When I think about the climate crisis, and the movement experiencing successes and setbacks in an attempt to rally the world to do something about it, I find myself thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many scholars acknowledge that King and other civil rights leaders who supported the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis in 1968 planted a seed for the concept of environmental justice. King understood that environmental degradation–like war and segregation–was a symptom of injustice, and that injustice must be fought holistically.
Years later, many Americans understand the link between poverty, racism, public health, and a toxic environment. Yet when it comes to the mother of all toxic environments–an atmosphere overburdened with greenhouse gases–many of us, even or perhaps especially on the left, prefer to keep the climate crisis in its own silo.
When I bump into these silos, I miss what I imagine would be King’s leadership today. Beyond his powers of poetry and his masterful strategic and political skills, King was guided by an unfailing belief in the oneness of humanity. Though his belief derived from his Christian faith, the message is undeniably universal.
Still, universal messages often fail. What I find so moving about King is that every boycott, every speech, every position he took sprang from this profound understanding of interconnection, and his understanding that the “inescapable network of mutuality” was fundamental to our spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being as a species. To our survival, in fact.
He spent his short life living out this vision, grappling with his own limitations, insisting on fierce compassion to make those who oppress see the people–fellow human beings–who are suffering. And of course once you see yourself in the “other,” whether oppressed or oppressor, compassion moves you closer to justice.
That is what makes his work stand out from much (though certainly not all) of the commendable work being done today in the climate movement. We miss, or don’t express often enough, a core orientation toward unity with all humans, and really all life forms, on this planet.
It’s easy to eulogize and long for a leader who can shake us from our ignorance about what we are doing to the planet and each other, someone who relentlessly focuses us on the big picture and does it with such oratory grace. And since we’re celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, I’ll indulge myself a little bit today.
But tomorrow I’ll get back to my own training, learning and relearning King’s central lesson, doing my best to help dismantle the ideological silos that keep justice at arm’s length.
Though of course we draw inspiration from the famous leaders who remind us to keep our eyes on the prize, it is individuals’ power to witness and create change that always has and always will constitute that collective gaze. Dr. King himself would remind us of exactly that.