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What would Tom Paine advocate today?

Robert Meeropol

Platypus Review 124 | March 2020

What follows is a slightly revised version of a talk given in Amherst, MA. on January 25, 2020 sponsored by the organization Tom Paine Friends, in honor of what would have been Tom Paine’s 283rd birthday. Robert Meeropol is the founder and retired Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

MY FAVORITE QUOTE FROM TOM PAINE is, “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”[1] I would change “mankind” to “humankind,” but otherwise that quote is close to a succinct summary of my worldview.

I’m not a big fan of ideological labels. Describing people as socialists, capitalists, communists, anarchists, or some other “ist,” often obscures, rather than clarifies, their beliefs.  However, if you called me a Tom Paine-ist, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

What would Tom Paine or a Tom Paine-ist advocate today?

I use the word “advocate” because that’s who Tom Paine was. He didn’t mount the barricades. He didn’t fight in an army. He used his pen to promote actions and support policies. During the American Revolution his pen turned out to be mightier than many British swords and canons. So, what would he advocate today?

It is safe to say that Tom Paine knew nothing about climate change, but I think that he would advocate for what environmental groups such as the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion are saying and doing. More about this later.

As a person of the enlightenment, someone who elevated reason and science, he would argue first for applying our scientific knowledge to make a realistic assessment of what we face. Given that climate change is a global problem that must be tackled by all people, everywhere, advocating for revolutionary change in order to achieve global sustainability is exactly what someone would do who believed in doing good for the entire world and all people who live upon it.

I don’t know how much Paine knew about environmental interactions and so do not know if he understood that doing good for all people also requires doing good by the plants and animals we share the planet with. But as an enlightenment man of reason and science, if he were alive today, he would quickly reach that conclusion. 

So, what is a realistic assessment of what we face? Most of us have heard a lot of about bigger storms, worse droughts, hotter temperatures, coupled with more erratic weather in general. We’ve also heard about sea level rise and catastrophic weather events causing tens, even hundreds, of millions of climate refugees, and that this will cause widespread misery, social chaos and war.

I hate to say it, but that’s a sugar-coated assessment. Once we cross a certain threshold (the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris accords put that number at 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius, or approximately between 2 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit) we will trigger a self-perpetuating cycle of temperature increases that we can do nothing to stop. That will result in several more degrees of warming.

If that happens, massive methane releases will poison our atmosphere, growing food will become close to impossible and most drinkable fresh water will vanish. In other words, we won’t be able to breath the air, drink the water and there will be no food. That’s what we face and that’s why it is no exaggeration to say we face an existential crisis.

Why hasn’t it been presented to us in this manner? I’ll quote from an essay Jonathan Franzen published in the New Yorker last September that begins to explain this. He wrote that avoiding this kind of talk is not surprising, Psychologically, this denial makes sense. Despite the outrageous fact that I’ll soon be dead forever, I live in the present, not the future. Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death) and the reassuring evidence of my senses (breakfast!) my mind prefers to focus on the latter.”[2]So do we all….

We shake our heads and express sorrow and sympathy for the animal and plant victims of the Australian fires. But we don’t give a thought about it happening here. The recent firestorms in northern Alberta, in California, and now Australia will not be confined to those areas as the weather becomes hotter and more erratic. Once we cross the threshold I described a few moments ago, and possibly even before, it will become inevitable that our forests will burn just like those in California and Australia. I’m not predicting this will happen in hundreds of years; I predict that sometime in the next several decades our forests will burn. Imagine our Valley in the midst of a firestorm.

And firestorm is a good word for it, because these fires are so potent that they create their own weather. Meteorologists have observed an unprecedented type of cloud formation during the Alberta and Australian fires.  Their technical name is pyrocumulonimbus clouds. They are caused by the energy released during the fires and create lightning, thunder and tornado-like winds that spread burning embers over long distances. Australians have begun to call them fire clouds. None of us want to imagine them in our Valley.

Scientists are human and not necessarily politically astute. Back in 1988 head NASA scientist James Hansen publicly predicted what has happened since and what we are facing. He might have also been correct at that time when he said that if we attacked the problem immediately and applied our collective political will we could turn this around. But the world’s weather seemed benign at the time, and powerful economic and political forces reacted by creating the vast array of climate denial propaganda that plagues us to this day.

