Paul Andersen: Climate is the Civil Rights of today

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Greta Thunberg’s youthful innocence while protesting environmental degradations is akin to the innocent faces of the Children’s Crusades from the Middle Ages. How pure and desperate are these missions of youth.

Greta’s cohort of young, worldwide climate activists has swelled into the millions, rising up in a challenge against ecocide in the same way the Civil Rights movement challenged the status quo of racial tension that continues to embroil America.

When Martin Luther King wrote his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” he brought to bear the moral and ethical underpinnings of Western civilization, in particular decrying the “white moderates” who understood the gravity of racism but failed to act.

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily,” impugned King. “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.”

So it is that Greta challenges today’s environmental moderates who recognize ecological threats but fail to act, resulting in threats to the dreams of future generations. Thunberg’s soft, piping voice is as much a clarion call as MLK’s sonorous baritone in defending basic human rights in the face of social disregard for an imperiled future.

“I cannot sit idly by and not be concerned about what happens,” wrote King in defense of his activism. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”

Thunberg may be seen as an outside agitator during her visit to the U.S., but her mission is universally justified because of the mutuality of climate change. Individuals may take action on climate, as did individuals working for social justice during King’s day, but society is a slow-moving mass that denies accountability and hinders progress.

King condemned white moderates as a major stumbling block in the Civil Rights movement. He saw them as “more devoted to order than to justice, who prefer a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice … who live by the myth of time.”

The youth of the world rising up against the status quo on climate change are creating a growing tension over the way most of us live. These committed young people are questioning the collective conscience over the “wait and see” ambivalence that is perpetuating the spewing of climate changing pollutants. They insist that now is the time to act, and they are right.

“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill,” observed King, “is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

This serves as an apt description of the U.S. today where climate change remains what Al Gore decades ago referred to as an “inconvenient truth.” That truth confounds the collective conscience in the face of dramatic and necessary change that appears to be too much of a bother for the consumer culture.

Gore pointed this out in a New York Times editorial last week where he appealed to moral accountability and social courage. He justifiably shamed Americans for our failure to accept responsibility for our leading role in damaging the global atmosphere.

Wrote Gore: “Now we need to ask ourselves: Are we really helpless and unwilling to respond to the gravest threat faced by civilization? Is it time … to despair, surrender and focus on ‘adapting’ to the progressive loss of the conditions that have supported the flourishing of humanity? Are we really moral cowards, easily manipulated into lethargic complacency by the huge continuing effort to deceive us into ignoring what we see with our own eyes?”

MLK recommended four steps for activism: 1) Collection of the facts. 2) Negotiation. 3) Self-purification. 4) Direct Action.

Greta and her peers have checked off the first three and are now engaged in direct action. Hopefully, with the moral authority of youth, they can effectively change hearts and minds.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at