Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Fierce Urgency of Now"

Political junkie that I am, glued to the primaries this compelling season (let’s face it, CNN boasts more drama these days than even Project Runaway), I rose off the couch the first time I heard Barack Obama—it may have been South Carolina—quote Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now.”

Never heard it before. But now, the phrase won’t let me go. Bloggers too: a Google search pulls up thousands of blogs inspired by the turn of phrase.

King spoke these words in 1967 in a major speech given to a gathering of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York. He presented in stunning detail the full spectrum of reasons he decided to come out against the war in Vietnam, a decision for which he was skewered by so many. (Read the
full speech here, and you’ll have no doubts about how he would have felt about the current Iraq dilemma.)

When I heard Obama quote King, I had no idea it reflected the Vietnam situation-- for me, the phrase beautifully sums up in four words where we are now.

The fierce urgency of now: the world is warming, climate changing, species disappearing, water vanishing, crops failing.

“The oceans of history,” King noted in that same speech, “are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”

Like King connected Vietnam to the larger civil rights struggles of his day, today he would easily connect the dots between rising greenhouse gases, the rising tides of weather patterns, and the pummeling of New Orleans from Katrina, the coming crisis of millions of Bangladesh refugees when the warmed Indian Ocean rises, the devastating droughts in the South last year that crippled family farmers.

Global warming is not just an environmental issue: it is an economic issue. And a civil rights issue.

Just after offering the “fierce urgency phrase,” King added, “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’”

Obama is right. On just the environment alone, we are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. Like King and Vietnam, I pray it’s not too late, and I pray we elect the right president in November for these, the greenhouse times.

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