Earth and Climate Speak: MLK & the Fierce Urgency of Now

{By Reverend Oscar Tillman and Rabbi Arthur Waskow. This essay  appeared on Memorial Day, May 26, 2014, in the “Root” section of the Washington Post. Many thanks to Jacquie Patterson and other NAACP staff who facilitated its writing and placement. Reverend Tillman is a member of the NAACP National Board of Directors and chairs its National Black Church Leadership Initiative on Climate Justice. Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and a member of the steering committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate.]

Fifty years ago in Washington DC, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about race in America and implored justice to “roll down like a mighty stream”. Five years later he said he was “standing on the mountaintop, looking into the Promised Land” just hours before his untimely death.
If Dr. King were alive today, he would perhaps have a more direct message about the mighty streams and soaring mountaintops of this country that he invoked to inspire awe and encourage collective action. Our American geography – our soaring mountaintops, our mighty streams, our “amber waves of grain, our purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain” are in grave danger. So are the communities that rely on them.
Our cornfields are parched from years of drought and then drowned in monsoon rains. The seagulls, fish, and fisherfolk of an entire region are smeared with oil. Our coastlines are drenched and even our subways flooded.  Our mountaintops are destroyed for the sake of the coal that lies beneath them. Our public lands are threatened by hydrofracturing that endangers our drinking water and that has by deliberate legal loopholes been exempted from independent scrutiny.  

What effects do these disasters have on human communities? Our small towns are despoiled and homes destroyed by breaks in oil pipelines that warn against the even more destructive Tar Sands Pipeline. Low-income neighborhoods become the politically easy place to put coal-burning plants, and their smoke turns the children of the poor into epidemics of asthma.  In Bangla Desh, millions of the poor who live bare inches above sea level will see their whole country flooded as the oceans rise. New York City is already planning to spend billions in bulwarks against the ocean that could have been invested in decent public schools with inspiring teachers. When the cornfields of America are withered by drought, the price of food rises here and around the world. Everyone suffers, but of course the poor and the hungry become the starving and the desperate.  In Africa, global scorching turns fertile lands  into deserts, and the desperate search for food fuels ethnic wars and genocide.

On April 4, 1967, exactly a year before he was killed, Dr. King named “materialism” as one of the deadly triplets afflicting America: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

At that point, he did not yet know how deadly to all of Earth materialist greed would become—the materialist greed of giant corporations selling fossil fuels the way a cabal of drug lords would sell their deadly drugs. And, like other drug lords, using their wealth and power to try to prevent the urgently-needed shift to wind, solar, and truly clean sources of energy.

Half a century ago, it was the murder of civil rights workers, deaths in Vietnam, the suffering of garbage workers in Memphis — as well as the Dream of racial justice -- that called Dr. King into action. Today it is the climate crisis that has come upon us, -- bringing famines, floods, fires, asthma,  and devastations on whole nations  — and the Dream of a shared and sustainable abundance that must call us into action, walking the path he walked.

In that same speech one year before his death, Dr. King said, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.  Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’"

Today we must indeed cry out with the fierce urgency of Now. Now is the time for the fierce urgency of our convictions, for us to break our silence on all these disasters. Now is the time to raise our voices for our Dreams  -- the ones we understood fifty years ago, and the ones we are discovering today.




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