We can create more jobs and save the planet too

As an organizer who has spent most of my life fighting for civil rights and access to the ballot box, I think a lot about the work and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not just about his federal birthday holiday.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on a speech he gave in 1967 less than nine months before his assassination, in which he expounded on racism, excessive materialism, and militarism—what he called “the triple disease that has been lurking in our political bodies since its inception.”

In describing how these three evils crush opportunity for people in this country and abroad, Dr. King exposes the devastating ideas that underpin the American experience—that groups of people are disposable and our wilderness is disposable. As a nation, we are still dealing with the cost of that destruction of humans, forests, rivers, and air that was accepted for most of our history.

What we call the environmental movement today was just emerging in 1967 (the first Earth Day was still three years away). It is not hard to imagine that Dr. King would mention the threat to a livable planet if he spoke today, perhaps replacing the climate crisis with the existential threat of nuclear war.

We should not be surprised that poor societies are toxic societies. Dr. King identified the roots as structural rather than just bad faith, saying, “For the good of America, it is necessary to refute the notion that the dominant ideology in our country, even today, is liberty and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm.”

It is time to work on this idea and discard the either/or flawed notion that prosperity for some requires poverty for others, intended to divide the poor and the working class since colonial times. Poverty is what drives environmental destruction. But we can create more jobs for people who are job hungry and save the planet.

Clean technology can sustain a clean economy that leaves no one out. The federal government has made a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure and jobs that has environmental repair and renewal at its core. No doubt Dr. King points out that even at a historical level, spending over the next decade will be less than a tenth of what the Department of Defense will spend.

He also gave us a clear warning in his speech that the struggle for what is right does not end with budgetary appropriations: “Even as people continue to face great obstacles, develop local leadership and self-help methods for their problems and finally trample through the jungle of bureaucracy for existing government funds, the political system seeks Rotten to crush even this beginning of hope.”

In every state, county, and community, we must prepare to stand firm together against those self-interested few who will surely undermine efforts to move away from fossil fuels and we will stand up for practices that destroy our wild places.

The health of the planet will determine our common destiny, and Dr. King described the “inevitable web of mutuality” in his writings years before Birmingham Prison. What affects some affects all of us directly – no one and nowhere can we get rid of it. We now have a chance to fix the weeping and tears in the “lonely dress of destiny” he wrote about. Let’s unite together to be good tailors.

Ben Jewer is the upcoming Executive Director of the Sierra Club and Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. His new book, Never Forget Our People Were Always Free, has just been published.

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