All the scientists could think to do, as it became less likely that we could turn this around, was to scream more shrilly that we must act and that it isn’t too late. They said it in 1990, in 2000, in 2010 and during every year since. That didn’t help as the decades rolled by. People could rationalize: you said the sky was falling in 1988, you have said it over and over again for 30 years and the sky is still up there. Until the last few years, such skepticism helped delay the realization that Hansen was right.

Some scientists came to believe it was too late and gave up in despair.  Others, and this goes well beyond scientists, educated themselves and understood what was happening, but became reluctant to tell the whole truth because it was so dire and overwhelming that they feared it would discourage action.  

And this last fear is a very real one. When I bring this up, a common response is, “What a downer.” Yes, confronting the horror we face is a downer, but isn’t making a comment like that designed to shut off discussion? Isn’t it in fact a form of climate change denial?  It says, let’s not talk about this. But if we don’t talk about it, how can we address it?  Tom Paine would say we must mobilize the masses on a global scale in order to make our best efforts to combat this. He would be the last person to say don’t talk or write about it.

If I accomplish one thing today, I hope that no one who hears this talk will ever try to stifle climate change related discussion by saying it’s a downer. And better still, if you hear someone else say it, confront them about it.

As a political strategist Tom Paine would also make a realistic political assessment. His application of the science to our political situation would lead him to conclude we are unlikely to change the global power structure quickly enough to avoid crossing the thresholds I talked about before. However, Paine never shied away from taking on long odds, so I bet, confronted with this crisis, he would pen a pamphlet. Perhaps he would title it “Environmental Common Sense.” In this pamphlet he would outline how to make our most effective effort to save ourselves and the productive capacity of the planet.

I mentioned the Extinction Rebellion before. XR, as it calls itself, started in the UK and has been engaging in a range of non-violent civil disruptions. Their actions have included blocking intersections and bridges in cities across the globe to demand that all governments declare a climate emergency and make addressing the problem their top priority. Tom Paine would recognize the need for mass revolutionary action. He would say that common sense demands we support and join them.

What kind of change would he urge? As a revolutionary who looked at social structure as a whole, he would urge that our survival now depends on transforming our basic social ethic from competition to cooperation. He would see the need to place the environment over profit and the economy. He would note that sustainability, rather than growth, must be our guide-star.

How much time do we have? If we don’t turn things around in the next ten years, how long before we blow through the threshold that will generate self-perpetuating changes that we will be unable to stop and render the planet virtually uninhabitable? 

Scientists tell us that it takes thirty years to feel the full impact of the greenhouse gases we’ve pumped into the atmosphere in any given year, and that in the last 30 years we’ve pumped as much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as we did in the previous 150 years. During those 150 years we increased global temperatures by one degree Celsius, so it is reasonable to project that we’ll reach the two-degree Celsius threshold by the time we feel the full effect of the gases we’ve pumped into the atmosphere since 1990. That is around 2050, but, of course, such dates are hard to pin down exactly.  

A very well-connected and well-funded British think tank, the Breakthrough Institute, has produced a policy paper that sheds further light on how much time we have. As an aside, I don’t like a lot of what they do because they see nuclear power and other technological fixes as solutions. They believe that we can get out of the mess industrial technology has gotten us into by applying even more industrial technology. I think that’s absurd. One of the definitions of insanity is the belief that you can do the same thing you’ve been doing and produce a different result. However, their position papers present the clearest picture of what we will face and when we will face it.

They point out that the world has several major bread baskets: the U.S./Canadian plains, and the rice bowls of China and India, along with rich agricultural river deltas like the Mekong and Nile. They predict that climate change could lead to the simultaneous crop failure of all of them by 2050. Once that happens, we will face global societal breakdown. I’ll have to live to over 100 to experience it, or more likely die by it, but I fear for my children, their children, and the younger generation. Blowing through the 2-degree Celsius threshold will generate at least another two degrees of warming, bringing the total to four degrees Celsius. About that, the report says, “[Scientist] Kevin Anderson says a 4˚C future ‘is incompatible with an organized global community….’” and that “World Bank reports ‘there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4˚C world is possible’”[3] The World Bank is hardly a radical organization.

