098: Would You Free Your Slaves? (transcript)

October 24, 2018 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek headshot

I’m going to get to the heart of this conversation in a second but first I have to do this preface. The point of this conversation is about your values and how you live by them. Everyone I talk to they get it after a couple of objections and they find it thought-provoking, very thought-provoking. But they first have to get past that I’m asking you to compare your behavior with your values. I’m not comparing slavery with pollution. They’re very, very different. But if you don’t like one and you don’t like the other, once you translate it into your own system of values, then internally it’s do you live by your values or not. I’m giving two separate things which are very different and using them as different examples for you to think about how you might behave by your values in one and not by another, or maybe they are both the same. Let me get into the talk.

There’s a blog that I really love. It’s Do the Math blog. I highly recommend reading this blog especially if you have some science background. It’s this Caltech trained physicist who teaches at UC San Diego. He does the math on a lot of calculations as to how much energy people use, how much people waste and so forth because lot of people talk about things without actually doing the math and nature is amenable to mathematical approach. So he does it. Anyway. He uses the term slaves, energy slaves. He says that when you say drive a car or you use an electric engine to move something for you, the amount of work of say 10 people, that’s like he says you have 10 energy slaves. The way he’s using it is that you have free labor, not that you’re hurting people in the sense of owning slaves would. But it got me thinking and I’ve definitely read news articles which say that if you are polluting, if you’re making a situation that other people have to clean up after you and they don’t have a choice in the matter, they call it slavery or they liken it to slavery.

I’m not going to argue does it meet some definition or that definition but it’s worth considering that if you create a mess that others have to work to clean or they will suffer and you don’t pay them, well what is slavery if not labor that you don’t pay someone for under the threat of hurting them. Wikipedia under types of slavery says, “When an individual is forced to work against their will under the threat of violence or other punishment.” If you create a mess, say you pay for a company that spills mercury into the groundwater someplace and other people have to clean it up or else they’re going to have lower IQs or they’re going to have some disability, I’m not saying it’s slavery but it’s something to think about that you’re forcing other people to clean your mess and you’re not paying them for it. Well, we certainly live in a world that’s polluted by people in the past. We have to deal with that mess. I don’t like it. When I clean up someone else’s mess and I don’t get paid for it whether it’s slavery or not it’s something similar to consider.

Now here’s the challenge. I want you to imagine that you were born a slave owner and it could be in any time and place where there is slavery in history. But let’s just say for concrete, let’s say Alabama or Mississippi, some place in the deep south before the American Civil War like 1850 or 1800 or something like that. You may not have been born the same gender as a slave owner, or the same sex, or the same skin color at the same age. Those are accidents of birth. But imagine you some magically appeared and you were in the deep south before the Civil War. What’s the context? Everyone around you is going to own slaves. If you were to free your slaves or to pay your slaves, you would not be able to sell your goods at the prices that they could because they don’t have to pay their slaves and if you do, you are going to have to charge more or you’re going to go out of business.

More on top of that, looking back today we would say, “Of course, it’s wrong” but I think a lot of people then thought that it wasn’t wrong. They didn’t think that they’re going to go to hell for owning slaves. They thought they were going to get to heaven for owning slaves. For you to choose to not own slaves would be really, really weird for them. They would look at you like, “What are you doing? That’s what you’re supposed to do.” Now you might say by today’s standards… Your neighbors will not have been living by today’s standards but now you might say, “I would live by today’s standards” because you would be you.

So here’s my question. Would you free your slaves? Now this may be a very simple question for you to answer. Is it though? Think of the social and economic costs. Could you withstand them? You probably couldn’t continue to live where you lived. You’d probably lose your farm. You probably have to move where slavery was illegal which would be very far away, maybe thousands of miles away. Who around you would understand you? Would your family understand you? Would your spouse leave you? If you were to free your slaves, would you do it right away? Would you say, “Okay, you guys can leave right now”? Or would you stage and do it over time? Would you say, “Well, we can’t just do it right away. So some of you will have to stay another year or some of you will have to stay a couple of years.” Or would you just say, “You can leave right away”? Or would you say, “I don’t care about all these superficial concerns. I can’t live with hurting people. I would get rid of them right away.”

