I've argued elsewhere that Henry David Thoreau holds more relevance to the climate movement for his stout abolitionism — not only in his essays and speeches but his actions, sheltering escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad — than for any sort of proto-environmentalism he may represent. When he spent that night in Concord jail, it was in protest of an expansionist war that he knew had everything to do with slavery. "Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations," he wrote in "Resistance to Civil Government" (otherwise known as "Civil Disobedience"), "it is essentially revolutionary."
If slavery was the great human, moral crisis of the 19th century, then global warming is the great human, moral crisis of our own time. And the movement to confront it has every reason to be as resolute and as radical, in its own way, as the movement that ended slavery.
I believe that the previous statement is true. In fact I've committed the rest of my life to it. And yet I also know that any proposition so large is never so simple. I know that history and the nature of radicalism are a bit more complicated. Climate justice may well be the greatest human-rights struggle of our time, but actions, however pure the motive, have consequences, and we need to be honest about the consequences of radicalism, then and now — even as we're honest about the consequences of not being radical enough.
Last spring, as it happens, a fresh debate cropped up over the meaning and legacy of the American abolitionist movement, thanks to a brilliant and provocative essay called "The Abolitionist Imagination" by Columbia's Andrew Delbanco, one of the top American Studies scholars in the country. (The essay originated as an Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture on American Politics and was published as a book by Harvard University Press along with essay-length responses by John Stauffer, Manisha Sinha, Darryl Pinckney, and Wilfred McClay. I'm only going to comment here on Delbanco's essay.)
Delbanco is interested in American abolitionism not simply as a specific movement at a specific time and place in history, but, as he puts it, "an instance of a recurrent American phenomenon: a determined minority sets out in the face of long odds to rid the world of what it regards as a patent and entrenched evil." The abolitionists, Delbanco notes, "belonged self-consciously to the tradition of imprecatory prophets; they were the thundering Isaiahs and Jeremiahs of their time, calling to account this fallen world and exploiting the fear of apocalypse if they should fail."
Viewed in this light, Delbanco goes on to ask whether abolitionism should be the model or inspiration for present-day justice and liberation struggles (although, interestingly enough, the climate movement goes unmentioned). He reminds us that, far from being admired as the morally fearless heroes we remember them as today, they were derided and reviled by their contemporaries. The word "abolitionism" was most often used as "a slander meant to convey what many Americans considered its essential qualities: unreason, impatience, implacability." Stephen Douglas compared his arch-rival Lincoln in 1858 to "the little abolitionist orators in the church and school basements." In 1860, Lincoln — no abolitionist, but an antislavery moderate who gradually came to accept abolition — distanced himself from the radical movement.