Leaders of the climate movement including Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Sir David Attenborough, Naomi Klein and broadcaster Chris Matthews have all said that today’s movement to save the world from climate catastrophe is so big and so consequential that it can only have one precedent: the multigenerational crusade to free millions of people of African descent from chains against opposition from the richest and most powerful industry on earth.
The abolition movement shone a light on the injustice of slavery and the humanity of Black Americans, free and enslaved. In the early nineteenth century, leaders both Black and white helped agitate to end the silence on the problem of slavery that politicians both North and South had tried to keep off the political agenda for decades.
But to inspire its followers, abolition also shone a spotlight on its own leaders. For example, abolitionists published a print of abolitionists entitled “Eminent Opponents of the Slave Power” that found its way into picture frames hung on walls across the North. (Notably missing are Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman or even white female abolitionists like the Grimke sisters.) On this image, prominent among the eminent is William Lloyd Garrison.
In my forthcoming book Abolish Oil Now, I look at heroes of both slavery abolition and oil abolition in terms of archetypes. I see Garrison and McKibben both as examples of the Publisher archetype–a leader who spreads information, a role key to any activist movement.
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator, 1831
William Lloyd Garrison was the most famous white abolitionist. Garrison published the first issue of his anti-slavery newspaper the Liberator in Boston on January 1, 1831 with an editorial calling for the immediate emancipation of America’s slaves without any compensation to slaveowners. Garrison rejected slavery. He also rejected compromises with owners of capital in slaves like plans for gradual or compensated emancipation. Garrison was uncompromising in putting morality ahead of money.
That’s why Garrison’s paper built up a national following especially among free Black people and helped revived the abolition movement after two decades of quiet. Garrison would publish continuously for the next 34 years, printing his final issue only when the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery became law in December 1865. Garrison’s paper helped develop abolitionist writers including Frederick Douglass. The archetype of an activist writer who came to lead a movement, Garrison helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.
Publishing an abolitionist newspaper was a difficult and dangerous profession. The other major anti-slavery publisher, Elijah Lovejoy, was killed in 1837 when a pro-slavery mob set fire to the warehouse in Alton, Illinois where the publisher’s printing press was stored. After shooting Lovejoy five times, the mob threw the printing press out a window onto the riverbank below, hacking it to pieces and dumping them into the Mississippi River.
Garrison also faced death threats from angry slaveowners along with government sanctions from southern states. Just seven months after the first issue of the Liberator was published, Nat Turner’s slave insurrection broke out in Virginia and southern whites blamed abolitionists in general and Garrison in particular for inciting slaves to revolt. A grand jury in North Carolina indicted Garrison for distributing incendiary material and the Georgia legislature offered a $5,000 reward (equal to more than $130,000 in 2021) to arrest Garrison and bring him to the state to stand trial.
Even in Boston, the capitol of the abolitionist movement, in 1835, a pro-slavery mob dragged Garrison from an abolitionist meeting, tied a rope around his waist, and dragged him to Boston Common to be tarred and feathered. Garrison was saved only by Boston’s mayor, a staunch abolitionist, who put the publisher in jail for his own safety. Meanwhile, the mob raised a gallows in front of Garrison’s office.
In a frightening parallel from the recent past, pro-Trump insurrectionists raised a gallows in front of the U.S. Capitol building when they stormed the building on January 6, 2021. Twenty-first century America is seeing an upsurge in political violence especially on the far right. So far, climate activists have not been the main targets of reactionary mobs, but leaders of the climate movement have found themselves in jail after acts of civil disobedience. The most famous of these has been Bill McKibben.
When it comes to doing for the climate what Garrison did for abolition—publishing early and often, founding a far-reaching organization, and putting his own body on the line—nobody better represents the archetype of activist publisher than McKibben. Both were and are inspiring public speakers too.
The most important thing any individual can do to stop climate change is stop being an individual.Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben isn’t asking people to start recycling more. He’s asking them to start doing more political activism.
McKibben has published several books on the climate crisis. In 1989, he put out the first book on the topic for a wide audience, The End of Nature. Thirty years later, in 2019, McKibben released Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?. In 2008 McKibben founded the first international grassroots climate action group, 350.org. A pioneer of distributed organizing on social media, the group held more than 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries on a single day, October 24, 2009.
More recently, McKibben has worked to draw attention to the role of banks and other Wall Street financial firms in enabling new pipelines, natural gas export facilities, and other fossil fuel projects to go forward. “Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns,” he wrote in 2019. “What if the banking, asset-management, and insurance industries moved away from fossil fuels?” He’s glad that activists are campaigning to elect greener political candidates, lobbying to pass climate legislation, taking polluters to court, and chaining themselves to the White House fence to protest new gas pipelines. That’s all helpful — yet, it’s not enough.
But what if there were an additional lever to pull, one that could work both quickly and globally? One possibility relies on the idea that political leaders are not the only powerful actors on the planet—that those who hold most of the money also have enormous power, and that their power could be exercised in a matter of months or even hours, not years or decades. I suspect that the key to disrupting the flow of carbon into the atmosphere may lie in disrupting the flow of money to coal and oil and gas.
That’s why McKibben is drawing public attention to the investment in fossil fuels of banks, insurance companies, asset managers, and hedge funds like JPMorgan Chase, Chubb, and BlackRock. Without Wall Street money, fossil fuel companies will face their endgame, which will break their power in politics, and make serious government action on climate solutions possible.
Before the Civil War, Garrison also fulminated against the money power that helped make the slave-drivers of the Cotton Kingdom richer and more powerful.
Both Garrison and McKibben were and are early leaders of their movements who started as young men and lived to become elder statesman (or at least middle-aged statesmen).
Coincidentally, the two men celebrate birthdays two days apart. Garrison was born on December 10, 1805, which made him 25 years old when he started publishing his paper The Liberator on January 1, 1831. By the time slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment at the end of 1865, Garrison was 60 years old.
McKibben, born on December 8, 1960, was 29 years old when he published The End of Nature in 1989. By coincidence, this year, McKibben is the same age as Garrison was at the end of slavery, 60 years old.
Let’s hope the two men will also have in common that they helped lead a multigenerational movement to achieve an impossible goal, final victory.