In his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,’ Martin Luther King spoke of the fierce urgency of now–the moral imperative to address injustice in the present as opposed to in some vague, ill-defined future. Further, in his masterpiece ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ he wrote that “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see…that ‘justice too long delayed in justice denied.’”
As the Executive Director of a small, rapidly growing non-profit, I often find myself trying to balance the imperative to solve problems today with the need to think strategically and build the infrastructure needed for scale and growth tomorrow. My obsession with the ‘fierce urgency of now,’ however, had until recently always been rooted in a firm belief that when we put off doing the right thing, we are in many ways creating excuses for denying justice. But recently I’ve been thinking more carefully about why the urgency of now is so ferocious, and I’ve come to a new conclusion: every day that goes by without us solving a problem, the harder that problem becomes to solve. To borrow the parlance of climate change mitigation we are, in effect, ‘locking in’ injustice for years, decades and centuries to come.
Consider this: when a coal power plant is built, the problem is not just that it will release pollutants into the surrounding area–mercury, sulphur dioxide, etc.–as well as greenhouse gases into the global climate. No, beyond those serious concerns, the fact of the matter is that building a coal plant is a significant capital investment, and it is almost certain that it will remain in operation until the investors have recouped their investment and a profit has been made. In other words, a coal plant built today is locking in all those deleterious impacts for decades to come; conversely, a coal plant NOT built today is, obviously, avoiding all those impacts for decades to come.
Continuing on the environmental vein, every day that goes by with rampant deforestation is another habitat lost, another species lost, another patch of earth that will likely be irrevocably converted to farmland–farmland that will be used to raise cattle for wealthy countries and that will result in increased greenhouse gas emissions. Every day that we overfish, or over consume, or pollute the land, air and water, puts us farther away from the goal of a healthy, sustainable and beautiful planet for all of humanity.
Or consider education. Every year our schools continue to fail in their mission of educating our children, is a year lost in fostering a new generation of intelligent, thoughtful people that can effectively participate in our democracy. What’s more, the worse our educational outcomes, the less likely we are to have a strong economy and the more likely we are to have high rates of poverty, unemployment and even social unrest. A poorly educated person will likely be poorly educated for a lifetime–again, we are ‘locking in’ injustice.
Or consider health. There is no shortage of data showing that if a child is nutritionally deprived (and remember that 1 out of 6 Americans is food insecure) he or she is far more likely to experience developmental difficulties and do worse in school and life. Beyond that, every day people die because our health care system is so broken–be it because they cannot afford health care services, or because of preventable infections acquired in a hospital, or because of a lack of focus on primary care.
The list can go on and on and on. But let’s come back to our central thesis: that the longer we go allowing injustice to linger, the less likely we are to be able to address that injustice later. Worse, when we wait, we make the problem even harder to solve later on. If we are to take action, the time to do so is now. No longer can we afford to delude ourselves by saying that we will do other things first: I’m sick of hearing that before doing good, one must first make a lot of money or gain a lot of experience: try telling that to the aforementioned sufferers of our collective inaction! And we would be dangerously deceiving ourselves if we were to think that problems elsewhere will never become problems for us. I’m reminded of the famous quote by Martin Niemöller about the Holocaust:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
So yes, we must be smart about how to go about solving problems. Yes, we must build infrastructure, think strategically, build partnership, etc., etc., etc. Yet the question is, who will be there for us when everyone else has succumbed to a world rent asunder by “ the appalling silence of the good people.”
We cannot afford to forget that if we take our sweet time, somewhere somebody is suffering from the bitter fruit of raw injustice….Somewhere someone is dying of hunger in a world where there is enough food to feed everyone; somewhere a forest is being felled, its beauty, biodiversity and all its potential for yielding life-saving medicines lost forever; somewhere a child is receiving a sub-par education; somewhere a man is dying because of a health care system driven by greed; somewhere a woman is being tortured because she has taken a stand against a dictator; somewhere a person languishes in prison because of a failed and misguided war on drugs…
No, we can’t solve all problems. No, we can’t spend our entire lives wallowing in the problems of our society. No one, I would argue, is asking that of us. Yet the argument that we can’t fix everything is far too often used as an excuse for not fixing anything. Surely there is a middle ground that, if sufficiently trodden, will spread opportunity and justice for all human beings.
Allow me to end by quoting once more from ‘I Have a Dream,’
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”