Given this time frame, Paine would recognize that every day counts, but he’d also acknowledge that, although we must try, any progress we can make during the ten years the scientists claim we have to drastically cut our emissions probably won’t prevent us from crossing the self-perpetuating threshold of further temperature rise. However, since it might, it would still be worth pursuing.

He’d also acknowledge that it might not, so it would be wise to brace ourselves for all the nastiness that is coming down the pike. Again, a quote from Jonathan Franzen’s article illuminates what I mean by this. Franzen writes that if we can’t win the battle against climate change outright, “other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any world-improving action. In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force. rather than the rule of law, and our defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, and functioning communities. In this respect any movement towards a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combating extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting a humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality […] these are all meaningful climate actions.”[4]

I doubt Tom Paine knew much about social media, but he wrote about and advocated for every other progressive action mentioned in the quoted language.  For instance, in Common Sense, Paine saw our emerging nation as an asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty. He’d be turning over in his grave if he saw what is happening today to the American human rights haven he dreamed of.

That means that efforts like providing sanctuary for an undocumented man not only support human rights but are climate actions as well. And the same can be said for community efforts to aid refugees, support permaculture farming, offer anti-racist training, promote workers’ rights and build neighborhood support networks.

What would Tom Paine say about the 2020 election? He wrote, “Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.” [5]

Tom Paine died well over a hundred years before Donald Trump was born, but he still described him to a tee.

Consider the Democratic Party, I think he would analyze the political and economic forces arrayed against those working to prevent environmental collapse and quickly realize that only those willing to directly confront American and global extractionist corporations are proposing policies that just might save us. There are only two viable current candidates who fit this mold, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I think Paine would favor Sanders over Warren because, despite the major grass roots campaign Warren is mounting, she’s basically a regulator. That’s a top down perspective, while Sanders stakes his ability to make change on building a bottom up mass movement, and Paine was a promoter of revolutionary mass movements. Still, Paine was a political realist and despite his preference for Sanders, would have been willing to support Warren if she became the nominee because she supports necessary basic change as well.

Injecting my own opinion: I believe a Sanders/Warren ticket would be best. I think that combined they have a better chance of beating Trump, and that having a bottom up organizer and a top-down regulator working in tandem would be an excellent combination.

And I think Paine would argue that it must be now. That we have run out of time. I think we can agree that if Trump is reelected, we will blow through the 2-degree threshold more quickly and the future of the human race, and all complex life forms on the planet, looks bleak. But I think Paine would also recognize that even if we dump Trump, which would be a good thing, if we replace him with a corporate-oriented democrat we won’t gain what is necessary to save us.

Why is that?  The scientists say we have ten years, but while most of their predictions have been accurate, things have gotten worse more quickly than they predicted. Thus, eight, rather than ten years, to turn things around may be a more prudent assessment.  If we elect a corporate Democrat, that person may reverse some of Trump’s worst policies, but he or she will not make the basic changes needed to reduce greenhouse gas production. In that case, we lose four of our precious eight years. And, of course, that corporate Democrat will run again in 2024, and his or her Republican opponent will be even worse than whoever that is. So even if that Democrat wins again in 2024, it will be 2028 before any of the necessary changes are even in the planning stage and by then it will be too late. That’s why electing Warren or Sanders is so essential. If we elect any other Democrat, we’ll be jumping out of the fire but into the frying pan.

That’s the beginning of an outline of what I believe Tom Paine would write in Environmental Common Sense, but I want to leave you with one final thought.

What does it mean to say “the world is my country”? If the world is your country, it means you do not give your allegiance to any particular country. It means that you don’t believe in nationalism. It means that you don’t elevate any nation above others. It means that patriotism is obsolete, except in the sense that you express your love for your country, by taking actions to benefit all countries including your own. And because we face an urgent global crisis that requires global cooperation, Tom Paine’s basic philosophy, “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion,” has never been more timely.| P

[1] Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (1791).

[2] Jonathan Franzen, “What if we stopped pretending?” New Yorker, 2019 <>.

[3] David Spratt and Ian Dunlop, “What Lies Beneath: The understatement of existential climate risk,” Breakthrough (2018) <>.

[4] Franzen, “What if we stopped pretending?”

[5] Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776).