Given the planetary impact of dangerously quick climate temperatures rising around the world due to human machinations, I suspect there are precious few examples in the past to guide us forward. We are in trouble in a way we never have been before. Civilizations have come and gone over the span of human existence but the entire species and all other species on the planet haven’t before been placed in jeopardy by humanity’s collective attitudes towards our life support system. (Of course, we are always under the threat of mass annihilation by nuclear proliferation but that crisis is not due to the behavior of everyone—just some bad players and some crazy national policies.) Furthermore, we will have to address all our major existential problems—nuclear proliferation, Climate Change, pollution, overpopulation, overconsumption, the loss of biodiversity and much more—at the same time. This is why Climate Change is the mother of all problems.
Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock talked about modernization moving so quickly that it will be increasingly more difficult to use the past as a guide for the future. This is certainly true with Climate Change. Naturally, we have science as a guide as to what is going on. But science and climatologists’ rushing to fill our knowledge gaps about Climate Change won’t teach us how seven billion people will adjust to the “inconvenience” of a warming planet, where the catastrophic consequences are far more likely to impact those who didn’t cause this crisis than those who did. Also, fairness must be baked into addressing Climate Change, or else social unrest will compound this crisis by multitudes of factors.
We do have examples in history of visionaries who were able to get the measure of the critical issues of their times and arriving at insights that we, in their future, find enlightened and forever attitude altering. These special individuals knew then what we know now. Examples include Samuel Adams and the idea that a colony of a great power should and could break free when their unfair treatment becomes intolerable. Jefferson’s notion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” (though he himself didn’t practiced what he preached.). Stanton’s and Anthony’s position that women must have the right to vote. Alexander Von Humboldt’s vision that science should develop and flourish beyond national boundaries and ideologies. And a lot more individuals throughout our history who saw ahead of their contemporaries about what people could become by turning the great ship of humanity towards those ends.
One such visionary whose views might be instructive in our current Climate Change crisis is William Lloyd Garrison’s position on slavery in the United States.
Garrison, publisher of The Liberator, an (the) abolitionist newspaper started in 1831, compelled race equality into the US Constitution. In the 1830's most abolitionists, politicians, newspapers, and just about everyone North and South believed that slavery should and would end eventually. But for even moral heroes like Lincoln that meant holding to the Constitution, where slavery was legalized, and Colonization by sending freed slaves to another place (Liberia), and allowing time to take its course. Garrison changed everything as he upheld immediacy, no Colonization, and total equality. No if’s, and’s, or but’s.
What we think of as abolitionism today is the result of Garrison’s life work.
"It comes as a surprise to realize that of all the antebellum political conceptions about slavery that contended for supremacy--states' rights, three-fifths clause, Missouri Compromise, toleration but nonextension, popular sovereignty--it was Garrison's program of immediate emancipation through the repudiation of the proslavery constitutional compromises and a union dissolved and reconstructed that prevailed." (Page XV, All On Fire)
Emphatic on abolishing slavery, Garrison succeeded in convincing just enough groups and key individuals that anything less that immediate and total equality, regardless of the Constitution, was the only morally acceptable solution to slavery. Almost everyone but Fredrick Douglas thought Garrison was an intolerant ideologue bent on destroying the union.
Sure, most antebellum folks thought Garrison incapable of compromise and reason—though now we see that he was quite reasonable. So too will be those who hold to the proposition that Climate Change must be addressed now before it gets worse. There are innumerable solutions being entertained right now that attempt to address Climate Change but so far they are not equal to the task. Just buying an electric car, or creating a carbon tax, or shifting to organics, or other single actions won’t save the planet. Nothing but the immediate relief from manmade greenhouse gas emissions will save our life support system. There are no concessions to physics possible, no slow and gradual options for keeping fossil fuel energy use alive, and no transporting this problem to the future. We are nearing the danger zone on Climate Change, a point where natural and built environments break down from overheating and social unrest.
Many now are realizing that Climate Change is an existential problem but are still holding that the solution must come gradually so as not to disrupt the 'harmony' of our fossil-fuel driven existence or threaten our present economy.
Garrison was able to see the clear and unambiguous nature of slavery. It was evil. That the numerous attempts to make chattel slavery a morally justified institution, thereby avoiding the obvious trajectory, were only making it more likely for all to end in a great conflagration. True, ending slavery with the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment did not end the brutality against folks with dark skin and yes, Reconstruction was a disaster; nevertheless, slave auctions and the selling of people in the US is no more.
Even more compelling than the moral arguments against slavery are the hard scientific realities behind Climate Change. Climate Change is the moral problem of our day. But it is not a moral problem in the way slavery was. Climate Change is beyond morality in the sense that while it is certainly a moral issue, it is our behavior, however motivated, that will matter. Though terrible and evil, slavery was not threatening the existence of every living being on this planet. Garrison’s goal was to prove to the public that slavery was evil and that humanity must change their attitudes immediately. Garrison struggled to change humanity by appealing to everyone’s sense of Christian morality. Garrison didn’t want to change Christianity to change everyone; he wanted everyone to actually practice Christianity.
With Climate Change, humanity must change their behavior so that our actions render our environment sustainable. If appealing to humanity’s sense of morality will do the trick, then we should do that. But it alone probably won’t on a scale and time that will matter. If morality had that power, it would have already worked. It’s not working; world temperatures and concentrations of greenhouse gases are going up, not down. Climate Change isn’t just morally wrong, it will be the end of us if we don’t become another kind of being—a non-selfish being willing to share the planet with others. Dramatic actions along with a keen sense of moral outrage will probably have to occur before the kind of change needed will happen. Actions like Break Free From Fossil Fuels are an indication, like abolitionism, that some are willing to stand up against the social inertial that is plummeting us into an unsustainable future.
The value of learning about Garrison and other visionaries is that there are past examples of how someone understood the core problem of their age and became the vehicle of change. Garrison understood that the only solution to ending slavery was changing the public’s attitudes about slavery. Not ballot box morality (continually electing pro-slavery politicians to avert war sure didn’t work), not making concession with the other side, not continuing business as usual, and not thinking some states could have slavery and some could not; none of these provided the solution. Was Garrison right about slavery? Yes, and the Thirteenth Amendment proved him right.
Garrison can help teach us to understand the core problem of our age: that our environment must above all be healthy or no one survives. No human contrivance can work quickly enough to solve this problem of Climate Change for it is we who must change.
The difference between those who would continue slavery in the yesteryears and those in our day who procrastinate on Climate Change is that the former would burn in Hell and the latter will burn right here on Earth, along with everyone else.