Forty eight years ago this Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his famous “I have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by proclaiming it, “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” And it was.
While the struggle for freedom has made progress since that historic gathering, it remains unfinished business. On that day, Dr. King spoke of two types of freedom – one from “the chains of discrimination” and one from living on “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Somehow his first message has been taken to heart while his second has been forgotten.
This second freedom is not individual freedom, but rather, a form of collective freedom. It is the freedom to live unharmed by the collective consequences of individual actions, even if those actions are not intended to harm individuals. It is the freedom to experience undiminished life, the gift of the universe, our creator, God, or whatever one believes is the source of the miracle of life. We must, as Dr. King implored, grow to view unintended harm as injustice in the same way we view bigotry and prejudice as injustice.
Note the irony in what is transpiring in Washington DC as I write this note. One of the largest acts of civil disobedience to take place on US soil since Martin Luther King Jr. is happening outside the White House. Environmental movement leaders from all over the country have gone to DC to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline, which, if approved by the President, will transport oil from vastly expanded tar sands oil production in Alberta to US refineries along the Gulf Coast. The peaceful protesters, led by Bill McKibben, Gus Speth, and others, are shining a light on the consequences of continued investment in and expansion of tar sands oil production – what climate scientists say would make catastrophic climate change inevitable. This civil disobedience was timed to coincide with the unveiling of a new statue of Martin Luther King Jr. marking the location of Rev. King’s historic freedom speech. Hurricane Irene – the type of event climate change exacerbates and encourages – has necessitated the postponement of the ceremony. Ironic Irene.
As it turns out, my freedom to drive as much as I want, in whatever car I want or can afford; to fly whenever I want, perhaps in a private plane if I can afford it; to heat and air condition my inefficient home if that’s the home I choose, and my second home if I can afford one, heated and cooled whether I’m there or not; and to freely invest my hard earned money in projects such as the expansion of tar sands oil production and the pipeline to move that oil to market are all expressions of individual freedoms that coalesce into injustice for all.
Twenty two people are dead as a result of Irene. In addition, there are the untold billions of dollars in personal property damage, and the unquantifiable costs of altered landscapes, lost historic trees, and ruined personal artifacts. And this is just from one storm.
As I sat in my house on Saturday night, listening to the storm approach, not knowing what Sunday would bring, a foreboding sense of the self-inflicted loss of freedom, which will be the certain consequence of our collective passivity in the face of climate change, overcame me. I can only imagine the anger I would have experienced as well were I not among the ten percent of the global population, the carbon gluttons, who are responsible for it.
I dare to dream of a day when we wake up to this impersonal, passive injustice as we have to the injustice of discrimination. I dare to dream of a time when many more of us are moved to confront that cold and careless injustice with the kind of determination and courage that our friends protesting and being arrested at the White House are demonstrating today.
This is what the pieces of the $20 trillion choice confronting civilization look like.