Twentieth-century America saw hard-fought civil rights progress for organized labor, women, African Americans and gays. In the 21st century, the looming civil rights battle that will affect all Americans, all humanity, is the battle to save planet Earth from becoming uninhabitable due to climate change. And if we don't win this one, there might not be a 22nd.
Climate change a civil rights issue? Why? Because humanity should not be held hostage by a profit-obsessed fossil-fuel cartel. Because humanity has the right to breathe air not laced with carbon; the right to drink water not contaminated by fracking; the right to live on land that hasn't been slashed and burned into barren submission. Humanity has the right to live on a sustainable planet.
Victories in those earlier movements were spearheaded neither by enlightened political leadership nor by a sympathetic populace. They started with the activism of a motivated and dedicated few who organized at the grassroots level, engaging in often-unpopular protest, civil disobedience, and occasional violence, until their voices were heard.
The vocal persistence of the leaders and followers of those movements, and the courage of their convictions, finally overcame fierce, determined opposition of entrenched interests that controlled our political system and public opinion.
Just as tobacco companies engaged in decades of disinformation about their poisonous products, so, too, does the fossil-fuel industry attempt to sow doubt in our minds with its proclamations that today's climate change is the result of a naturally occurring cycle; that, as our ecosystems crumble before our very eyes, humans play, at worst, a passive role in the process.
Make no mistake, this myth has been thoroughly debunked. The world is not flat, no matter how much our contemporary orthodoxy may protest otherwise.
Another Big Lie promulgated by Big Fuel and politicos who pay lip service to climate change is that our only choice is between environment or economy. In reality, while the politicization of climate change has stifled American leadership, industry, entrepreneurship, and ingenuity, other developed and developing countries increasingly rely upon renewable energy technology as a key trigger of economic growth.
So far, our government's response to efforts by science and concerned citizens to stem the inexorable march of climate change has been tepid at best. Even with recent disasters like Hurricane Sandy, drought in the Midwest, and record-smashing wildfires that set the West ablaze, government reaction has been piecemeal and myopic they don't see the forest for the smoke.
That the United States has no unified policy to address climate change is shameful.
Yes, our civil rights are being infringed upon, and by a relatively small group of self-serving business interests whose primary concern is enriching themselves. Like drug dealers, they feed the world's addiction to the fuel they've hooked us on for a century, all in the guise of providing "cheap, sensible" energy. But what about our cost while they rake in the profits? Billions of dollars of health care expenses, our very well-being, and the systematic destruction of the planet itself.
What kind of world do you want for your children? When the tractors soon arrive at Utah's Book Cliffs to begin their wanton desecration of wilderness, who will stand in the way? Who will become our eco-Freedom Riders? With unlimited potential from solar, wind, and geothermal energy, the end of the day of the drug dealer should be at hand.
Do we have the resolve to make it so, or will our day be the first to end?
Gerald Elias is a musician, author, and volunteer for the Citizens Climate Lobby.