from Chapter 6. Too Late for What?

Excerpted from What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon Press). Copyright 2015 by Wen Stephenson

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What are we fighting for? What are any of us who care about climate justice really fighting for? What does “climate justice” mean in the face of the inhuman and dehumanizing maw of the world-devouring carbon-industrial machine—of which we ourselves are a part? What does it mean in the face of the science—which keeps telling us, in its bloodless language, just how late the hour really is?

It seems that movements often reach a critical juncture at which unity—the need to come together around common principles and a common struggle, and a common understanding of what that struggle is about—becomes all-important. Or if not unity—which may in fact be impossible for any movement big enough and broad enough to be powerful—then at least something like solidarity. So I ask again: At this late hour, what are we fighting for?

Trust me, I know full well that any talk of a “transformative,” “radical” movement for climate justice, or any kind of deep political transformation, sounds hopelessly naïve. I get it. I know. I know the country, and the political culture, in which I live and work.

And yet—here I am anyway. Because I also know that abolishing slavery sounded hopeless and naïve in 1857, when Frederick Douglass spoke of struggle. I know that throwing off the British Raj sounded hopeless and naïve in 1915, when Gandhi returned to India. I know that ending Jim Crow sounded hopeless and naïve in 1955, when Rosa Parks stayed in her seat on that bus in Montgomery. I know that ending apartheid sounded hopeless and naïve in 1962, when Nelson Mandela went to prison in South Africa.

For that matter, even stopping the Keystone XL pipeline sounded hopeless and naïve in 2011—before thousands of people started getting arrested and literally laying their bodies on the line, with tens of thousands more pledging to do so, in order to stop it. And before a president of the United States started listening. Yes, the southern leg got built. And yes, the whole thing is just one pipeline—one very big, very dangerous, very symbolic and political pipeline. And yes, Montgomery, Alabama, was just one Southern city. And that bus was just one city bus.

And so history says never quit, never give up. But science—we keep coming back to the science. And the science keeps telling us just how late it is. And it’s true—we have to be honest, with ourselves and with others. After all, what good is a movement if it can’t even be honest about the situation it faces? We have to ask ourselves, in all honesty, given the facts we now face, what it is that we’re really fighting for.

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On April 4, 1967, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to speak from the pulpit of the Riverside Church in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights—a church built by John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil—and delivered what was perhaps the boldest, most radical speech of his too-short life. Daring to denounce the war in Vietnam as a national sin eating away at the American soul, and prophetically proclaim the war’s inseparability from the struggles for racial and economic justice, King knew that he would alienate, maybe even lose, some of his strong allies—many of whom were not yet willing to break with Lyndon Johnson and the still prowar liberal establishment. People would ask him, he noted, “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? . . . Peace and civil rights don’t mix.”

When he heard this, King said that day, he was “greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.” That commitment and calling, he reminded them, was that of a Christian preacher. “Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?”

King had just written his final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?,to be published that June. And in those pages, as in his speeches during those last two years, King struggled to reinvigorate and reunite the civil rights movement, which was coming apart at the seams over Black Power and nonviolence, separatism and integration, and over how fast and how hard to push for economic justice and against the war in Vietnam. And while he’s often cast these days as a soothing moderate, it’s important to remember just how radical King was, especially at the end of his life. Establishment critics, including the NAACP, thought that he should keep his focus on race and civil rights and not stick his nose into what they considered the “separate issues” of labor, poverty, and, most of all, the war. But King understood that all of these issues were, at a profound level, interconnected—he saw their intersectionality. He knew, as he wrote in a Birmingham jail cell in 1963, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He saw systemic evil, and knew it required a systemic solution. He saw, and argued forcefully, that the “unholy trinity” of racism, poverty, and war were, at root, one and the same—that they are all forms of violence, that they all grow from “man’s inhumanity to man,” and can be defeated only by universal love.

“A genuine revolution of values,” King declared at Riverside Church, in a passage drawn from the final pages of his new book, “means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”

“This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation,” he continued, “is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. . . . I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”

At which point, the Baptist preacher quoted from the first epistle of Saint John, chapter four: “Let us love one another: for love is of God.”

Of course it’s easy for me to quote Martin Luther King, and feel good about myself for doing so. But there’s nothing easy about the path he showed us and the gospel he preached. As with Thoreau, we who invoke King need to ask ourselves if we’re ready to walk in his footsteps. King was a radical and a revolutionary—ready to give his life in the cause of justice. When those of us who appropriate his words can say the same, then maybe we can claim some tiny portion of his legacy.

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The title of King’s last book poses the question facing us now: Where do we go from here—chaos or community? We know that the crimes perpetrated against the planet today are a form of violence against our fellow human beings, a profound racial and economic and generational injustice, on a global scale. And we know that if we’re going to have a movement big enough and powerful enough to confront this, we have to come together across our cultural, racial, economic, and generational divides, even our ideological divides.

Nothing about that task is easy. Indeed, if there’s to be any hope of such solidarity, then “climate justice” will need to be defined broadly enough, inclusively enough, to encompass everyone—not only certain communities, not only our own communities, and our own children, but everyone, everywhere, including generations not yet born—in order to keep even the possibility of justice alive on Earth.

Because what we’re fighting for now is each other. We have to fight for the person sitting next to us and the person living next door to us, for the person across town and across the tracks from us, and for the person across the continent and across the ocean from us. Because we’re fighting for our humanity. That’s what solidarity is. That’s what love looks like. Not simply a fight for our own survival—there are oppressive and dystopian forms of survival that aren’t worth fighting for. Indeed, that are worth fighting against. Rather, ours is now a fight for survival and a fight for justice—no, for the survival of the possibility of justice and some legitimate hope for what King called the “beloved community.” Even as we struggle just to survive.

Our fight is against chaos—and for community. And it cannot wait.

There at Riverside Church, King spoke words that would appear in the final paragraph of that final book: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. . . . Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’”

Is it too late? We know what the science says. What does your conscience say? What does “too late” even mean? Too late for what? Even in the face of all we now know, will it ever be too late for some kind of faith in human decency; or to hold onto some kind of hope, however irrational it may seem, in our fellow human beings; or to love our brothers and sisters on this earth?

Because these things—faith and hope and love—are every bit as real as the science, every bit as real as the CO2 in the atmosphere and the carbon in the ground. As real as the melting Arctic and the acidifying oceans. And as Dr. King knew, these things—faith, hope, love—are the very stuff that movements are made of: real movements, the kind of radical, transformative movements that have changed the course of history in the past, and maybe, just maybe, might change it again. . . .

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Excerpt: Preface

Excerpt: Chapter 3. Organizing for Survival

Excerpt: from Chapter 6. Too Late for What?

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Excerpted from What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon Press). Copyright 2015 by Wen Stephenson. All rights reserved.