© 1971 MOTOWN RECORD CORPORATION
Here’s a question whose answer might surprise you: what American songwriter penned the most-listened-to piece of environmental protest music of all time? Somebody with an acoustic guitar? John Denver?
The answer, almost certainly, is Marvin Gaye. “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” appeared on What’s Going On, the album he released in May 1971, which went straight to the top of the charts, even though Motown boss Berry Gordy thought it was too political to sell. “I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world,” Gaye said later. The Vietnam War, protested in the album’s title song, was part of that story, and so was drug abuse–and so was “oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas,” and “radiation in the ground and in the sky,” and “fish full of mercury.”
Where did all the blue sky go?
Poison is the wind that blows
From the north, east, south and sea
For a brief moment after the first Earth Day, it made perfect sense for the civil rights and environmental movements to be singing the same tune. Tragically, those movements soon diverged–diverged so far that some people still find it odd that activists like ourselves are working side by side again on issues like global warming and poverty. But it makes perfect sense–there is no threat to social justice greater than the breakdown of our earth’s physical systems, and no way to ease that threat without rearranging power, both in America and around the world.
Think for a minute about Hurricane Katrina: those high winds blew in a lot of truths. For one, we’ve amped up nature in a dangerous way: scientists now expect ever stronger storms to rake our shores. For another, poverty puts some people at far more risk than others. No one will ever forget those pictures of the Lower Ninth Ward when the levee broke, but in almost every city on earth the poorest people live in the equivalent of the Lower Ninth. It’s not that everyone won’t eventually be affected by climate change–plenty of middle-class white people lost their homes when the storm rampaged across Louisiana and Mississippi. But almost everywhere, rich people occupy higher ground, and the places that flood belong to those who can’t afford better. As the oceans rise throughout this century, those are the places that will turn wet and swampy first–substandard housing in the twenty-first century still means lead paint and asthma, but now it means you better cut a hole in the attic so you can get on the roof and wait for the helicopter.
And of course there are whole nations built on low ground–places like Bangladesh, which may see a fifth of its land under water. In this decade we’ve watched diseases like dengue fever spread through the poorest parts of the poor world, driven by the mosquitoes that like the warm, wet world we’re building. We’ve watched blocs of nations–low-lying islands, for instance–turn to the UN to demand action to ensure their very survival. Almost without exception, these endangered places are filled with people of color, and with poor people.
That’s why the fight against climate change is a very basic fight for people in New Orleans, or in Oakland, or in DC–or in Dhaka, and Calcutta, and Lagos. These are the places that will drive the demographic future, here and abroad; the centuries to come belong to black and brown and yellow humans. But 200 years of burning coal and gas and oil, mostly by Americans and Europeans, threaten to make that future impossible. That’s why, right now, we’ve got to take a united stand to slow it down–why 350.org will be holding demonstrations around the planet on October 24 to demand that our leaders pay attention to science and limit carbon concentrations to 350 parts per million. That’s the most important number on the planet, though no one knew it eighteen months ago. NASA’s Jim Hansen and his team reported recently that concentrations higher than 350 are not compatible with “the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Since we’re at 387 and rising right now, that’s very bad news. It explains why the Arctic is melting, why Australia is drying up and why we watch the hurricane season with more trepidation with each passing year.
It also explains why more than a thousand actions are already planned for October 24, in every corner of the planet. The earth’s immune system is finally kicking in, people are signing up to march in China and India, and churches across America are pledging to ring their bells 350 times that day. It may turn out to be the largest global environmental action of all time, and beyond any doubt the most beautiful and diverse. Some of those protests will be atop lofty mountains, or undersea off the Great Barrier Reef, or on the lovely organic farms of Vermont. And some will be in grittier places, where the battle is even more crucial.
That battle–which began when the Hip Hop Caucus and Green for All announced the Green the Block campaign on August 4 from the West Wing of the White House–is for many things. One of those is a stronger deal at the Copenhagen climate conference in December than the weak agreement currently under consideration. Yvo de Boer, the international diplomat who is chairing those talks, recently pointed out as diplomatically as possible that the numbers on the table are nowhere near what the science demands. “This is not enough to address climate change,” he said. Later he told activists that it would help the process enormously if they would mobilize: “If you could get your members out on the street before Copenhagen, that would be incredibly valuable.” So we will–and if Copenhagen is to succeed, we must move American policy too. The Waxman-Markey legislation on Capitol Hill goes further than any climate legislation in the past, but it’s still riddled with loopholes and giveaways, because members of Congress still fear the coal industry more than they fear the effects of climate change (or climate-minded voters).
But this environmentalism can’t just be about the dangers we’ll face if we don’t take action–Green the Block means embracing the changes we must make as a way to build inclusive, thriving local economies. We need to put people to work swinging hammers–not building luxury condos for people with easy credit but installing insulation in old homes and solar hot-water heaters on roofs. We need urban farming and strong local businesses standing up to the big boxes that suck the life and money from communities.
We believe we will be able to affect the decisions in Copenhagen and in Congress, because some of the leaders of this new movement are different from the environmental lobbyists of the past. The old school are still important, but their constituencies are also graying, their work too often confined to making cozy arrangements with the powers that be. The new environmentalism draws everyone from church people to business people. The world’s greatest mountain climbers are busy recruiting their brethren for October 24, urging them to get up high with banners. Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver are rallying small farmers and food activists; people will rally at many a farmers’ market that day. And b-boys and graffiti artists are busy recruiting their friends to create images of 350.
But most of all, the constituency is young people, who understand that they will bear the results of inaction for their whole lives–and who understand in a visceral way the hopeful possibilities that come from a newly connected world. Marvin Gaye and the soul era gave voice to the oppressed during the struggle for civil rights. Now young people are singing new freedom songs and identifying with one another under an umbrella known as hip-hop. The swagger and style that young people and their urban-influenced culture bring to the green movement bear little resemblance to the old tree-hugging brand of environmentalism. But as the conscious caretakers of a “block” on the brink of climate catastrophe, they are powerful partners in the green movement.
That’s why the soul of modern environmentalism is right where Marvin Gaye left it in 1971, the spot we never should have walked away from:
Oh, things ain’t what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land?
How much more abuse from man can she stand?