As we move into the 150 year anniversary of the U.S. Civil War, if we have any imagination at all, we're likely to find ourselves wondering -- how could so many people in a new nation thrusting with all its youthful energy toward material and physical modernity -- an oasis of freedom for many people from the Old World -- have included such a large fraction of the country so attached to the ancient practice of chattel slavery? How could so many have been so attached to holding other people as property, as goods to be bought, worked, bred and sold like cows or mules -- at the same time they prided themselves on being such a novel experiment in liberty? How could our not-so-far-removed ancestors have held these contradictions together?
On a recent Fresh Air interview program, historian Adam Goodheart provided this explanation:
Obviously (to us now) a deep certainty of white supremacy was central to the ease with which most took slavery for granted. And for most white citizens, the Civil War barely made a dent in their white supremacist assumptions, as Black people were restored to "neo-slavery" in subsequent decades.
Goodheart (author of the new Civil War history 1861) finds he has offer his students an analogy in order to help them make the imaginative leap to understand how slavery could ever have been considered the normal and proper status of other humans.
As it happens, I doubt our human species will find that responding to human-caused climate change is a matter of individual guilt and individual actions, like taking up bicycling (though moving around a bit more would do most of us good.) Rather, like the U.S. Civil War that ended legal slavery, finding a way forward is going to require an economic, social and moral transformation that most of us will experience as involuntary and wrenching, and for too many, deadly.
In Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, science journalist Mark Hertsgaard quotes Kris Ebi, an independent scientist who began analyzing global warming while working for the U.S. electric utility industry:
The U.S. is no longer a new, inventive, resilient nation; we've become a rather indolent and creaky old empire-on-the-wane these days. Our institutions respond poorly if at all to real human needs. But respond we will, because the future will be different from our past. We retain some choices about how inhumane adaptation will be; better to engage now than suffer later.
Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.