6 Lessons the Climate Movement Can Learn from Dr. King’s Legacy

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind [sic] to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind [sic] must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We live in violent times. Our generation has come of age under the specter of terrorism and war, and Millennial youth continue to be the majority of the force currently fighting two wars aboard. Our charged political atmosphere and vigorous finger pointing came to a head last weekend in Tucson. There’s the ongoing destruction by the dirty energy industry, the violence that it’s wrecking on our communities…the list goes on.

Amidst all of this it seems appropriate on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to reflect on his legacy, message for peace and nonviolence and how Dr. King’s wisdom can inform the climate movement and our collective struggle for liberation today.

The challenge of the climate movement is not solely to address the environmental impacts of the climate crisis but to build a social movement strong enough to deal with its consequences. Many climate activists, myself included, hesitate to acknowledge that the question is now not whether we’ll “stop climate change” but whether we can stave off the worst of it.

One of my greatest fears is how our government will respond to the systemic collapse of our climate and economy. If our nation’s past behavior is any indication, we’ll respond with militarism, racism, and war. As sea level rise displaces millions and clean drinking water becomes an ever more scarce resource, what will our government do in the name of “national security?” Lock down the borders, occupy other nations, and seize land to squeeze the last drops of oil from the withered Earth? (I’m not one of those doom and gloom activists, I promise. Keep reading.)

It doesn’t have to be this way. I remain optimistic because I have felt the power of our movement. Now more than ever we need to draw from the bravery, wisdom and leadership of past movements and embody Dr. King’s vision.

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Civil Rights Movement’s achievement was not merely passing the Civil Rights Act but reinventing the moral fabric of our country and giving hope to those living in the shadows of centuries of oppression.

Here are six lessons from Dr. King that can help guide the success of our modern movements:

1. Nonviolence and Love: In the face of unspeakable hatred Dr. King remained dedicated to the principles of nonviolence. We act because we love our fellow beings too much to see them mired in the violence of climate change. We must answer the forces of destruction with the liberation of love and compassion.

2. Spiritual and Moral Courage: Our crisis is not only ecological but deeply spiritual. The destruction of native lands, holy mountains, and sacred rivers like the Ganges is spiritual death. We are disconnected from the natural world and live in alienation from that which sustains us. Seeking to reestablish that connection we fill the void with consumption and destruction. Dr. King recognized the importance of this connection and was deeply devoted to prayer and meditation to guide his actions. We must continue to talk about climate change as a moral crisis and invite the wisdom of the world’s faith traditions.

3. Diversity: Dr. King emphasized that the Civil Rights movement was not only for African Americans but all people. I am encouraged by collaboration between youth climate leaders and the Environmental Justice movement. Every Energy Action Coalition gathering and Power Shift I see more leaders of color. But it’s not enough. It’s not just about diverse faces but ensuring that we’re acting in solidarity with front line and impacted communities. We will only succeed when we build a movement that lives up to Dr. King’s vision and truly represents the diversity of our generation.

4. Holistic Analysis: In 1967 Dr. King made one of the hardest decisions of his life, when he unequivocally denounced the War in Vietnam. His closest advisors warned that opposing a then popular war would undermine public support for the Civil Rights Movement and distract attention from the issue at hand. Dr. King knew that racism aboard was connected to racism at home.

We can learn a lot from the Environmental Justice movement’s holistic analysis of how climate and energy intersect all issues. We must build stronger connections with the peace, immigration, and health care movements; refuse to be divided by “issue spheres” and unite in our collective struggle for liberation.

5. Civil Disobedience: In his famed Letter from Birmingham jail Dr. King spoke of disobeying the law of the land to uphold a higher moral law. The climate movement needs more civil disobedience. We must continue to draw on the strength of history from our predecessors who put their bodies on the line. Let history judge our actions. Our children will thank us for doing everything we could.

6. Truth is Liberation: Dr. King believed that by exposing the country to the reality of racism and segregation that society would be forced to change. When others demonized him he always refused to retaliate in hate and responded with truth. May we always find the courage to shed light and expose the reality of corporate lies. The truth is our most powerful tool.

Beyond these six lessons there are many things we can learn from Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. Overarching it all is the belief that we can and will fundamentally transform our violent society with a mass, peaceful social movement. I’m excited for Power Shift 2011 this spring to be another bold step in our journey to fulfill Dr. King’s dream.

2 Responses to “6 Lessons the Climate Movement Can Learn from Dr. King’s Legacy”


  1. 1 Caroline henderson Jan 21st, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Beautiful post! Thanks for articulating this, Ethan. I’d like to hear from others- how can we realize these lessons as a movement in the coming year? I’ve been thinking about this- especially the need for nonviolence and truth in today’s political climate and the recent tragedy in Arizona. I’m looking forward to developing creative strategies to tackle key challenges and embrace the wisdom of historic movements.

  2. 2 Tyler Jan 21st, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Ethan,
    I agree that there is an increased need to confront dirty energy projects directly but I think an unwavering vow to non-violence imposes certain limitations.

    First off the plea to “stay non-violent” has been used over and over and over again by people with privilege to protect and uphold some of their moral values and social norms. You can see it after any riot, disaster, or confrontational protest when leaders get up an urge everyone to calm down and use civil discourse. While I see a place for symbolic actions and honest discussion I do not appreciate it when people try and enforce any doctrine that says what action is wrong and which is right. How are you to tell someone living in an oppressive situation, that they shouldn’t be furious at the system that is keeping them there, and that they should not resist it in anyway they see fit?

    Second I just want to point out that while Martin Luther King did struggle for the political recognition of African Americans it can be argued that the hundreds of race riots across the country during the summers of 64, 67, and 68 did more to turn up the pressure on worried politicians than any of the symbolic actions King or the SNCC ever did. (Same can be said for Gandhi and the Indian Independence Movement)

    Lastly, I don’t like the idea that the only emotion worth working from is love. Every emotion is a valid emotion and when I act there are many different reasons and feelings for that action. Again I see this mentality (working from a place of only love and compassion) as a product of a privileged view of change. You urge in your post that the climate “movement” needs to be more diverse and I think a good start would be to stop preaching from the supposed moral high ground. Every person can recognize the forces of oppression around them but everyone conceptualizes it in different ways. It would make sense then that there are many different motivations and ways to take action.

    We are only going to have the scale of resistance and participation we need when people feel like they can autonomously take action and be backed up by thousands of others, who may not understand the motivations behind their actions, but won’t denounce them as reactionary, hateful, and violent (in my opinion).

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About Ethan


Ethan organizes in Houston, Texas with t.e.j.a.s. and Tar Sands Blockade. He is the former Field Director for the Energy Action Coalition and organized in Maryland with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN). His strong dedication to nonviolence drives him to oppose the violent impacts of catastrophic climate change on our human communities.

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