Martin Luther King and the Environment

People keep praising my polluting less by avoiding packaging and avoiding flying, but few change themselves.
Would-be leaders talk about how others should change their behavior while they don’t change themselves. Here’s an article by the CEO of Coca-Cola, Why a World Without Waste is Possible, describing some change other people did but not change he did. Maybe he’s reduced his personal pollution, but I don’t see it. I suspect he flies a lot and has all the excuses in the world justifying his flying.
Most people I talk to about their personal pollution claims that their pollution

  1. Doesn’t hurt the environment,
  2. Is impossible to avoid, or
  3. Helps the environment

I’m not going to recount their mental gymnastics. They often call my reducing polluting “privileged,” somehow compared to their spending thousands of dollars for vacations, and “unsustainable,” compared to their polluting. I’ll leave the mental gymnastic justifying such claims to the reader.
Most people also justify people high in hierarchies polluting a lot by the nature of their position, suggesting they couldn’t do their work otherwise and people depend on them.
I believe they are justifying other people’s waste to justify their own. They know that holding others accountable leads to holding themselves accountable, which sounds like they fear meaning sacrificing their traveling and driving 2,000 pound vehicles to buy pre-made food at the store. That humans for hundreds of thousands of years found happiness without flying and plastic—likely more happy than today where 71% are overweight or obese, 13% (and rising) take antidepressants, more than 1 in 3 Americans are prescribed opioids, and 63,000 (and rising) Americans die by drug overdose per year—doesn’t phase their feelings of entitlement.

Martin Luther King

In 1966, after helping pass federal civil rights acts, achieving significant goals that assured his legacy for centuries, and earning a Nobel Prize, Martin Luther King chose to move to a dingy apartment in a Chicago slum. He risked his health and safety marching in nearby all-white neighborhoods to expose the unequal city housing, bank lending, and other racist patterns depriving blacks and other minorities of equal rights.
He could have spoken from afar.
He could have called on others to change without changing himself.
He could have justified not acting.
He could have lived in a comfortable home in Washington DC or elsewhere, claiming he could help more there.
Instead, he acted himself.

Martin Luther King fixing a Chicago slum apartment in 1966
Martin Luther King fixing a Chicago slum apartment in 1966

Beyond leading by example

People reflexively use the phrase “he led by example” to quickly. He did more than simply set an example. Setting an example alone would show his integrity and that what he did was possible.
He also created and shared a vision. He spoke and wrote publicly about his experiences. He organized others to act. He coordinated with others. He set and worked toward legislative and cultural goals.


Compare people’s unwillingness to sacrifice bottled water with King’s actions:

During a march through an all-white neighborhood on 5 August, black demonstrators were met with racially fueled hostility. Bottles and bricks were thrown at them, and King was struck by a rock. Afterward he noted: “I have seen many demonstrations in the south but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today”

Throughout the summer, King faced the organizational challenges of mobilizing Chicago’s diverse African American community, cautioning against further violence and working to counter the mounting resistance of working-class whites who feared the impact of open housing on their neighborhoods. King observed, “Many whites who oppose open housing would deny that they are racists. They turn to sociological arguments … [without realizing] that criminal responses are environmental, not racial”


People’s claims today that not flying limits what a leader could do suggests that King limited himself by not living comfortably, say in Washington DC, where he could work closely with legislators, or near where Chicago legislators lived.
On the contrary, he achieved goals beyond what anyone had before,

After negotiating with King and various housing boards, a summit agreement was announced in which the Chicago Housing Authority promised to build public housing with limited height requirements, and the Mortgage Bankers Association agreed to make mortgages available regardless of race. Although King called the agreement “the most significant program ever conceived to make open housing a reality,” he recognized that it was only “the first step in a 1,000-mile journey”

The Congress passed the 1968 Fair Housing Act as a direct result of the 1966 Chicago open housing movement.

“Leadership” Today

Consider Coca-Cola’s CEO’s words in light of King’s personal actions and results:

it’s tempting to romanticize a world without packaging. To assume that if we get rid of plastic bottles and cans that life will be better. For animals, for humans, for our planet. This mistakenly ignores all the good they can do. Modern food and beverage containers help reduce food spoilage and waste. They limit the spread of disease. They can help save lives.

In short, bottles and cans can benefit society if they’re designed properly and disposed of responsibly.

To support this, businesses like The Coca-Cola Company can challenge ourselves to do more. To lead. To take risks. And to grow with conscience by doing business the right way, not just the easy way.

That’s why we’ve announced a bold, ambitious goal: to help collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one we sell by 2030.

2030?? That’s more than a decade.
Humans lived on water alone for hundreds of thousands of years, yet his straw man characterization of people he disagrees with suggests plastic bottles improve life for animals, humans, and the planet.
What risk is he talking about? I don’t see him changing or taking any risk. My life has improved since choosing to avoid packaged food. King lived in a slum. What is he personally doing?
I’m not saying he has to take personal risk, only that asking others to change while not changing himself starkly contrasts him with great leaders of the past, whose personal actions led to greater results faster.
I don’t mean to single out one “leader.” I’m aware of no other person with comparable authority and resources living by the advice they give others.

Their effective messages

The messages of would-be leaders is clear:

You should change while I don’t.

If you can justify it, do it.

They are leading, just not in the direction they claim. They are leading people not to change, to keep doing what they are doing—nearly the opposite of what I call leading.

Joy, simplicity, and ease, not sacrifice

The rest of his message is about recycling. Bea Johnson’s TEDx talk on recycling shows two things:

  • Recycling is a far cry from a solution
  • It’s joyful, simple, and easy, not sacrifice, to reduce consumption

If you praise, why not act?

I’d rather people stop praising behavior that simply meets IPCC recommendations. Simple stewardship and not harming others for one’s comfort and convenience doesn’t seem praiseworthy to me. My actions still pollute unnecessarily. That I pollute less than others—the most polluting people in all of history and across nearly all cultures—doesn’t seem to make what I do good.
If you consider what I do good, why not show your appreciation by doing it yourself?
Why not lead? Re-achieving the clean, pure water, air, and land we once had in a world where people think polluting is not polluting requires it.

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