“Suppose today some dominant industry, built into the lives and fortunes of a great many people -- to a degree of the whole nation -- were found to be morally repugnant; what difficulties there would then be in extracting it from the nation’s life!”
Pssst. Don’t tell anybody, but BP’s oil spill made some environmentalists just a little bit happy.
Only a disaster, the thinking went, could expose the lie that offshore drilling offers a safe solution to our energy crisis. Only a disaster could cast enough harsh light on the catastrophic consequences of our continued reliance on fossil fuels.
But politics works in mysterious ways. On July 21, the largest protest yet over deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico gathered inside a domed stadium -- except the protesters were rallying for loosening restrictions, not tightening them.
Never mind the damage that just one spill caused to the fisheries, on the beaches, in the bayous. Never mind the lax regulations and flawed permits the spill has exposed. Louisianans are upset that the Obama administration is trying to impose a six-month moratorium on exploratory drilling in an attempt to ensure that there’s not another ticking Deepwater Horizon platform waiting to explode.
“We are in a war to defend our way of life,” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal told a crowd estimated at 10,000 in the oil-industry city of Lafayette. “We will win this war. We shouldn’t have to fight our own federal government.”
To any native Southerner, Jindal’s rhetoric sounds familiar. The Republicans of today picked it up from the Dixiecrats who came before them, who themselves were imitating the grandiloquence that John C. Calhoun and other antebellum politicians leaned on to justify slavery. Those 19th century men often couched their struggle to preserve the ownership of human beings as the dire defense of a civilization.
“We are not fighting for slavery,” insisted Confederate President Jefferson Davis. “We are fighting for independence, and that or extermination we will have.”
I’m not the first writer to draw parallels between the fight over slavery and the current one over climate change (and I won’t be the first mocked for making the comparison either).
Just to be clear though, the point isn’t to draw any moral equivalence between driving your car and owning a slave. I’m bringing up the parallels for a more sobering reason: It’s that we may not be able to deal with climate change in a meaningful way until our society is past a breaking point. So many of our jobs, so many communities -- so much of our way of life, really -- are tied up in the very problem that needs solving.
Only the nation’s long and painful saga to come to terms with its founding sin -- highlighted by a Civil War that cost 625,000 lives and left half the country in ruins -- compares to climate change in the sense that it required taking on a vast complex of internal interests who didn’t want to change because they benefited from the way things were.
We are indeed confronted with a moral issue when it comes to climate change, though it’s not the one that would equate the sins of slavery with the act of driving. Just as Southerners and their Northern accommodators put a reckoning over slavery off for future generations -- and allowed it to grow into a bigger, more intractable crisis -- we’re delaying any effective steps to slow the growth of greenhouse emissions.
There is a hopeful message in the parallel. But to find it, you have to look across the Atlantic Ocean. While the number of slaves grew and the debate over slavery in the United States grew more divisive and violent until the Civil War became all but inevitable, the British Empire gradually chipped away at slavery. Court cases and legislation banned the trade of slaves. Parliament set up an “apprenticeship” program for gradual emancipation. Repugnant as it may sound today, compensation was offered. By 1838, slavery was banned in England and its colonies with hardly any protest, much less a Civil War.
Certainly conditions in the United States were different from those in Britain. Half of the country -- not just a few far flung colonies -- had locked up much of its wealth in slavery. But it still seems reasonable to draw a lesson from the British example: Putting off the need to do something will only make the sacrifices more painful later.
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