Much of what appeals to these climate leaders, no doubt, is the bracing moral clarity and uncompromising urgency of the abolitionist cause. In 1831, introducing the first issue of The Liberator in Boston, leading American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison answered his moderate critics: "I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm . . . tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD."
"We need the urgency of a William Lloyd Garrison, or even more," 350.org founder Bill McKibben told me in a 2012 interview, in which he agreed that the climate-justice movement, with its emphasis on human rights, has more in common with 19th-century abolitionism than with much of today's environmentalism. The climate crisis, McKibben notes, has a particularly unforgiving time limit attached. "If we don't solve it very quickly, we won't solve it." (Of course, as McKibben tells audiences, there's nothing radical about simply wanting a livable planet for our children and grandchildren. The real radicals, he says, run fossil-fuel companies.)
There are significant caveats to the comparison, of course, as there are to any historical analogy. Here are three big ones. First, I don't mean to draw any one-to-one equivalence between the consumption of fossil fuels to power our daily lives and put food on our tables (whether we're rich or poor) and the enslavement, systematic torture, and mass murder of countless human beings on the basis of race. Second, it should go without saying that fossil fuels and their effects on the atmosphere cannot simply be abolished at the stroke of a pen. There will be no Emancipation Proclamation or Act of Parliament freeing us from fossil fuels; no constitutional amendment abolishing climate change.
Finally, the climate movement advocates and engages in strictly nonviolent protest and resistance. When it comes to direct action, its models are Gandhi and Martin Luther King — not John Brown. That's not to say that violence was unjustified, ultimately, in the struggle to end slavery — or that it would never be justified to save millions of lives from the effects of climate chaos. But the climate movement is a resolutely nonviolent movement.
What resonates, then, is not so much the analogy to slavery itself, or any literal comparison to abolitionist actions, but the role of the abolitionist movement, as a movement, in American and human history — and the necessity now of a movement that is every ounce its morally and politically transformative equivalent.
The parallels are irresistible: there's the sheer magnitude of what's at stake, in human and moral and, yes, economic terms — millions of lives and trillions of dollars. There's the explicit emphasis on human rights and social justice, including economic and racial justice — considering that the majority of those suffering the worst impacts of climate change globally are impoverished people of color. There's the fiercely principled opposition to powerful and entrenched reactionary forces — whether the "Slave Power" of the antebellum South or the filthy-rich fossil-fuel lobby of today. There are even the spiritual underpinnings of both movements, the progressive religious inspiration of many activists and leaders — abolitionism grew out of Quakerism and early evangelicalism, while today's climate-justice movement has deep support among progressive faith communities (as did, let's not forget, the civil rights and antiwar movements of the '60s).