Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize. One of the most striking aspects of his acceptance speech is the hope he expressed in humanity’s ability to overcome war. This was no mere idealism on his part. Less than five years earlier, the world had come to the brink of thermonuclear destruction because of Cuba. The United States and Soviet Union eventually diminished their threats and, in 1963, signed and ratified an agreement to end the open-air nuclear testing that was blanketing the planet with radioactive fallout. These were small steps, but to King, they indicated that human beings were capable of cooperation, even in the face of something as horrendous as the suicide of the human race.
Today, the annihilation of humanity looms again as a possibility because of climate change. In 1964, King could not have imagined the particular features of global environmental destruction that we now face. Yet, he had reflected carefully on the forms of action needed to avert mass extinction before, so his work can still be useful today in thinking about directions for the climate justice movement.
First, King reminds us to think in terms of the “beloved community” in which we are all interconnected. That means that the injustices that we experience are also intertwined. For many climate activists, thinking about racism, sexism, or poverty are side issues; after all, if there is no habitable earth, then those problems won’t really matter. King cautioned against the view that injustices could be divided into neat isolated silos. The world, he said, faces the danger of the “evil triplets”: racism, militarism, and materialism. These are inter-related features, he thought, that are at the root of wars of aggression, such as Vietnam, against distant peoples for control of natural resources needed to maintain the luxuries of a few.
Climate change activists today need to acknowledge the overlapping systems of injustice that make some people vulnerable to climate damage much more immediately. It will be poor countries, largely in the Global South, that will suffer the most from environmental degradation of air, water, and soil. In the US, extreme weather—as we have already seen with Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy—will disproportionately affect economically fragile areas, usually made up of historically marginalized communities: indigenous people, people of color, immigrants, the elderly, and LGBTQ people. Climate justice activists will need to build alliances around these diverse issues, and develop the ally capabilities to listen to, and lift up, the voices of disenfranchised people.
In his last years, King wrote about the forms of activism that were needed to confront the evil triplets. He warned activists not to get trapped by the usual mix of demonstrations and protest that were hallmarks of the early Civil Rights movement. With these forms of direct action, King believed the movement had fallen into “crisis thinking,” that is, reacting to injustice after it had already appeared. Complex justice would require mass protests, but it also meant getting out in front of social problems, and building alternative civic and economic structures so that people would not have to rely on problematic state or corporate institutions. He called for organizing neighborhoods and creating diverse networks of allies that could support one another.
A glimpse of this kind of activism came about when Occupy organizers provided assistance in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Achieving climate justice, then, will mean not only protests against this pipeline or that shipping port, but also working to connect local community gardens, alternative currencies, free libraries and medical clinics, into thick webs reaching across urban and rural areas. This kind of organizing will enable widespread skill sharing and mutual aid, but also deliver a message that was dawning at the height of the Occupy movement: another world is possible, and there are many across the world who desire to work together to build it.
King believed we had it within us to avoid mutually assured destruction; he also thought we were developing the insights and activist resources to radically align our world to the moral arc of the universe. The climate justice movement might become the place where we prove him right.
José-Antonio Orosco is associate professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, where he directs the Peace Studies Program.
Dr. King’s lessons for the climate justice movement