Today, several US states have observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The annual commemoration usually means anodyne reflections on love driving out hate, a corporate-friendly and mostly un-challenging King, and wholesale disregard of the fact that he died only because his countrymen and government considered him a threat.
But hashtags like #MLKAlsoSaid and #ReclaimMLK are providing a counter-narrative, with contributions from the speeches and writings that haven’t made the soundbite cut on TV or radio this week. This time last year, I wrote about being driven to act by internal conviction and hope, not by anticipated results or outcomes.
Today, I came across a transcript of one of King’s last speeches, given at Ohio Northern University in January 1968. King is absolutely clear on how “racism” breaks down into tangible and resolvable obstacles to the ability of Black Americans to inhabit the freedom that’s their birthright: police brutality, bias violence and vandalism, justice miscarriages, disproportionate poverty, substandard housing, and both un- and under-employment.
“There are all too many people who say that only time can solve the problem. They feel that there is something miraculous in the very flow of time that will cure all evils, and I’ve heard it a great deal. There are always those who will sincerely say to me and our allies in the white community and those of us who work in civil rights that we are pushing things too fast. They have a way of saying this: ‘Be patient, and just be nice and continue to pray and in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out because only time can solve the problem.’
“I think that there is an answer to that myth, and it is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. I’m sad to say that I’m absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation, the reactionaries of our nation have often used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’ Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. Without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So it is necessary to help time and to realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” —Martin Luther King, Jr., at Ohio Northern University, January 11, 1968 (emphasis added)
Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.
This morning I chatted with Peterson Toscano, the actor and principal writer behind the hopeful climate change podcast Climate Stew. Thanks to our reading of Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes/Conway) and Don’t Even Think About It (Marshall), we have an ongoing discussion about whether the climate movement benefits from debating economic doctrines like market regulation, subsidies, and which fuel sources to reduce or jettison. Must all of these debates be settled before we can take action? Can we afford “to wait?”
In their own way and for their own reasons, market advocates like The Economist are now proposing an end to fossil fuel subsidies—an outcome long proposed by traditional environmentalists who’ve worried that governments around the world have propped up an unsustainable fuel source and thus undercut the development of new and cleaner technologies and distribution infrastructure.
If these newer proposals find good soil among decision-makers who’ve been resistant to other arguments, then as infuriating as that turn might be, we’ll still benefit from it. We’ll benefit because this crisis isn’t a partisan one. Climate change affects us all of us in different ways, and so will the process of mitigating the worst impacts and adjusting to a new, more sustainable normal. Most of us aren’t just entangled with fossil fuel production by direct use; we’re also enmeshed with it because whole swathes of our lives are dependent on them too. Fossil fuels run the internet companies’ giant data and server complexes, and fuel the trucks that our food companies use to move our fresh vegetables from farmland to grocery stores every day. We can’t radically reshape our relationship to these products without radically reshaping our lives.
So disrupting the prime place of fossil fuels means whole-life disruption. But most of us find whole-life disruption frightening and repulsive. Denial can mitigate our discomfort with change, at least for a time, and yet when it comes to the Earth staying habitable and hospitable for our kind of life, time is the very thing we don’t have.
During our workshop at the Creating Change conference in Colorado next month, Peterson, Nancy Wilson, J Mase III, and I will guide a room of people into reflection on how we can face up to the ecological challenge in front of us without detouring into denial and without losing either hope or humor.
I’ll share more about our session in a few weeks!