According to a fascinating poll that came out last week, 13 percent of Americans claim that they would commit some form of non-violent civil disobedience to get action on climate change. To me, this is a dramatic number. Americans are not willing to put up with denial any longer. Opinions are shifting — hard and fast. People understand the risks as they begin to see and feel the impacts, and are tired of the dysfunction that is preventing change. All that these individuals need is a clear, direct action to take.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and there has been much focus on Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech – but it caused me to re-read another King work, his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
When you consider the impact climate change will have on our collective future, it is instructive to remember what Martin Luther King had to say about the power of non-violent civil disobedience in that letter in 1958.
The prophetic points of this message are numerous, but I will highlight two here that standout for their timeless wisdom.
The first was his outline of the preparation needed for mass, non-violent protest. He advocated a four-step process of analysis, negotiation, self-purification, and, finally, confrontation. The ordering here was crucial; only after the first three stages did he advocate the last.
Dr. King’s second observation was that even after the deliberate execution of those careful steps, confrontation was always “untimely” for the so-called moderates, arriving too soon for their comfort.
Dr. King’s key insight is not just that outright oppressors never give up their advantages willingly, but also that moderates never advocate any direct, non-violent, attack on the status quo because they are actually satisfied with it.
For the sake of our own struggle, this point is worth keeping in mind. Because of self-interest, the dirty energy industry will always engage in fierce, intense opposition. But what about the moderates of our era? Are they still satisfied with the status quo? I think not.
Returning, then, to the 13 percent who would personally engage in civil disobedience, how should we interpret this level of commitment?
Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson thought that 15 percent of the general population was the number needed for accomplishing significant transformation. If he was correct, this may represent a tipping point. We may be on the precipice of major change.
Let’s hope we are.
This is a guest post from Tom Steyer, investor and president of NextGen Climate Action.
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