Last week the Internet was full of the tragic death of Robin Williams, a man apparently felled by a pervasive issue no one wants to talk about: depression. The subject was off-topic for this blog, but I wrote about it anyway, addressing climate change as a mental health concern. This week the internet is full of the death of the tragic Michael Brown, a boy apparently felled by a pervasive issue no one wants to talk about: racism. Again, the issue is off-topic here, but serves as a jumping off point for an important discussion.
A few days ago, I read the entire text of the Letter from Birmingham Jail for the first time. I had, of course, heard of the letter before. It is the response, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to an open letter written by a group of white clergy condemning civil disobedience actions in Birmingham, Alabama. In essence, the local authorities had responded to civil rights protests by making protest marches and boycotts illegal. The local activists had responded by continuing to march and by asking Dr. King and his colleagues to come in and help. King did, which was why he was jailed. The Statement of Alabama Clergymen calls for the illegal protests to stop, praises the police for their non-violence in handling the protestors, and says that outsiders (by which they meant King and his associates) should stay out of it. Instead, the black people of Birmingham should be patient, obey the law, and work for their rights exclusively through the court system. They would get their rights respected someday. In essence, King replied that someday isn’t good enough.
But actually reading the text of the Letter, I was struck by how much of it sounds weirdly current. The Ferguson protests stem from a situation that is different in many of its details, but King’s urgency, his insistence that the community he had come to serve had a right to be angry, had a right to be “impatient,” sounds very much in keeping with many of the comments coming out of Ferguson.
This same week, I’ve read an article in The Atlantic. I can’t link to it, the current issue isn’t posted yet. It’s “How Climate Hysterics Hurt Their Own Cause,” by Charles C. Mann. The title does not quite say it all, but it comes close.
Mr. Mann’s basic thesis is that nobody really knows how to talk about climate change, not the moderates and not the extremists. Arguably he is right, given that we aren’t making much progress, but the article is full of questionable statements. For example, he asserts that sea level rise “will never affect me or anyone I know; nor, very probably, will it trouble my grandchildren.” He bases this statement on a timeline in which the sea only goes up by only one inch over the next century, followed by further rise later. Even assuming this timeline is correct (which it probably is not), one inch of sea level rise can be a major problem because of the extra power given to storm surges in low-lying areas. Consider that one extra inch is enough to get a flood over a door sill and into a basement. The sea level rise that has already happened flooded thousands of extra people in Superstorm Sandy who would otherwise have stayed dry. But perhaps Mr. Mann just doesn’t know anyone in New York? Indeed, he goes on to disavow any responsibility for others at all.
How much consideration do I owe my 40-times-great grandchildren, who, many climate researchers believe, will still be confronted by rising temperatures and seas? Americans don’t even save for their own retirement! How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?
We might kindly assume that he actually does care about other human beings, that he is only anticipating the confusion of other people more selfish than he, but he never calls out the moral bankruptcy of the attitude he describes. It is hard to know where to start with this scientific and moral muddle.
But the charge that environmentalists should stop shouting “emergency” is an old one. We are told that we are scaring away potential allies, making people “feel guilty,” and if we only tone things down a bit we might make more progress.
The thing is, historically, change hasn’t worked like that.
Chattel slavery didn’t end because abolitionists refrained from denouncing it as a sin and an abomination. Women didn’t get the vote by being meek and ladylike. Jim Crow was not forced underground by the patience and forbearance of black people. Gay people didn’t win legal marriage in so many states by waiting until America was “ready.” Change doesn’t happen because people wait for it politely.
Dr. King knew this. To the call that his movement should exercise patience, he replied,
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
The men whom Dr. King addressed in his letter were self-described liberals who at least nominally supported racial justice, but they cared about public tranquility more. For them, the atrocities of racism must have seemed far away and abstract. In contrast, the social unrest, the protests, the disregard of law, must all have seemed very frightening and very real for them. Like the writer, Mr. Mann, they faced a choice between the solidity of the world they knew and the welfare of “distant, hypothetical beings.” They chose the former.In their letter calling for an end to public protest, the group of white clergy tried to paint their choice as a reasonable response to a strategic mistake on the part of Dr. King and his colleagues. They claimed that the civil rights demonstrators could not rightly call their actions non-violent because their protests incited violence against them. Dr. King rightly called them out on that particular piece of nonsense as well.
The Letter From Birmingham Jail has become a classic of American political and moral literature because many people now realize that Dr. King was right. The emergency was real and could not wait. Resistance to racial justice was not caused by black stridency, and black people could not dissolve that resistance by adopting an attitude of meek patience. In retrospect, is seems cruel and ridiculous that anyone could say ‘wait’ to people who “have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.”
So, why do modern environmentalists take seriously any calls for us to step down in turn? When we see whole communities forced to relocate because of sea level rise, when thawing permafrost is literally blasting giant holes in the ground of Siberia?
Events in Ferguson seem unrelated to climate change, but in the larger picture there is a lot of intersectionality between racial justice and environmental justice. The poor and the otherwise disenfranchised are the disproportionate victims of both climate change itself and the environmental costs of yet more fossil fuel extraction.
But just as there is overlap between the problems of racism and climate, there is also some overlap between solutions. In either case, doing something constructive requires taking the needs and concerns of people you have never and will never meet seriously. It requires actually learning something about the issues (one extra inch of water is a problem and Michael Brown isn’t the first black man the police of Ferguson have attacked). And it requires a principled refusal to treat an emergency as anything other than what it is.
Because while activists do have a responsibility to conduct themselves so as not to make the situation worse, resistance is not the result of stridency–it is its cause.