So seriously think about it. Is it so trivial to say that you would free them? If it’s not trivial, what does that tell you about yourself? That you might keep slaves because it’s not an easy decision. Remember, I’m suggesting you didn’t create the system. You didn’t ask for it. You didn’t ask to own the slaves. You didn’t ask for a system of slavery being legal. You just inherited them. No matter what your skin, color, religion or whatever, nearly everyone has ancestors who were enslaved. I know I did. I have ancestors who were persecuted in many different ways. So if it’s not such an easy question to answer because you would have to uproot everything about your life, everything would change. Nothing would be the same. You couldn’t keep living there. You couldn’t keep the same friends. Your family might not understand. If that’s the case, just as an aside, does this lead you to have more empathy for slave owners? For someone who wasn’t born, someone who didn’t decide for the system, they were born an accident of birth. They didn’t ask for it. They didn’t know anything else.

So I’m not suggesting that you should or should not have empathy for them but I’m just asking the effects. If you feel connected to your enslaved ancestors, you may never have considered the view of the slave owners that were born into a system that they didn’t ask for and yet they grew up in it. But I suspect that many of you, you know the future, which is today our present, the future of then, you know where slavery was going which is to say it’s an abomination. It’s a disaster we want to keep from happening anywhere again and stopping where it’s still happening so we want to stop it. That’s certainly how I feel about it. I just I could not abide by slavery. But if choosing to free them is trivial to you, think hard about handling the fallout to you, your family, your community. I put to you that no matter how clear cut that decision is for you that that part is still not trivial. Could you handle it? What would you be willing to do? How would you do it? How much would you disrupt your life to free your slaves? Because it would be a major, major disruption. You probably wouldn’t know when you said, “I will free them” how you would answer all the questions of what you would do the next year, the next couple of years, how you’d resolve things with your family and so forth. If you say, “I couldn’t live for a moment enslaving others. I would free them immediately no matter what cost to myself. I will live consistent with your current present but then your future, I will help create that future even if no one else does. Because I believe that’s right and I still will because I know what’s right for myself and I’d rather live by what I consider right than allow my neighbors to corrupt my values.” If that’s so clear-cut to you, then how do you apply that rectitude and certainty to your pollution habits, to how much you pollute?

Now it’s very easy right here to say, “Slavery, pollution. Very, very different.” I agree but if you think one is wrong and you think the other is wrong, different magnitudes are wrong but that’s totally internal to yourself no matter how different those things are. That’s your values. Can you deny that you live in a world polluted by people in the past and polluted by people elsewhere even in the present? Have you seen what happens to people when they ingest mercury? Do you know that lead which was in our gas for a long time lowers children’s IQs? We had leaded gas for generations. It could be that your IQ is lower than it would have been had there never been leaded gas. What if someone damaged your brain? It’s possible that they did. How do you feel about that if someone lowered your IQ, if someone brain-damaged you? Do you like that? Do you feel that there’s some problem with that? What if someone today said, “Let’s allow leaded gas again” and they burn leaded gas where your children played almost guaranteeing that your children would be brain damaged? Are they not hurt? How long do you think plastic that you use stays in the environment getting eaten by fish, killing animals all up and down the food chain, all the way up to humans, possibly yourself, definitely future generations? Does hurting people in one way where you can’t see it where in some time, in some abstract future versus another does that change pollution that much from slavery?

Look I’m not trying to say they are the same but polluting the environment hurts other people. There’s no getting around that. It makes a world that could be clean and pristine dirty and polluted. It takes stewardship and says this gift that you have you’re taking it from others. I don’t see any other way of looking at that. Is it slavery? No, it’s not slavery. Is it something that you consider right or wrong? I can’t say. Only you can say. But if you consider pollution wrong and you said it was an easy choice to get rid of slaves how long do you continue polluting more than you have to? Now you could say you can’t get down to zero pollution. I agree. But there are certain amounts of pollution that the Earth can repair in certain times and we’re way over that. So does hurting people in one way versus another, does that change pollution that much from slavery? I don’t know. I don’t think there is a concrete answer. I’m not saying there is a concrete answer. What matters is your answer for yourself, not some abstract ideas for others.

