Editorial: The Jericho Road to Sustainability

23 Jun 1963, Detroit, Michigan, USA --- Martin Luther King Jr Leading March in Detroit --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
23 Jun 1963, Detroit, Michigan, USA — Martin Luther King Jr Leading March in Detroit — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Since we recently celebrated Martin Luther King day, I was struck by the notable parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and today’s sustainability movement.  First let me explain exactly what I mean by sustainability movement since that s- word has nearly lost all meaning by being over-used.  By “sustainability movement” I mean the efforts of citizens, NGO’s, and scientists to illustrate the necessity to minimize the impact of human activity on climate change and instigate a sea change in the modern industrial lifestyle toward a way of living that does not threaten the ability for future generations to use the same resources and enjoy the same ecosystem services which we benefit from today.  (However future generations for the next few centuries are already destined to be affected by global change even if we stop adding anthropogenic CO2 to the atmosphere tomorrow).

Back to MLK.  I see parallels between the nearly unfathomable magnitude of resistance faced by both movements and the deeply in-grained, subconscious nature of the belief systems responsible for each movement’s plight.  Perhaps inspired by these circumstances, Dr. Martin Luther King sought to fix the Jericho Road rather than provide care for all the sufferers along the road.

I think the Good Samaritan is a great individual. I of course, like and respect the Good Samaritan… but I don’t want to be a Good Samaritan….you see, I am tired of picking up people along the Jericho Road. I am tired of seeing people battered and bruised and bloody, injured and jumped on, along the Jericho Roads of life. This road is dangerous. I don’t want to pick up anyone else, along this Jericho Road; I want to fix… the Jericho Road. I want to pave the Jericho Road, add street lights to the Jericho Road; make the Jericho Road safe (for passage) by everybody…”

–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted from Huffington Post article

By fixing the road, there will be fewer sufferers.  Fixing the road toward sustainability means, rather than focusing on building our seawalls higher, our irrigation wells deeper, refining tar sands, and geoengineering, let’s focus on adjusting our society and economy to prevent the need for those bandaids.  I ask myself, will my efforts be better spent as a scientist investigating how ecosystems will respond to climate change or does “fixing the road” involve collaborating with social scientists and policy makers to bring about systematic changes?  The role of a 21st century scientist is much more integrated in society than earlier scientists and requires interdisciplinary communication, collaboration, and appreciation for other types of knowledge.  Assuaging climate change and moving toward sustainability is an interdisciplinary challenge.

If I may further this analogy by suggesting that we think of the last phrase of the MLK quote, “safe for everybody” to include future generations.  Issues involving time, e.g. long-term goals, and people who don’t even exist yet are inherently difficult for society to tackle.  Economic gains today might mean feeding your family and at the same time threatening future families’ well-being.  With climate change, delayed gratification could be delayed so long that the gratification comes to your offspring, not a good campaign slogan.  We need to remember that everyday the world we live in is shaped by the people who came before us.  What do we take for granted?  What were their mistakes?

If we could go back in time and ask someone in 1950 if they thought that the 44th president of the United States would be a black man, they would probably say no.  The fact that we have come so far, albeit racial equality remains far from perfect in the US, gives me hope for positive changes toward greater sustainability; and I think Dr. King would agree.

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