MLK, Climate, and Tu B’Shvat

“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.”    transcript and audio

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated: we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”   transcript

Which environmental leader wrote these quotes?  Who had these ecologically-based insights?  Well, I guess the title of this post gives it away, but without that hint (or the picture below!), would you have known it was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

King died 2 years before the first Earth Day and many years before the Environmental Justice movement was born, but his ideas about community, connectedness, and justice continue to influence those committed to a more just and sustainable future.  As wecelebrate his birth (and mark Tu B’shvat — more on that in a moment) I thought a brief exploration of our debt to King, as well as a look at what he might call us to do today was in order.

It would not have surprised King either that climate change is both disproportionately caused by wealthy and powerful nations, or that world’s poorest and most vulnerable are likely to suffer the most.  He knew that when profits come before people, the powerful prosper and the poor pay the price.

In our energy exploitation society, this dynamic is repeated over and over: in poor communities in Appalachia mountains are beheaded and rivers polluted, in First Nations areas in Canada highly polluting methods are used to melt toxic crude out of tar sands and convert it to a caustic mix that can be transported to other poor communities, and island nations are already flooding from climate-change-caused changes in sea level.  While King did not write specifically about the extinction of species or the destruction of habitat, he did see the sacredness of the interconnected web of life.  His call to form a “beloved community” was a realization in part that a sustainable, healthy future for all could not be achieved unless all voices were heard, all concerns taken seriously, and the rights of the poor and the powerless protected vigilantly.  He may not have called for the protection of the planet for future generations, but he did dream dreams of a better world for our children’s children’s children.

Due in no small part to King’s work and life, we have made progress toward equality in many areas, but King’s vision of community remains a distant dream.  It doesn’t have to stay that way.

Each time we address climate change as a moral issue, we take steps toward making that dream a reality.  Each time we demand, as the Principles of Environmental Justice state, that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, that land and renewable resources be managed in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things, and that no worker  is forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment, we move closer to the beloved community.  Each time we remind those who have prospered through the profligate use of power from fossil fuels that they (and we!) have a moral obligation to prevent when possible (and mitigate when not) the suffering that climate disruption is already beginning to wreak on the poorest and most vulnerable nations, we echo King’s drumbeat for justice.

Too often, MLK Day is reduced to a mere platform for civic leaders to issue safe, empty proclamations.  Safe and empty is most certainly not what King stood for!  We can come much closer to honoring his legacy by calling for environmental justice and a sustainable future for all.  That call starts with the messages that our energy choices are moral choices, and that our faiths call us to address climate change, prevent suffering, and shape a better future.

This year [2014], King’s birthday coincided with the minor Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat  (the 15th day of the month of Shvat), which is celebrated at the New Year of the Tree.  It is a holiday designed to remind us of the interconnectedness of all life.  In recent years, Tu B’Shvat has been celebrated as a sort of “Jewish Earth Day,” a time to celebrate centuries-old Jewish traditions that care for and protect the earth, and promoting social justice and sustainable practices.

Tu B’Shvat has a special connection to Environmental Justice and to Martin Luther King Jr. that few know about.  In 1967, King began to protest against the Vietnam War.  A number of Jews, including King’s friend and fellow activist, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (pictured with King, above), joined in these protests as they had joined King on civil rights marches.  Heschel focused protest against the deforestation campaign that was part of the war, starting the Campaign for Trees and Life in Vietnam.  Heschel highlighted the environmental destruction and racism that arose out of the war — and he and others planted trees on Tu B’Shvat as part of their protest.

Life is interconnected.  We are indeed tied into a single garment of destiny.  But we have a choice — will we choose to add threads to the destiny marching toward justice, equality, and sustainability?  Or will we choose to march on, heedless, toward doom?

—Rabbi Daniel Swartz, Temple Hesed, Scranton
President of the Board, PA IPL