So if pollution is not that much different, are you willing to act on your polluting actions as much as you would have if you were born owning slaves? You didn’t ask to be born in the system of pollution. You didn’t create it. In that regard it’s a similar situation. But if so, let’s say polluting is nothing like owning slaves. First, I’m going to push back on that point. How much plastics do you produce? How much jet fuel do you pay to burn into the environment? How much gas? How much topsoil gets eroded because of stuff that you pay for? How much of various rainforests have you paid others to deplete, to chop down trees for whether you meant to or not? Does it matter that someone else is doing it for you if you pay them to do it? Did slave owners themselves be their slaves or did they hire other people to do it for them? Does that change your view of their level of responsibility? I suspect that you pollute a lot more than you think you do. And I suspect you’re responsible for far more than that. However indirect you consider that responsibility nature is affected the same if you cut the tree yourself or you pay someone else to do it for you. And if you tell yourself you prefer it’s done some other way, that doesn’t change that that’s the way it’s done now. Planes weren’t just going to fly anyway. A lot of people when I talk about flying they are like, “Oh, the plane was going to fly anyway. I’m just adding my little weight to it.” They fly because people like you pay for them to fly. And it’s not just your weight that you add to the flight. You become responsible for your part of all the fuel. You’re responsible for your share of that. It’s not like the plane was going to fly and they just put you on it. That’s fallacious, specious self-serving logic. To call it logic is… It’s not logic.

But let’s say that polluting is not as bad as slavery. My point is not remotely that pollution is slavery. The bottom line is not that pollution is like slavery. It’s about you and your values. Do you think for yourself that pollution is good, bad, right or wrong? I’m not asking for some universal morality or for others to agree with you. Just think for yourself. You know inside your heart. Do you litter? How do you feel when other people litter? If you think pollution is wrong, again I’m not saying it is, but for your internal values, what you think for yourself, not imposing that on anybody else. How much are you willing to do wrong that you consider wrong? Not what I consider wrong, what anyone else considers wrong. How much are you willing to do that you consider wrong for yourself for your comfort and convenience? What does that do to you to do something that you consider wrong so that you can be comfortable?

Now it doesn’t matter if pollution is like slavery. It’s your choice internally. If you think something is wrong but it’s too much of a pain for you to change. When I’m talking about it as a matter of internal beliefs and your integrity, I didn’t ask you to imagine owning slaves to make you feel bad, nor to think about the past but to think about the present and the future. I’m confident that most listeners would figure out a way to free slaves as fast as possible. I’m pretty sure that everyone listening to this would say, “I would get rid of my slaves. If I couldn’t do it immediately, I would do it as fast as I possibly could.” Probably you’ll figure out how to change what you’d have to do to live consistently with the values that you hold today that is the values from the future of that time, the future of 1850. I expect that your transition would be hard. You wouldn’t know from the start how you would make it through. If people asked you how you’d make it, you couldn’t answer. You’d just say, “I have to do this. This is what is right. I’m going to do it. It’s not going to stop me from starting and whatever you’re doing it’s not going to change what I’m going to do.”

And then you would solve things as they came. You’d start with not hurting the people who can’t defend themselves the slaves. You wouldn’t care that it was legal. You wouldn’t wait for government to force you, You’d do it right away. You’d know that your actions would lead government to follow. It’s one of the best things you could do to get the government to follow it’s to free your slaves first so that the government can see the people that I represent aren’t doing this already. Most of all you would know that however difficult the transition you would feel that much better. However hard it was, you’d feel that much better after you changed. You couldn’t live with yourself owning slaves. You’d never go back. You would know that many people didn’t own slaves. Maybe not in your immediate community but outside that community and you’d learn from them. Whatever community you lost among the slaveholders you’d find more people who shared your values and you’d live by them and you’d lived with them.

When you consider freeing slaves think of how much easier your change would be in freeing your slaves if you knew others who had done it first. It makes it easier when you don’t have to blaze the trail yourself. You know many people that pollute less than you. You could follow them. Think of how much easier you can make it for others if you change first. The question is do you want to live consistently with a system that you consider wrong. Will you let a difficult transition stand between you and a future living by your values because you know that you can pollute less? If you’re an American, listening to this or if you’re a Westerner, you pollute maybe a hundred times more than many people in the world today and probably more than almost anyone who’s ever lived in the entire history of humanity. I still pollute but a lot less than before. Maybe 1 percent, maybe 10 percent as much as I used to and I’m decreasing as fast as I can as I learn and the more that I pollute less, the more I learn that I can pollute yet less. I’m trying to help others to decrease too.

