Have you guys been reading the news lately?
OK, there’s been a lot of it, but I’m talking specifically about the wave of attention brought to the issue of same-sex marriage rights. From the CEO of Mozilla being brought down with the help of the online dating site OkCupid, to a brilliant Honey Maid response to bigotry, one thing has been made clear: our generation (dare I call us millennials?) will not tolerate LGBTQ inequality. What does this have to do with sustainability? Lots, as it happens. I’ll let MLK begin:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
In a recent interview with The Sun, author Barbara Kingsolver (of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle fame) says that those are the words she comes back to on her bad days. When it comes to injustice, the arc of history is so long that it’s hard to sense the movement. But it’s there.
When Kingsolver was born, women couldn’t sit on juries in some places, and blacks couldn’t use the same public bathrooms as whites. Interracial marriage approval didn’t exceed current gay marriage support until the late 90s. “Now, quite suddenly, gay marriage appears to be on the verge of countrywide acceptance,” says Kingsolver. But it takes time for some people to see how it’s all part of our greater evolution of culture and consciousness.
Now, let’s not mistake the tipping point at the end of these long struggles for an isolated moment of sudden change. As is evident in just one lifetime, it takes countless sparks to ignite deep empathy on a cultural scale. In the words of author Adam Hochschild, “All I know is that those of us who care about justice in the world have to make an effort to find those sparks.”
Beyond finding sparks, there’s something more remarkable about the early leaders in every one of these social justice movements, past and present: they try to draw the connections to things that people can’t immediately see. Just as slavery was an issue that was morally invisible to people 200 years ago, today that invisibility can be found in the form of a cell phone that may have rare earth metals from war-torn Eastern Congo; in the denial of equal rights to lesbians and gays; and in my own Honda CR-V’s fuel that contributes to an unstable amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.
The consequences of these injustices aren’t abstract. While it’s popular to amuse ourselves with predictions of an apocalyptic future, the fact remains that climate impacts are happening now, and it is a problem that mostly poor people and people of color are going to have to reckon with before I will. These are the people who have had virtually nothing to do with causing global warming. It’s not just that our children are at risk. Our neighbors are already suffering.
Because “they” may be our neighbors but not a part of our immediate tribe, we are wired for a false separatism that, on our shrinking planet, is no longer viable. As the arc of history has shown, it never has been viable. As humanity’s collective vision has expanded, we have dismantled walls—walls that have protected racism, classism, misogyny, bigotry—and we are still working to dismantle these walls today.
Our resistance to change is natural, but our common destiny is inevitable. It can be tempting to think of our present selves as somehow beyond the profound injustices of the past, when in fact we are an integral part of this past. And we are but a small blip on this arc of time, working towards justice. But cultural progress never comes from guilt-tripping ourselves. Driving progress comes from our own epiphanies about the system as a whole, and by encouraging one another to take the steps we can towards a more peaceful, just and sustainable world. Howard Zinn said it better:
“The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Danny Lampton is Communications Associate at the Northwest Earth Institute. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of NWEI, though he always hopes they do.