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What Climate Activists Can Learn From the Abolitionist Movement What Climate Activists Can Learn From the Abolitionist Movement

What Climate Activists Can Learn From the Abolitionist Movement

by Bill Bigelow
April 23, 2013


On this Earth Day, those of us fighting for climate justice and an end to the world's fossil fuel domination should take heart from the struggle against slavery.

Imagine for a moment that it is 1858 and you are an abolitionist. Talk about discouragement: The previous year, in its Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no black person—whether enslaved or free—was entitled to become a U.S. citizen. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote that the framers of the Constitution believed that blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect. . ." The decision declared that the federal government could not ban slavery in U.S. territories. A few years before, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which vastly expanded the U.S. government's authority to seize and return to slavery individuals who had fled to freedom—or even those blacks born free in the North. Many Northern blacks crossed into Canada rather than live in constant fear.

And abolitionists were waging not just a moral struggle against the enslavement of human beings. Slavery was the largest industry in the United States, worth more than all the factories, banks, and railroads combined. In effect, the abolition movement aimed to expropriate without compensation the wealth of the most powerful social class in the country.

On the surface, abolitionists had made little, if any, progress. In fact, by most indicators, things had gotten worse. The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1833. After about 30 years of antislavery activism, twice as many people were enslaved, more U.S. territory was dedicated to slavery, slave owners possessed more wealth, and the federal government's commitment to slavery was greater than ever before. Yes, talk about grounds to be discouraged.

Which brings us to today's climate crisis and the many reasons for despair.

Recently, I taught a unit on climate change at a local high school in Portland. I began by introducing students to the "three scary numbers" featured in Bill McKibben's important Rolling Stone article from last summer, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math."

The first scary number is 2 degrees Celsius. As McKibben points out, it's the only climate number that virtually the entire world agrees on. Keep the climate from warming 2 degrees Celsius—about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit—and there is some hope of preventing a climate calamity. In the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Accord, 167 countries, including the United States, pledged "that deep cuts in global [greenhouse gas] emissions are required . . . so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius." McKibben acknowledges that even a 2 degree rise in global temperatures is fraught with danger, but it's the only international consensus on a climate target—"the bottomest of bottom lines," writes McKibben. The first scary number.

The second scary number is 565 gigatons. According to the best scientific estimates, that's the amount of additional carbon that we can pour into the atmosphere and still hope to keep the rise in temperature to 2 degrees. Five hundred and sixty-five thousand million tons of carbon. It seems like a lot, until we hear that the International Energy Agency found that in 2011 global carbon dioxide emissions rose by 31.6 gigatons—3.2 percent higher than the previous year, and that projections call for humanity to blast through our 565 gigaton quota in less than 16 years.

Which brings us to the final number that makes the other two numbers so frightening: 2,795 gigatons of carbon. This number represents the stored carbon in reserves held by coal, oil, and gas companies, and countries that act like fossil fuel companies, like Kuwait. McKibben notes that this number was first highlighted by a group of London financial analysts and environmentalists, called the Carbon Tracker Initiative. In other words, the fossil fuel industry already has plans to exploit five times as much carbon as can be burned without exceeding the 2 degrees ceiling. Burning these fossil fuels would enter the world into a dystopia of climate science fiction. Yet according to Bloomberg, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson says that Exxon will spend $37 billion this year, $100 million a day, attempting to add still more oil production by 2016.

Meanwhile President Obama brags about how many new miles of pipeline have been built under his administration—"enough new oil and gas pipeline to circle the Earth and then some," he said last year—and touts his "all of the above" energy strategy.

Yes, 43 years after the first Earth Day, there are abundant reasons to be discouraged—and frightened, too. In the midst of a class activity, "The Mystery of the Three Scary Numbers," one of the students I was working with grasped the enormity of what she was uncovering; she turned to a friend and asked, "Does this mean we're going to die?"

Back to 1858. The abolition movement rejected the death sentence imposed by Taney's Supreme Court. Abolitionists became more radical in their aims, and more audacious in their tactics. As Vincent Harding writes in There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, following the Dred Scott decision, blacks throughout the North "flocked angrily to meetings. Frustration and rage filled their voices as they denounced the Court's decision. . . . [E]verywhere they gathered, the people committed themselves to broader, more defiant acts of civil disobedience."

The black abolitionist Robert Purvis, in a Philadelphia gathering, attacked the U.S. government as "one of the basest, meanest, most atrocious despotisms that ever saw the face of the sun," and asked why shouldn't blacks "welcome the overthrow of 'this atrocious government' and construct a better one in its place?"

In Oberlin, Ohio, in the fall of 1858, U.S. marshals acting under the Fugitive Slave Act were about to return a man named John Price, who had escaped slavery, to Kentucky. Thirty-seven black and white abolitionists seized Price from the marshals and sent him to Canada. The trial of two of the 37 rescuers turned into an antislavery rally as the courtroom was filled with cheering spectators.

Of course, the most consequential act of post-Dred Scott resistance was the 1859 attack on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, led by John Brown. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of the Harpers Ferry raid, the mission dramatized the refusal of the abolition movement to surrender to the most powerful institutions in the United States. And it electrified the antislavery movement in the North as nothing else had.

The point is not that we should copy abolitionists' tactics, but that we should learn from their hope, from their tenacity, and from their willingness to defy those who put profit above humanity. And like the abolitionists, we should refuse to accept what the wealthy and powerful present as the "inevitable."

Every Earth Day, some of us are tempted to say things like, "We live on the same planet; we're all in this together." But no, we're not. Last year, Exxon made almost $45 billion in profits, while the superstorms and rising seas of global climate chaos forced people around the world to flee their homes. Yachts and villas for some; misery and insecurity for others. As the journalist and activist Naomi Klein has said, "[W]ith the fossil fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do."

In history we find hope—if we look for it. Our opponents today are no more reckless and ruthless than the people who made their living enslaving others. But they still measure life in dollars. This Earth Day we need to recognize that the fossil fuel industry is waging war on the planet—and on the future. And, like the abolition movement before us, we need to act accordingly.

Click here to add connecting to climate activists in your community to your GOOD "to-do" list.

"What Climate Activists Can Learn From the Abolitionist Movement" is part of the If We Knew Our History series at the Zinn Education Project.

Bill Bigelow taught high school social studies in Portland, Ore. for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project. This project offers free materials to teach people’s history and an “If We Knew Our History” article series. Bigelow is author or co-editor of numerous books, including A People’s History for the Classroom and The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

Images: Harriet Tubman portrait by Robert Shetterly,
Americans Who Tell the Truth; 2009 Earth Day Celebration poster by Debra Lee Toth via Creative Commons


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