There are two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle, declared Abraham Lincoln in 1858: “the common right of humanity and the divine right of kings.”
As the world debates how to stop our planet from overheating, I’m oddly comforted by Lincoln’s clear-eyed analysis. The principle Lincoln applied to slavery also applies to reducing carbon pollution. “You work ... and I’ll eat,” was Lincoln’s shorthand for the economics of slavery. Today, we can describe environmental economics similarly: “You die ... and I’ll pollute.”
Is the situation really that stark? It’s hard to be sure. But when Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed was asked by press what would happen if the Copenhagen environmental summit failed, he answered succinctly: “We are going to die.”
The 1,190 coral islands that make up the nation of the Maldives sit about a yard above sea level. Even though the 300,000 Maldivians emit less than 0.1 percent of world carbon pollution, they are likely to lose their entire country to rising sea levels in the next 100 years. Already, 60 percent of the residents on one island have volunteered to evacuate over the next 15 years. Their nation is under attack, but the enemy is moving in slow motion. The Maldives’ fresh water aquifers are drastically depleted. Annual rainfall is decreasing. Rising ocean temperatures and increased acid levels in the sea water are killing the coral reefs. The Maldives are the canary in the global coal mine—and the canary has a very bad cough.
The Maldives are notable for another reason: as an example of a predominantly Muslim society peacefully overthrowing an autocrat who was making accommodations with militant Islamic extremists. In October 2008, a 20-year-long nonviolent civil resistance movement forced the country’s first democratic elections post-British rule, ousting Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia’s longest-ruling dictator. The Gandhi-inspired civil resistance leader Mohamed Nasheed was voted into office.
Nasheed’s first democratic gesture was toward the outgoing dictator, under whom Nasheed had been imprisoned, beaten, forced to eat glass, and held for months in solitary confinement. “He is going to be staying with us,” Nasheed said. “I don’t think we should be going for a witch hunt and digging up the past.”
Last October, President Nasheed gave an address to mark the international day of nonviolence. He recounted Gandhi’s experience of getting kicked off a train in South Africa when he wouldn’t move to a third-class compartment (even though he had a first-class ticket). “Being thrown off a train, just for being Indian,” said Nasheed, “made Gandhi reflect on the racism, exploitation, and injustice that lay at the heart of British imperialism.” Nasheed then laid out the history of modern nonviolence. The feel in the Maldivian crowd must have been electric as they understood their own place in that history.
“Total rejection of violence in all its forms is, strangely enough, the best way to combat dictatorship,” Nasheed declared. “By protesting in the most morally righteous manner—through nonviolent civil disobedience—the gross injustices that lie at the heart of all authoritarian regimes are exposed.
“In the Maldives,” he continued, “we must not ignore the fact that many people were tortured and suffered very badly during the past 30 years. I understand, from my own personal experiences, how difficult it is to forgive ... But at the same time, I don’t believe that retribution will make us any happier.”
This nation that has struggled so powerfully for human rights may lose it all to the secondhand pollution from industrial countries—including our own.
Politicians, including those who recently met in Copenhagen, are by nature afraid of substantive change. Oil, coal, and gas companies won’t change their business models until forced. Add in the military’s role in addressing climate-related insecurity and this triumvirate represents our contemporary version of the “divine right of kings.”
No matter what shape it comes in, Abraham Lincoln said, “it is the same tyrannical principle.” Tyranny is only effectively overturned by nonviolent social movements, fueled by love for human dignity, ready to defend the “common right of humanity.”
People of the Bible want to be part of the rising tide of climate justice—not increasing climate disparity. Like the prophet Isaiah, we reject systems where one builds and another inhabits, where one plants and another eats (Isaiah 65:22). Instead, we want our life span to be measured like the long-lived cedars. We want to hear the Lord say, “like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.”
Rose Marie Berger, a Sojourners associate editor, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.