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Doyle: King's Moral Universe

In 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam.” In it, King said that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Yet today, when I consider Ferguson, Wall Street, or the middle-east, it seems our country has failed to follow Dr. King’s advice. Indeed, in our collective consciousness of King, we tend to forget about speeches like this one, or ignore the radical aspects of King’s later message. It’s easier, more conducive to self-congratulation, to endlessly replay King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” which imagines a color-blind society, something most people can get behind, particularly those reluctant to address the continuing historical legacy of racism. But whether it’s conscious or not, this myopic conception of King presupposes that racism is an embarrassing anachronism that can be overcome with diversity training or the election of a black president, rather than by recognizing it as a manifestation of an economic system in which, too often, the powerful exploit the weak for profit.

King was the great moral leader of his time, so I can’t help but wonder what he would make of recent events in the news and of another great moral issue inextricably linked to economics: global climate change. Often, discussions of climate change, assuming it’s admitted to exist, focus on relatively easy solutions: LED light bulbs, energy efficient cars, or optimistic goals for renewable energy production. What they tend not to focus on is that given our economic system, and growing economic disparities worldwide, the way we live now is fundamentally opposed to life on earth in the near future.

In Vermont, the kind of radical reorganization of values that King advocates means that if we want to lead the way in addressing global climate change, we must be honest about the underlying economic conditions and policies that exacerbate it. For example, no matter how many industrial wind farms we site in economically depressed communities, we’re just tilting at windmills unless we also question ski resort water parks that consume vast amounts of energy.

King famously remarked that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. The question is whether anyone will be left on earth to see that arc reach its destination.