Today is a cynical age that’s only comfortable when it’s tearing down admired leaders and breaking icons from the past.
It’s true that some of those Confederate statues did need to come down. But when such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr face the reputation wrecking ball, then we know that historical revisionism has crossed a dangerous line into cynicism.
Revisionist history based on facts is necessary and worthwhile. But rejecting all the old heroes without replacing them with new heroes leaves a void that no political movement can fill with empty slogans about “leaderless leadership.”
To win, movements have always needed leaders. Leaders may not always be needed to run things smoothly. But leaders are always needed for inspiration.
Leaders inspire the rest of us to join up in the first place, to freely give our time and treasure to good of the cause and ultimately, to stick with a difficult effort for the years or decades it takes to achieve victory. In the face of disinterest from our friends and attacks from our enemies, leaders keep volunteers from burning out.
Case in point: the Anglo-American movement to abolish slavery of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Abolitionism took every opportunity to celebrate its heroes, both black and white.
I’ve written before that abolitionism is a good analogy for the climate movement because its scale was comparable and because it was successful.
By contrast, the climate movement, despite success in raising awareness, has made little progress on stopping climate change so far. Thirty years after climatologist James Hansen first told Congress that climate change was dangerous and that it was caused by humans, fossil fuels continue to flow, and faster than ever, while the climate continues to heat up, also faster than ever.
One reason why the climate movement has faltered is that in its relentless focus on the future, the movement has paid little attention to the historic past.
Scientists have helped us understand the distant past — prehistory — of massive climate changes and extinctions with their lessons for us. But when it comes to human history on the political side, activists seem interested in looking back no further than the liberation movements of 1960s for inspiration.
Perhaps that’s starting to change. Al Gore, Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben have all called on climate activists to take inspiration from successful movements of history, specifically, abolition.
In that spirit, here I offer a pantheon of U.S. abolitionist heroes before the Civil War and then suggest who might fill such a roster of leaders for the climate movement today. Some of those include the names above — because these inspiring leaders have achieved successes in raising awareness already and promise to deliver approaches to the movement’s biggest challenges in the future.
Heroes of American Abolition
Despite the old-timey phrasing of its title, the graphic Eminent Opponents of the Slave Power offers a powerful example today of the value of celebrating a movement’s leaders. The title is not a modest one. Instead, it’s bold and creates narrative tension by setting white male abolition leaders up as enemies of the “Slave Power,” an evil and menacing-sounding force that didn’t just enslave African-Americans but also hacked at the very roots of American democracy.
This image pictures the leading white abolitionists including:
- John Quincy Adams, former president who returned to public service as a congressman from his native Massachusetts.
- William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the Liberator, the pioneer anti-slavery newspaper, from 1831-1865.
- Charles Sumner, senator from Massachusetts, who was assaulted on the senate floor for his outspoken anti-slavery views by angry colleague Preston Brooks of South Carolina.
- Owen Lovejoy, congressman from Illinois and conductor on the Underground Railroad whose brother Elijah was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837.
Missing from this print are the equally important leading African-American abolitionists. Fortunately, Distinguished Colored Men depicts many important male black abolitionist leaders.
Along with public officials and diplomats appointed or elected during Reconstruction, appear some leading black abolitionists:
- Frederick Douglass, author of three versions of his popular autobiography, tireless public speaker and advisor to Abraham Lincoln.
- William Wells Brown, who escaped slavery and became a speaker and writer, publishing the first novel by an African American, Clotel in 1853.
- Rev. Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States, in Philadelphia in 1794.
There are also women heroes of abolition, both black and white, from the Grimke sisters, to Lydia Maria Child, to Harriet Tubman, many featured in prints and photos of the day. For example, Sojourner Truth was a pioneer in using the new technology of photography for activism.
Heroes of American Fossil Fuel Abolition
The point is, though dedicated to freedom and equality, the abolition movement was not shy about celebrating its leaders. The climate movement should be the same way.
And if we were to celebrate our heroes, I’d add a few names to start the list, all Americans, just to stir our patriotic hearts:
- James Hansen, former NASA climatologist whose testimony to Congress in 1988 introduced climate science to the American public.
- Al Gore, as famous for serving as Bill Clinton’s vice president as for his post-government service giving the world’s most famous PowerPoint presentation, an Inconvenient Truth.
- Naomi Klein, critic of predatory capitalism and extreme energy and author of numerous books including This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.
- Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and also author of several books on the environment and climate chaos including his latest, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
- Ross Gelbspan, Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway, James Hoggan and other writers and investigative journalists who’ve uncovered the plot by fossil fuel companies to discredit climate science.
- Bob Inglis and Carlos Curbelo, former congressmen who worked to bring their fellow Republicans into the fight for climate solutions.
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, firebrand congresswoman from New York, promoter of the Green New Deal and recruiter of young people to climate activism.
Eminent Opponents of the Fossil Fuel Power
I’m sure you can think of others. Women and men. Black, brown, yellow and white. Old and young. Democrats, Republicans and Independents. We should celebrate them all.
And we need to celebrate our heroes for kicking ass. We must not present our leaders as nice, polite folks who can explain some science about CO2 pretty well and then suggest a few sensible public policies that won’t cost anybody too much or involve too much inconvenience.
No, we must present our climate leaders as tireless fighters for the rights of the oppressed, champions of truth and justice and patriots in the best American tradition.
In short, eminent opponents of the fossil fuel power.
This is not hype. When you think about the gravity of the situation, it’s nothing less than the truth.
In the nineteenth century, abolition leaders helped millions of men, women and children free themselves from the chains of slavery. Our leaders, if successful, will help us save our country and our civilization from climate chaos.
As the past put up statues to abolitionist liberators, so will future generations honor our climate heroes.
I’d love to hear your ideas! I’ll publish them in a future post. And somebody should do a graphic too, maybe even in nineteenth-century style.
By picturing our heroes, we can add vigor to our fight, the kind of energy and commitment we will need to abolish fossil fuels and save our country and our world.
— Erik Curren, author of The Solar Patriot