I don’t think I’m overstating this. I don’t want to… I probably have to preface this by saying, “My ancestors were enslaved not that long ago” but I have done the pollution equivalent of freeing my slaves. I have still more to free. My question to you. Will you free yours? Remember how easy it was for you to say… If you’re like most people I’ve spoken to, if you’re like everyone that I’ve spoken to, there’s no question that, “I would free my slaves. I will do as fast as I could, maybe immediately and I would just deal with the blowback and I’ll deal with it as I could. I wouldn’t ask myself how exactly I’d make do afterward.” Will you do the pollution equivalent today? Will you live by the values that you talked about? Either we’re going to keep making these messier and messier and there’s probably going to be some sort of environmental collapse including human population collapse or we’ll make it through this. And this is the way the future is polluting less, keeping track of taking on responsibility, taking on accountability and looking at what you’re doing and saying, “I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do next. I don’t care what other people are doing.” Exactly what you would say when you’d free your slaves in the south. Would you do that today? Can you do that today? Why wouldn’t you do that today? What’s the difference internally? I’m not asking what’s the difference between slavery and pollution. I’m asking what’s the difference between living by your values in one situation saying, “Damn the torpedoes. I will do what’s right” and in the other situation saying, “I don’t know. It’s kind of hard for me to do that. I want to see Machu Picchu and all that sort of stuff.”

Will you help create a future where people look back at today’s polluting habits as barbaric? Will you help create a world where we look at this as barbaric? The way that we burn fossil fuels, the way that we dump pollution in the environment, the way that we would chop down trees in the rainforest and so forth. We help bring in the future about sooner. I find it justifying doing something wrong. It eats you up inside whether it’s slavery or hurting people in other ways, especially when it’s for your own comfort, convenience, ignorance, saying that you don’t know how much something pollutes when you can look it up, or denial. This is not supposed to be a make-you-feel-like-crap podcast post. This is a get-you-to-think because I know what happens when you start living by your values, especially when you haven’t for a long time. You feel great. The harder the transition, the better you feel afterward. Most people don’t want to make that transition.

Here’s a jaded perspective, a cynical perspective that most people today who say, “I would free my slaves immediately if I were put back in 1850 Alabama.” They probably wouldn’t. It’s easy to say I would do it when no one could check up on you, when it’s impossible to check. “Oh, I would do that. If I were in Germany in the 20s or 30s, I would oppose the Nazi party.” Would you? Because if you would, why would you not stop polluting today? Why would you not do what you think is right there? OK, look, you may be listening to this and saying, “Pollution is good. I like polluting.” If that’s the case, vaya con dios, that’s your business. I don’t know what to say about that. I’m not here to change your values. I’m here to ask you if your values are that you think polluting is wrong internally yourself. What does it take for you to act on that? Would you really free your slaves in the past? If you would and not know how you’d make up for it, how you have to move a thousand miles away, you might lose your family, lose your community, how much easier is it to pollute less?

The future that is possible is a future where you look back at what you’re doing today and saying, “I can’t believe I did that but I’m so glad that I’m doing what I’m doing now.” I can tell you in my experience polluting less has led to more community, more delicious, saving money, more convenient, better in every way that I can imagine. I did what I knew internally by my own values what was wrong no matter what anybody else thought. If you’re doing something like that, what does it take for you to change? Would you really change before? If the answer is no, what does that tell you? How does that make you feel differently about people back then? If the answer is, “I’m not sure,” if the answer is no, maybe you want to change that answer to yes. You would really free them. If the answer is yes, what does it take for you to act on the current values that future generations will look back at us today and say, “They knew what they were doing”? So the question is do you want to free your slaves? Would you have freed your slaves then? Or you’ll do the pollution equivalent today? I think what you’d create is a happier, more healthy, more clean and pristine, more community based future. And in your own personal life it’s living by your own values, with meaning, purpose, values, importance. I think it’s worth thinking about. Let me know how it goes.

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