589: Abraham Lincoln and Sustainability, part 1: Is the US a racist nation? What should we do then?
The text of this episode:
Regular listeners know I’ve been living with my apartment off the electric grid for two weeks, in Manhattan, not off in the woods.
Most of the benefits are about connecting more with nature, being humble to it, not dominating it. I’m waking up earlier, for example, to work and read by daylight, so I don’t have to drain the solar-powered battery. Direct sunlight is free. Likewise, during a spell of three overcast days, I had to pay attention to my power use and take advantage of what sunlight I could to charge the battery.
Speaking of reading by daylight, the great benefit prompting today’s post is nearly finishing a biography, Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald. I’m on page 507 of 600, not counting the over hundred pages of footnotes. Past the Gettysburg Address, he’s just been nominated for his second candidacy. Talk of amending the constitution is starting to appear. The war appears mostly won, though deaths mount, Confederate wins still happen, and no one knows how to plan for or handle reconstruction.
I talk a lot about slavery relating to pollution. I’ve for years taken inspiration from British abolitionists around 1800 who looked across oceans to see people suffering for their culture’s indulgences. For the first time in history, according to podcast guest and author of Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild, one group worked for another group’s freedom. Every argument you’ve heard to avoid giving up polluting, their peers used to avoid giving up slavery (what I do doesn’t matter, only government and corporations can make a difference, if we don’t others will, it’s not that bad, it will work out, etc), but they refused to accept the cruelty, injustice, and inhumanity. Through their work, and others’, without a civil war, England made illegal the slave trade and then slavery. I look across oceans and see people suffering and dying, displaced from their land or poisoned and killed on it because we fund companies and governments to do it by buying their packaging, fossil fuels, and so on.
People commonly describe America as a racist nation, especially white Americans, especially white Americans who don’t act against racism. A Constitution permitting slavery and a three-fifths clause certainly back up that view. What do we make of all the people born into that system who did nothing to create it and who worked against it? Besides Lincoln, consider William Lloyd Garrison, Thadeus Stevens, Emerson, Thoreau, and everyone who opposed slavery from before the Constitution to today? What about the hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Union, many volunteers, maybe not all fighting specifically to end slavery but many for just that reason?
One could argue they should have done more. When they take down statues of Thomas Jefferson, who opposed slavery they point out he owned slaves. You can’t argue he created the system he was born into. How much could he do to change that system within his lifetime? Can you blame him for not ending slavery? Say you blame him for owning slaves, would his freeing his slaves changed the system? Alone, clearly not, but you could argue he should have acted his conscience and done what he knew was right, whether it significantly changed the system or not. Everyone knows everyone prefers being free to being enslaved.
What could a free person, benefiting from living in a system of slavery or not, have done? How would they make a difference? Lincoln took a lifetime to reach a position where he could do things like issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which didn’t end slavery, and along the way embraced many crazy notions, like shipping blacks to Africa and many compromises allowing slavery to continue. Most of his life, he wanted to preserve the Union and would allow slavery if it preserved the Union before he would abolish slavery if it would break the Union. In other words, he chose America first over freedom until the Civil War clarified that the Union required freedom.
What could anyone do? How can we blame people who looked at the long odds of their actions achieving any meaningful results and went on with their lives? I hope you’re listening and saying, “but they could have done more. We didn’t need over four score and seven years from a Declaration of Independence saying all men are created to an amendment ending slavery.”
I’m not saying results were impossible, but what? I’m not just asking for historical reasons. If you feel they couldn’t have done more, can you not see this nation ever since the Constitution including huge numbers not racist and supporting slavery but the opposite: fighting for freedom and against slavery as best they could, meaning this nation contains a huge contingent fighting inequality, racism, and systemic racism, always has, and likely always will. That’s a different picture of this nation.
Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Do you believe they could have done more, ended slavery earlier? If they could have done more to end that unjust system, prove it by doing it today to end our unjust system based on pollution. First, let me clarify what oil executives have long known: they are they same system. You can also, if you choose, look across oceans and see people suffering for your lifestyle. You can also choose to say what English people drinking plantation-grown tea, sweetened with plantation-grown sugar and molasses, paid for with profits from mills processing plantation-grown cotton about your flying, ordering takeout delivered in plastic by a fossil-fuel driven vehicle, ordering from Amazon.com. I’ll link in the description to my post showing the systems diagram that the two systems function identically.
But I can’t describe it better than oil executives themselves. Andrew Hoffman, University of Michigan professor in its business school and its School of Natural Resources and Environment, wrote of his discovering the historical connection between slavery and fossil fuels.
The first time these two concepts were linked for me was seven years ago, when a senior oil industry executive in London asked me a rhetorical question: “If it wasn’t for oil, where would we get our energy?” His answer, to my astonishment, was “slavery”
Many people say “never compare anything to slavery. It’s tempting, but nothing compares with slavery.” The biggest difference between the system then and now is that our system today is nearly incomparably bigger and more cruel. As one measure, according to widely and credibly reported studies, pollution kills over nine million people per year. It took the Atlantic slave trade centuries to reach what one aspect of our system does in one year, and we’re increasing that number, you’re paying for it, and there are many other ways our system is killing and causing suffering. Does that it’s happening across the ocean change anything?
If you believe it was possible for them to change anything then, prove it. Do it today on our incarnation of the system. If they should have done something, shouldn’t you? If you consider America’s history racist and criticize them for putting other things first, like balancing doing the right thing with paying their bills, and believe their petty concerns dwarfed in comparison to fighting the cruelty of slavery, even if they couldn’t see the cruelty themselves, even if they weren’t holding the whips, what do you think of yourself? What should you do?
If Thomas Jefferson should have freed his slaves even if his individual action wouldn’t change the system, should you stop polluting? If it would have been hard for him, should he still have done it? Wouldn’t it enable him to make a bigger difference?
Those nine million annual deaths aren’t benign or just a part of life. They’re cruel. Each person wants to live free. Their families see them suffer and have to live with the loss. They are helpless to defend themselves from our jet exhaust, packaging, garbage, and armies and mercenaries kicking them off or killing them for the resources where they live.
You may believe we need to make progress to avoid sliding back to the Stone Age, when thirty was old age and mothers died in childbirth, but for one thing, that myth is a lie and another, that’s one of the excuses they gave to abolitionists. We don’t need what we call “progress.” On the contrary, once you commit, you’ll find that every step toward stewardship for all humans and humility to nature makes the next easier.
Other cultures than ours have resisted nearly every time they’ve interfaced. As Benjamin Franklin noted in colonial times:
When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.
A contemporary wrote in 1782
Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European. There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.
This pattern happens all over, including today in the few places left that our flying, takeout, air-conditioning, and so on haven’t paid to plunder and destroy.
If our material abundance is so great, why does nearly every culture resist it to where our cultural ancestors and we kill, displace, and displace them for what they have?
Maybe you’re not white, or you might throw in not male or straight, and claim your ancestors were oppressed too. I’ll grant your genetic ancestors may have been oppressed, but if you fly, order takeout or Amazon.com, or empty your garbage more than once a year, you have been assimilated and the colonizers are your cultural ancestors too. You’re paying for it. I’m not judging or criticizing. I’m just pointing out what your dollars pay for when you choose to follow the culture you were born into like Jefferson was and balance fighting it with whatever holds you to just buying an electric vehicle.
You can change. Which is harder, for Jefferson to have freed his slaves or for you to go camping for your next vacation instead of flying? People who fly for vacations while I bike criticize my buying fresh vegetables as expensive and inaccessible. Even if they were right, though I spend less on food than any of them and have posted my annual expenses so you can compare, then they can stop flying.
Why aren’t you doing it?