawken said in Blessed Unrest "What distinguishes one life from another is intention, the one thing we can control. Individuals start where they stand and, in Antonio Machado's poetic dictum, make the road by walking. For Thoreau there were no inconsequential acts, only consequential inaction: 'for it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever."