LEWISTON — If the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he might preach sermons about giving people equal rights to clean air and water.
It's the "unfinished business" that Julian Agyeman believes King alluded to in speeches but never spoke about explicitly before his assassination, the author and teacher told a Bates College crowd Monday.
"Healthy human habitats is what he was talking about," Agyeman said. "A fair day's pay for a fair day's work and coming home to a decent place to live."
The simple notion was at the heart of an hour-long address by Agyeman, a professor and chair of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
The keynote speech also served as the centerpiece to a weekend of events at Bates aimed at marking King's birthday and honoring his work.
Other events included a memorial service for King, the annual debate between Bates students and students from Morehouse College, King's alma mater, and a series of open discussions and workshops.
Most of the talks focused on the intersection of civil justice and environmental sustainability, something Agyeman described as "just sustainability."
Too many of the world's worst environments are in places dominated by poor people, he said.
It's plain wrong, said Agyeman, who grew up in England.
And it won't last forever, he insisted. The inequities between people — Americans account for less than 5 percent of the world's population but use 25 percent of its resources — will eventually provoke people from other countries to act if the wealthy do not change.
"Twenty-five percent is not going to continue," Agyeman said. "Someday a U.S. president has got to stand up and say, 'We have got to dial it down.'"
Or worse, the poor will rise.
"This just will not continue," he said. "We will either descend into barbarism and warfare over resource allocation or we will go to a table and start to think about how to allocate resources more fairly."
Convincing people to change will be extraordinarily tough, people said after Agyeman's address.
After the keynote, attendees were encouraged to attend one of six breakout sessions around campus.
In a classroom in Bates' Hedge Hall, students, teachers and visitors to the campus said they admired much of Agyeman's remarks, including his suggestion that cities and public spaces in particular should be designed to encourage more interaction between races. However, they also wondered if Americans might ever give up some of their luxuries in the name of fairness.
"We run the risk of telling people that the way you were born is the way you will end," said Chris Fortson, a Morehouse student originally from Milwaukee, Wis. "If you're born poor and we tell you, 'You shouldn't desire too much more because everybody has to have a piece of the cake,' then where is that innovation, that strive to be the greatest?"
Another Morehouse student wondered if environment and wealth are as linked as Agyeman suggested.
"Is the issue that poor neighborhoods don't have clean air and clean water or is it an issue that poor neighborhoods are poor?" asked Derrick Reed, a Morehouse student from Philadelphia. "For me, that's the part where I am lost when we talk about environmental justice."
Jane Costlow, a Bates professor of environmental studies, said people must face truths.
"You can propose capitalism forever and ever, but we live in a limited world with a growing population, so there's a challenge," she said.
"I think Martin Luther King, like Desmond Tutu, was a man of faith before he was a capitalist," she said. "That ratchets up a question about what's our vision of a good community. Is it a capitalist vision? Or is it a vision that comes out of a tradition of justice?"
It speaks to more than just the environment. For instance, she wondered aloud why Lewiston's Longley Elementary School is both a failing school and serves the community's poorest children.
"You need to ask, 'What's our definition of well-being? What do we want our community to look like ?'" she said.
"Think about it," she said.