activism climate change race social justice

Being moderate in a time of urgency

This time last year I was hard at work editing the book Time to Act, about Christians taking direct action for the climate. Among my own contributions was a chapter summarising Martin Luther King’s thoughts on civil disobedience, drawn in large part from his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

There are so many powerful ideas in that letter, but I was reminded of this one that’s cited in a book I’m reading at the moment (Diversifying Power by Jennie Stephens), where King describes his disappointment with moderates. It’s worth quoting the section in full:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

That remains highly relevant to the race debate. There are many people who are far more concerned about the disorder of protests or toppled statues than they are about the injustices that provoke those actions. What King describes as ‘negative peace’ is very much the order of the day when Britain’s politicians mention Black Lives Matter.

It also resonates for me with climate change. As a thought experiment, perhaps we could rewrite it for a climate context:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the climate moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the greatest stumbling block to a sustainable future is not the coal lobbyist or the climate denier, but the climate moderate, who is more devoted to ‘business as usual’ than to climate safety; who prefers the shallow metric of economic growth to the hard work of true progress; who constantly says ‘I agree that climate breakdown must be averted, but not at the expense of our way of life’; who believes that there is more time than there really is, since they themselves have not suffered the effects of a changing climate.”

Shallow engagement from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

As I say, I offer that re-write as an experiment rather than a reflection of my own opinions, but does it ring true? I certainly find myself frustrated at the complete mismatch between what we say we believe as a culture, and what we actually do. So many people will tick ‘very concerned’ in a survey when asked how they feel about climate change, but then do almost nothing about it. Or our actions are disjointed and contradictory, like vegans who buy meat for their pets.

Looking back at the struggles of the past, such as civil rights, those who were alive at the time can reflect on what they contributed. Were they active, or at least interested? Or did they ignore it because it didn’t concern them?

For my generation, swap in climate change and the same questions will apply. Our children and grandchildren will want to know what we did. Were we bystanders to the climate crisis, moderates who contributed nothing but their worries? Or did we roll our sleeves up and do what we could?


  1. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Attributed to Edmund Burke. Problem is that we have a greater voice than ever before but governments seem to listen little. I remember an MP telling my sister and me about 20 years ago (we’d seen him before attending the former ‘World Development Movement’s London meeting) that all these petitions are viewed as ‘graffiti’. Many would like to do more like XR – I wish all the similar groups could merge – perhaps then?

  2. What do moderates do? They literally moderate the extremes. The problem with radicals is that they prioritise their issue over and above all else. Without the resistance of moderates and those on the other side those radicals will go too far, harming not only what they don’t care so much far but also the very issue they hold dear. Checks and balances are there for a reason.

    Yes it’s very frustrating that the actions you believe to be essential only occur slowly. But then to think you should ride over those who disagree with you is an intellectual arrogance to think that they know nothing better than you.

    Attachment to order over disorder is key virtue. Disorder and choas destroys so much, especially for the poorest as the riots in America have shown.

    What happens after each balance that holds back your radical policy is cast aside only to find another check stands in your way? Eventually the checks and balances of a liberal democracy are crushed. The result is not freedom but autocracy or chaos and you still might not have achieved your goals. Stability and order are not obstacles but a great and difficult achievements we would deeply regret casting aside for pretty much any objective.

    1. DC -You have provided your version of ‘moderate’ but this is not the type that MLK speaks about. The article is about the type MLK is referring to. Perhaps you are not aware of his type of moderate. Perhaps you’d need to be in his shoes to share his view.

      1. What is MLK ‘s type of moderate? I thought it was lefty liberals who postured that they agreed but weren’t prepared to treat Black people equally. Sort of 1960s virtue signallers.

    2. What you’re describing DevonChap is the role of moderates in normal circumstances. I respect that. I consider myself moderate in my politics myself, which is why I said twice in the post above that this is a thought experiment and not necessarily an argument. There is a difference, I think, in taking the cautious and patient middle way in times of business as usual, and insisting on it in an emergency.

      I’m reminded of the film Darkest Hour, which deals with these sorts of questions. It portrays Churchill trying to choose between a declaration of war, and another round of talks, and the competing voices and priorities.

      Moderation is good in moderate times. In extreme times it can become dangerous. Waiting to see how climate change will pan out, or waiting to see what other countries will do, risks leaving it too late. You reach a period of consequences, as Churchill says. Wisdom is contextual. At some point in an emergency, those saying ‘let’s not be hasty’ switch from being the voice of caution to being a source of dangerous delay.

      1. I think the risk for you is that you aren’t channelling Churchill but Barry Goldwater: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

  3. Jeremy, Congratulations on your very clever adaption of Martin Luther King Jr …. echoes of “The Violence of Climate Change” by Kevin O’Brien (radical activism but also radical hope) and on the other hand “Riders on the Storm” by Alastair McIntosh (moderate middle way following the science). But perhaps the best advice is from Prof Katherine Hayhoe and keeping talking to people and do not let them ignore the climate crisis because that is the way to be “A Good Ancestor” (Roman Krznaric). There is definitely stuff to take forward into discussion at the Green Christian Festival at the weekend!

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