What climate activists could learn from the anti-slavery movement
From the standpoint of human survival, it makes no sense: Our media and political systems are losing focus on climate change long before the problem is solved — indeed, while it manifestly continues to get worse. You can help change that on Oct. 10. That’s the date of a Global Work Party intended to celebrate climate solutions and press governments for change. Some 4,483 actions (and counting) are planned in 174 countries, says Jamie Henn of 350.org, one of the groups coordinating the event. “To build a grassroots movement that can challenge Big Oil and deliver real climate action, we need to root that movement in community solutions to the climate crisis,” says Henn. “By making climate solutions real and visible, we can build broader support for the type of transformation we need.”
In the Bronx on Oct. 10, residents will partner with the New York City Housing Authority to apply reflective coating to the roof of an NYCHA building, lowering its energy use. In Oakland, activists will upgrade community gardens and launch a statewide Clean Energy bike tour. In Berlin, a Silent Climate Parade featuring fifty dancers dressed as carbon dioxide molecules will highlight how human societies can produce fewer of them. In the Maldives, President Mohammed Nasheed will climb onto the roof of the presidential palace to install solar panels. You can join a local event, or organize your own, by visiting 350.org.
Taking action is the surest antidote I know to the despair that tempts anyone who gazes unflinchingly at the climate challenge. It also helps to study past social movements and realize that the path to victory can begin in the most unexpected places. Consider the striking parallels between the eighteenth-century campaign to end slavery in the British Empire and today’s climate fight: just as the slave trade was central to Britain’s prosperity, so the fossil fuel industry and its allies are the most powerful sector of the modern global economy. And just as the victims of slavery were distant unknowns to most Englishmen and -women, so the victims of climate change mostly live in strange, far-off lands (including the future) and thus have no vote.
As Adam Hochschild documents in his magisterial Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, abolitionists were as discouraged in 1792 as climate advocates are today, and for apparently good reason. True, the abolitionists had scored important successes. After five years of grassroots organizing, they had won over a majority of the English public to the previously marginal opinion that the slave trade should be outlawed. And in the spring of 1792, the House of Commons had approved a bill that limited aspects of the trade. The House of Lords, however, rejected the bill, and when war with France broke out the next year, the momentum for reform seemed spent. Yet the war proved to be the abolitionists’ savior. When a maritime lawyer named James Stephen discovered that British ships were supplying slaves to French colonies in the Caribbean, it enabled abolitionists to argue that the slave trade was helping the enemy. That turned the tide, and both houses of Parliament voted to ban the slave trade entirely.
Historical analogies are never perfect, but Hochschild says that the U.S. climate movement may now be facing its own 1792 moment. “The House of Representatives passed a weak climate bill last summer that was then rejected by the Senate,” he observes. “Meanwhile, the recession and two wars seem to command all of the political attention.” But the abolitionists’ victory shows that fortunes can change, if activists can recognize and exploit opportunities. The abolitionists won, Hochschild says, because “they were absolutely brilliant organizers who saw what worked and went for it. They were not afraid to hitch their campaign to the war fever against France, for example. I’m not an organizer, so I don’t want to tell climate activists what to do. But I do think we need to take the recession and wars and figure out a way to make them work in our favor, challenging as that may be. Because those are the political conditions we face now.”
There is one huge difference, however, between the fights against slavery and against climate change. It took fifty years for British abolitionists to halt legal slavery. Climate activists have much less time to reverse civilization’s trajectory. Which is all the more reason to do your part on Oct. 10.