Corporations and governments are pledging to lower emissions, maybe to net zero (What “net zero” and “closed loop” mean.), by 2030 or 2050. Nearly everyone recognizes goals past the pledgers’ retirement close to meaningless. What will give them meaning is not hope or appreciation, but accountability, especially imposed from without.
Even with accountability, these pledges could set earlier targets. We all know they can. The tragic message from everyone except, as far as I know, me, is that these changes are a burden, chore, obligation, distraction, and sacrifice. I say they’re opportunities and sources of joy.
Anyone who understood my point and experience would target 2021 or 2025 at the latest. They’d jump at the chance. A person changing isn’t an institution changing, but I dropped my total waste about 90 percent in a few years.
The dangers of delays
I just finished a biography of one of my new huge role models, William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace, by Eric Metaxas. I could quote any number of parts, but I recently read about some company seeking gradual reductions and a section on pro-slavery politicians delaying abolition rang true.
The scene: 1792, England’s House of Commons, discussing passing the first bill abolishing the slave trade. The Member of Parliament Fox held a lot of power and seemed close to helping pass the bill, as you’ll read. By contrast, Dundas supported slavery. I’ll write after the quote the aftermath.
“I believe [the slave trade] to be impolitic,” Fox said. I know it to be inhuman. I am certain it is unjust. I find it so inhuman and unjust that, if the colonies cannot be cultivated without it, they ought not to be cultivated at all…. As long as I have a voice to speak, this question shall never be at rest…. and if I and my friends should die before they have attained their glorious object, I hope there will never be wanting men alive to do their duty, who will continue to labour till the evil shall be wholly done away.
It was a powerful peroration from Fox, a crackling bonfire of truth and clarity, and it was much needed. His words shone a great deal of light onto the moral cowardice of “regulation” and the lazy wickedness of “moderation.” But the canny Scotchman was not troubled. Dundas had thrown water on fires before and knew that one needn’t extinguish the whole fire; sometimes simply creating enough smoke would do all that was needed. Everyone would leave, and then the idiot fire could burn and illuminate the blessed nothingness around it all night long! So now Dundas rose and deftly splashed the single word gradually into Fox’s bonfire. It was very coolly done. Yes to abolition—yes! But not too hastily—no! True leadership demanded prudence. So yes—but gradually. Wilberforce would have thought of the slaves writhing in the Middle Passage, defeated, humiliated, pining for death. Gradually. It was as though these three syllables, soporific and falsely irenic, had bubbled up through Dundas’s mouth from the dead belly of hell itself. Everyone seized on it. And why wouldn’t they? Gradual abolition was abolition and it was not abolition—what more could a politician dream of? The slave trade would be soundly and formally condemned for the first time, and yet nothing would have actually been done about it—extraordinary.
And so a motion was passed, 230 to 85, in favor of gradual abolition.
That word gradual led to no stopping the slave trade. Abolition finally happened in 1807—fifteen years later! That’s tens of thousands of people per year forcibly shipped across the Atlantic, many to their dooms, all to suffering these people voting didn’t have to face. On the contrary, they profited from it.
Wilberforce commented on their delay tactics:
“There is something not a little provoking in the dry, calm way in which gentlemen are apt to speak of the sufferings of others,” he said. “The question suspended! Is the desolation of wretched Africa suspended? Are all the complicated miseries of this atrocious trade—is the work of death suspended? No sir, I will not delay this motion, and I will call upon the House not to insult the forbearance of Heaven by delaying this tardy act of justice!”
Where are our Wilberforces today?
I’m doing my best. Learning his example motivates me.
Many slavery supporters claimed what people today say: “If we don’t do it someone else will.” In their case, British authorities benefiting from enslaving others said that if they didn’t, Spain, France, Holland, Portugal, and so on would.
They were wrong. Passing abolition gave England clarity, credibility, and financial incentive to lead other nations to follow—Sweden, Spain, Portugal, France, Holland.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees