The New Abolitionists: Global Warming Is The Great Moral Crisis Of Our Time

The UK Guardian has put me in a gallery of “climate change abolitionists, those engaging in an uphill battle to challenge the broken systems that threaten our survival.” They also want your suggestions for who else to add (click here).

Climate change abolitionists: who is fighting for a more sustainable world? It took Abraham Lincoln and others many years of campaigning to abolish slavery — but who are the contemporary figures fighting to abolish dangerous climate change?

Well, I don’t really think I should be mentioned in the same breath as Lincoln — unless you are talking about our mutual love of the figures of speech and my book Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga.

The Guardian has a good piece by Andrew Winston accompanying the gallery,”The campaign to abolish slavery has many parallels with the work of today’s climate change activists: it takes bravery and determination to try and make the world a better place.”

I agree that there are many parallels, many of which are spelled out in that article — and in an even longer piece in the Boston Phoenix, by Wen Stephenson, “The New Abolitionists: Global warming is the great moral crisis of our time,” which argues “the climate-justice movement must embrace its radicalism to fight it.”


And readers of my books know I think metaphors are important — and that our inaction on climate change is a great moral crisis, the greatest moral crisis of our time. But it is also useful to spell out the differences.

Obviously slavery was not merely a great moral wrong, but cruel and inhumane to millions from the very start and for as long as it was occurring.

Unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions became immoral only when we learned that they would destroy a livable climate — and while we certainly need to go to zero this century, ideally by mid-century, we don’t have to go to zero tomorrow whereas, of course, slavery needed to be ended completely and instantly.

Winston writes:

So what are we “abolishing”? Climate abolitionists are not fighting to eliminate growth. Eradicating slavery did not rid the world of cotton or tobacco, and moving away from carbon will not mean abandoning human and economic development — in fact, it will help ensure it. What we want to abolish is our outmoded, broken economic and energy systems that threaten our survival, in part because they put no value on human and ecosystem inputs and impacts. We’re seeking a new way of powering our world that will save vast sums of money (variable costs of near zero), avoid the significant health impacts of burning dirty fossil fuels, and conserve our planet’s ability to support not only our entire $70tn economy, but our very existence.

I do think that is where we need to start. Development will continue, but it will have to continue as CO2 is pulled out of the economy ASAP. I’ll have more to say about “growth” soon.

Stephenson’s piece focuses on Tim DeChristopher. Here are two excerpts:

I want to say a word for radicalism — for the role of the radical in building a movement to confront climate change, the most urgent crisis human beings have ever faced. I want to start with two scenes, and two speakers, who embody the imperatives, and the limitations, of the moment in which we find ourselves.

July 26, 2011. Inside a federal courtroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, a 30-year-old climate activist named Tim DeChristopher is sentenced to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine for disrupting a Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas leases back in December 2008. Registered as Bidder #70, he managed to win bids worth $1.8 million for some 22,000 acres of public land near Canyonlands National Park — bids he had no way of paying. He had acted spontaneously, on his conscience, engaged in nonviolent resistance to the heedless new extraction of fossil fuels that are catastrophically heating the planet and threatening innumerable innocent lives.

Weeks before his sentencing, DeChristopher told Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell: “I’m a climate-justice activist…. We want a radically different world. We want a healthy, just world.” But first, he said, “we need to get the fossil fuel industry out of the way. First we’ve got to overthrow the corporate power that is running our government.” He understands what that requires. “It will involve confrontation and it will involve sacrifice.”

At his sentencing, standing before the federal judge, DeChristopher concludes a long, eloquent statement that spreads across the Internet and galvanizes a growing climate-justice movement:

“This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow. The choice you are making today is what side are you on.”

DeChristopher is truly brave. I’m just a blogger.

Stephenson ends with the words of another truly brave man:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress,” Frederick Douglass said in 1857. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Hear, hear! Speak, speak! Act, act! If not now, when?