“A Revolution of Values” is What It Will Take to Humanize the Coming Great Transformation

Martin Luther King referred several times to the need for “a revolution of values,” in his speech, “Beyond Viet Nam,” April 4th, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, a year before he was assassinated,.  I listened again as it was replayed on Martin Luther King Day, 2014, forty-seven years later. That speech had been immediately vilified by the media and many politicians who still supporting the war.  King’s words included, along with important but inconvenient truths of that time, some prophetic implications for today.  Not only did Dr. King nail the unacknowledged facts of the increasingly militarized foreign policy that has since grown more aggressive, he also projected his vision into the future with remarkable foresight.

Several converging trends together mark a great transformation in human history that is no longer easy to deny.  Official Washington circles denied it then, with the corporate media chiming in; today official Washington circles conspicuously ignore the writing on the wall and the corporate media follow suit in their silence, even as its biospheric proportions become ever more clear.  Not surprising, really; that is what “company men” and women have always done.  But it is stunning to hear or read Dr. King’s vision of the consequences of the nation’s folly as it reaches its pinnacle, a half century after he acknowledged it as the nation’s elites denied it.

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit…” [Read Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc.]  That malady remains as an ever-growing culture of cruelty abroad and increasingly at home.  The fundamentalist values of imperial domination of the Feared Other are now being turned inward as the domestic population is increasingly viewed as the enemy of the “free market” [read corporate controlled market] and its plunder of the entire planet.  The history of the industrial age has been one of forcing people off their land, and now from their jobs and homes, in the never-ending quest for more profit and less costs through reduced and outsourced wages and efficient production through labor-saving technology.  But to what end?  The economic values of the growth imperative override and supersede any human values we attempt to retain.  This is the extension of the malady Dr. King pointed to.

The human malady we continue to experience is expressed in the destruction of social relations – that is, relations among persons – in the economic interests of corporations.  Dr. King recognized that destructive trend quite clearly even in 1967:

“…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

The result has been an ever growing culture of cruelty.  To counter that, we need a revolution of values.

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies…. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. ..
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation…  There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

Dr. King did not anticipate the emergence of a massive ‘incarceration nation’ that would be the legacy of the drug war, nor the extreme disparity in income and wealth that would surpass the conditions preceding the great depression.  But all across the nation and the world, people are now beginning to seriously question government policies and economic conditions that approach being intolerable, recognizing that they serve the interests of the power elite only by destroying people’s lives and the biosphere in which we all live.  The evidence of their damage just keeps piling up.  But individuals are also aware that alone they have little opportunity to take actions that they feel will ‘make a difference.’  So, often on the model provided by Occupy Wall Street and with similar perspectives, small local groups are forming to address specific problems arising at a human scale from the destruction of the growth-imperative political-economy.  They embody Dr. King’s words:

“If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.:”

Twenty-four hours before he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, Martin Luther King expressed his vision of the necessary movement of people around the world to redirect humanity through a revolution of values:

“Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up…
It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”

Wendell Berry recently commented that we are beginning to experience the “resettling of America,” in which people recognize the importance of their relations to the land and to the people around them, and are acting on that awareness – they are turning away from the giant institutions that have failed America.  They are taking direct actions in response to the emerging Revolution of Values of which they are a part and which cannot be stopped.

Culture Clash

Facing a natural world with which it has yet to reach an accommodation, the accelerating crisis of industrial civilization involves an intensifying clash of cultures within itself.  Climate disruption, economic disintegration, and political stagnation converge in a composite crisis of unheard of planetary proportion and complexity.  At the same time, a growing cultural divide pits deeply ingrained conventional consumer culture against the emerging ecological consciousness that values integration with the natural world over the traditional materialism of American life.

Climate denial is being overwhelmed in the public mind by irresistible evidence of the damage already underway as increasing incidents of climate disruption occur – never mind the complex but consistent scientific evidence behind conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections of accelerating climate disruption.  A very good indicator of the real world trends is the fact that each IPCC report of the latest climate data shows that the previous estimates of change, such as the melting of polar ice, significantly underestimated the pace of the disruptions wrought by global warming.  Yet, even those of us who recognize the trends and likely catastrophic outcomes of these trends have little grasp of the practical implications for our own lives as we struggle to respond to the threat.

At the same time, the vast majority of Americans understand that the Banksters of Wall Street continue to plunder the commonwealth by taking in trillions of dollars from the Fed in payments for their worthless sub-prime derivatives (so-called “assets”) while continuing down the same path, and that it can’t go on indefinitely without another “great recession.”  And most of us are aware that much of the unemployment and underemployment of Americans has resulted from the movement of capital overseas to the cheapest labor markets in the world, causing massive loss of jobs here in the U.S.  We understand the corrupting influence of corporate purchasing of elections, voter suppression, and corporate lobbyists literally writing the bills that are voted on in congress.  We get the fact that fossil fuel production, which peaked in 2005, is declining as demand continues to grow, despite environmentally destructive fracking and the fantasies of “free market” economists whose theories do not account for the laws of thermodynamics and completely fail to consider the finite nature of planetary resources.[1]  It’s a paradigm whose time has passed.  Yet, we are all implicated in the industrial juggernaut by the very way we live our corporate consumerist lives as we seek ways to mitigate the damage. 

As a people, we do not know what to do, other than make small gestures like sorting our recyclables or buying a hybrid car.  We know that is not enough, but what would be?  The environmentally conscious are looking in the right direction, although not far enough.  The rest are out of touch with the whole problem of humanity on the planet, either because they are so busy holding down two (or more) part time minimum wage jobs to pay the rent, or because they are too busy enjoying the perks of being among the 0.1% whose growing wealth will never satisfy them and whose amoral culture recognizes only privilege, never responsibility.  At the same time, we observe the increasing oppressiveness of the corporate surveillance state in concert with the glaring omission of either discussion of climate disruption or genuine political reform in the corporate media or serious consideration in the congress or white house of measures to mitigate the effects of these parallel crises.  Nor is the growing disparity between the super-rich, the shrinking middle class, and the expanding ranks of the poor – which parallel the conditions that brought on the Great Depression – considered a topic for serious discussion in the corporate media.

In all this, the cultural gap between those who recognize the need for far more drastic action than even Bill McKibben calls for to curtail the worst of the disruptions to our lives, and those who want something done without disturbing their diminishing suburban consumer lifestyles, is growing ever more rapidly.  All the while, as the intensifying crises of climate disruption, economic inequity, and political atrophy converge, the consumption of fossil-fuel energy continues to accelerate as powerful energy and industrial interests grab all they can for as long as they can on their path to catastrophic change for all of humanity.  Most Americans know something has got to give, but many delude themselves into the idea that it won’t affect their own consumer habits, while others know that it must happen but not how it can happen.  As awareness of the urgency of the planetary crisis grows more widespread, the clash between consumer culture and ecological culture will intensify.


[1] Powerful, scientifically grounded explanations of the self-deceptions of mainstream economics in service to the wealthy and powerful in contrast with the necessary relations of humanity to our finite planet are found in Philip. B. Smith & Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From power and greed to compassion and the common good.