Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A carbon-intensive lifestyle = the moral equivalent of slaveholding

I was listening last night to a Terry Gross interview with Adam Goodheart, Washington University history professor and author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, on the significance of this year's 150th anniversary of the Civil War. At one point (about 25:45 into the interview), Goodheart uses a fascinating analogy to explain how antebellum Americans rationalized slave ownership:
Thinking about how interwoven slavery was into Southern society, into American society… one example I use with my college students …is to talk about today, when many of us recognize that in burning fossil fuels we're doing something terrible for the planet, we're doing something terrible for future generations; and yet, to give this up would mean unravelling so much of the fabric of our daily lives — sacrificing so much, becoming these radical eccentrics, riding bicycles everywhere — that we continue guiltily to participate in the system. And, that is something that I use as a comparison to slavery, that many Americans in the North (and even, I believe, secretly in the South) felt a sense of shame, knew that this slave system was wrong, but were simply addicted to slavery and couldn't give it up.
Part of what makes this analogy brilliant is that it illuminates equally well in reverse: 150 years from now, the remaining humans (that is, those few who retain the capacity to recollect the golden age of the late 20th century) will look back at those of us who lived in huge heated and cooled houses, drove gas-guzzling cars to things we could have walked to, and jet-setted around the planet for fun — all in the plain knowledge that our actions were willy-nilly destroying the planet for the future of race — and they will wonder: what they hell were they thinking? And the answer will be precisely the one that Goodheart suggests: we knew perfectly well that what we were doing was wrong, but we were too weak to make the shift, too afraid of giving up the material and social benefits associated with a plainly immoral way of life, and frankly too afraid of the social opprobrium that would accompany actually leading our lives the right way, right now.

Sure, there are individuals out there who are trying to live carbon-neutral lives, and who spend a lot of time trying to convince the rest of us to do it. And how are they described by the mainstream? Consider Saul Griffith's profile in the New Yorker, which describes him as, well, a radical eccentric, riding bicycles everywhere. Or John Michael Greer, whose wonderful Archdruid blog gets dismissed by (a very green) Stewart Brand as "a bit woo-woo" (personal communication). But don't blame the press; almost all of us, faced with the stark reality of having to live with radically less — which is what any effective limitation of GHG emissions MUST mean — ultimately lack the moral courage to embrace the changes.

Of course, there are obvious differences between these two things. Slavery inflicted a living hell on people right there in its immediate present day (though these things were over the horizon of most Northern textile manufacturer enjoying the cheap cotton, as well as many a fine Southern lady sitting up in the plantation manor house) whereas the human destructiveness of our collective GHG-intensive lifestyle is "over the horizon" both geographically and temporally — that is, the suffering will mostly take place decades from now, in the economic and ecologically marginal communities of Asia, Latin America, and above all Africa.

Likewise, the sorts of rationalizations that people use to justify their ongoing participation in the system are also a bit different. In the case of slavery, it was an ideology of white supremacy that claimed that blacks were "naturally" inferior to whites, and therefore deserved and perhaps even needed to be enslaved by whites. By contrast, today the ideology that justifies continued GHG profligacy is techno-optimism, the cheery belief that if humanity can just get wealthy enough fast enough and/or get the carbon prices right, then a technical fix will inevitably emerge (and get deployed in time!) to prevent excessive CO2 buildup and the ensuing train of ecological and civilizational calamity. In both cases, however, the fervency with which the advocates hold these ideological commitments does little to cover for the poverty of the moral imagination involved.

I am quite sure that people 150 years from now — when the CO2 PPM is twice what it is now; when global temperatures will likely be many degrees higher than they are now; when climate-change-exacerbated hurricanes, droughts, and floods will have destroyed many of today's global cities; when hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people have been killed or displaced by climate change — will look back with wonder at the gutlessness of all of us who rationalized the lifestyles that led to the destruction of the very lifeworld we allegedly so cherish. Contemplating the ruins, our grandchildren will ask about us the same question we today ask about slaveholders: how could they possibly have thought that what they were doing was OK?

A few years ago I interviewed David Reiff about the likely impacts of anthropogenic climate change on human civilization. As we discussed the abject refusal of contemporary national or global leadership to make hard choices about cutting back emissions, David argued that the ultimate problem is not the leaders, but the followers — that is, all of us — who just don't want to contemplate cutting back, who in fact have literally no conception what cutting back means. David concluded our chat with a simple, powerful phrase: "Our grandchildren will curse us."


Bill Barnes said...


A wonderful provocation, well and courageously said, and very insightfull of you to have immediately seen the analogy. But your take is a bit of a blunt instrument, wielded a bit askew. Among whites who lived at a distance from any involvement with slaveholding, but still benefitted indirectly, there was great diversity in the degree to which people actively adopted, contributed to, sacrificed for, the Abolitionist cause. The great shame, and historical embarrassment, of most is that they did nothing prior to the Civil War, except to vote Republican, and perhaps here and there act decently toward a perason of color. And after 1876, most did nothing to fight - or even criticize -- Jim Crow - right up into the 1950s - and this would include most historians, political scientists, and lawyers. It's a version of the "Good German" thing. There are distinctions to be drawn between Nazis, Nazi collaborators, Good Germans, and various levels of anti-Nazi resistance. Today, the question is not who gives up any use of the internal combustion engine and who doesn't, but who works and sacrifices to fight the Republican Party and its ilk (including a good deal of the Democratic Party), the glorifiers of material affluence, wealth, high-end consumerism, the life styles of the rich and famous, career participation, service, promotion, defense of all of that, and every institution and profession that honors and rewards such -- that holds back from active public condemnation of all that.

Bill Barnes

Nils said...

Obviously there are various degrees of culpability in both historical situations, Bill. I guess the big issue in both cases is that the failure of historical imagination leads to the moral failure.

One major reason Southerners defended slavery was that the entire economy of the South was founded on it; they realized - not incorrectly - that abolishing slavery would lead them to a century of penury. So then they decided to make a virtue of necessity and claim that it wasn't even a moral outrage. Something similar is going on today with our carbon-intensive growth oriented economy. People realize that to given that up would destroy our way of life just as surely as abolishing slavery destroyed the antebellum way of life. So some of us trudge along guiltily, and try to drive a little less, while others deny that the sin is taking place at all.

On that vein, see this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/29/carbon-emissions-global-economy-climate

Bill Barnes said...


To further historicize the discussion: The "Southern Way of Life" was an invention of the first third of the 19th century, as steam-powered looms and the British Navy gave English cloth manufacturers world domination and the market for cotton exploded, giving rise to The Cotton Kingdom in the U.S. deep South and the slaveholders view of themselves as a new kind of aristocracy building a new civilization. Before all that, slavery did not loom as large in North America as a whole (compare Brazil, Cuba, Santo Domingo), and there was significant diversity of thought among southern whites about whether slavery was, on balance, good or bad for the South, even economically, and considerable animosity by white small-holders against the slave-plantation-owner elite (none of this in any way challenging the commitment to white supremacy). The hegemony of King Cotton changed that -- by providing both much more widespread opportunities and incentives for pragmatic linkage and an ideological offensive.

So there's an analogy to be drawn with the way the post-WWII development of the Middle Eastern oil fields, and the resulting 1950s huge effective decline in the cost of energy and simultaneous rise in the economic and political power of the oil industry, created "The American Way of Life" and its addiction to energy-intensive/high-carbon living.