In response to the faint-hearted temporizing of his Southern allies and with an open-ended stay at the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a lengthy and subtly scathing letter that included the following: “The Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice … who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Willis Jenkins, professor of ethics in the Divinity School, spoke in honor of King last Sunday in Battell Chapel. He traced the development of a man from preacher to saint. What is often forgotten, Jenkins reminded, is that King started from conventional beginnings and with fairly moderate aspirations. King called for followers of the maladjusted life, given that contemporary “well-adjusted” livelihoods endorsed racial prejudice and violence. “I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule,” he concluded. And by the end of his maladjusted life, he had become unpopular for his broad embrace of radical change. Perhaps he asked for too much.
The environmental movement, like any progressive movement, would do well to draw from King’s inspiration. Environmentalism needs to ask for too much, to embrace its own radicalism despite popular currents of moderation and the overwhelming pressure for political expediency. “[King] saw there could be no possibility of nonviolent change in a nation trying to change other countries by war,” explained Jenkins. “So, against the advice of his remaining friends, he came out against Vietnam.” Environmentalism, too, must ignore the tempered advice of friends who urge more time and better compromise.
Compelling scientific and economic arguments on behalf of the environment have for decades been shouted aloud. What lacks from these arguments is the urgency of moral imperative. Policymakers will be content to push off critical decisions on the environment as long as they are not held accountable for the moral context of these decisions by those who advocate for progressive action. Without explicit consideration of morals — with only factual evaluation and efforts toward objectivity — we truss the environmental movement, because environmentalism is ineluctably moral. Climate change presents a clear example: an almost impossibly complicated mess of scientific causation and economic compensation means that nations are incapable of finding common ground. Instead, they dally at international conferences. Like poker players, each negotiator eyes the others with distrust; each checks his cards slit-eyed. And this way the distant and powerful do unspeakable harm to the voiceless and powerless.
But if we insert the question of morality into debates about climate change, then nations can no longer hide behind the pretense of strategic advantage. To stand idly by as islands sink, impoverished settlements flood and livelihoods are destroyed is both inhumane and detestable. This moral concern should be as prominent in discussion as questions of adjusted crop yield and discount rate; such moral pressure is the only way to overcome the current stagnation on environmental issues. While current tactics support, in King’s words, a “strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills,” In reality, the longer we wait, the more immediate the moral concerns become.
At day’s end, environmentalists must be extremists in the mold of King. This term bears negative connotation, but it need not. Though “initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist,” wrote King, “as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. … [T]he question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.” Though not necessarily demonstrating in the streets, environmentalists need to adopt a strident, humanist and transparently moral tone as they push debate ahead. Such urgency will parallel the extreme temporal limitations we face in addressing the deterioration of our global environment.
To quote King again, “Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.” Let’s be extremists. Get maladjusted.
Dylan Walsh is a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Sciences.