Will the future resemble the past? Our changing atmosphere and our peculiar institution

May 23, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 23, 2014

I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the past few days reading about two disparate issues. One, climate change, is very contemporary; the other, slavery, continues to affect American society despite the fact that the practice was outlawed about 150 years ago.

Let’s start with climate change — specifically, with Bill McKibben’s 6,200-word essay on the subject from a 2012 edition of Rolling Stone. It is subtitled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” and it focuses on three numbers: The amount of temperature rise that the planet might — might — be able to sustain without triggering catastrophic environmental and geopolitical changes, the number of gigatons of carbon dioxide that scientists estimate humanity might be able to pump into the atmosphere while still retaining a chance of keeping below an unsustainable temperature rise, and the number of gigatons of carbon dioxide that would be added to the atmosphere if all known reserves of coal, oil and gas reserves are extracted and used.

McKibben focuses on those three numbers, as stated, but the most frightening part of the article can be boiled down to one sentence: Known fossil fuel reserves are capable of producing roughly five times the amount of carbon dioxide that the atmosphere is thought to be able to absorb safely.

Consider the other topic for a moment — slavery, which has euphemistically been called America’s peculiar institution. The Atlantic has just posted a comprehensive feature article by Ta-Nehisi Coates titled “The Case for Reparations.” The work comprises about 15,000 words; it’s also accompanied by “An Intellectual Autopsy,” a 2,100-word addendum (that I have yet to read) in which Coates explains how his opposition to reparations changed over the last four years.

I urge anyone who cares about American history or contemporary affairs, or who has any interest whatsoever in race or society, to set aside an hour or so to read Coates’s entire opus. Still, I’ll summarize a few pertinent points:

• The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution established that no American may be deprived by the government of life, liberty or property without due process and that all people within the government’s jurisdiction are entitled to the equal protection of the law. However, in the Jim Crow South and elsewhere in the nation, black Americans were routinely deprived of life, liberty, equality and property by private citizens and governments alike. These depredations were deliberate and widespread.

• The consequences of this systematic plunder resonate to this day. As Coates writes, “The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do.” Sociologist Patrick Sharkey has found, in Coates’s words, that “black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000.”

• The consequences of the subordination of black Americans manifest themselves in ways that extend far beyond economics. Coates spends several parts of his article examining North Lawndale, a Chicago neighborhood that is now 92 percent black. Its homicide rate is triple that of the city as a whole. Its infant mortality rate is twice the national average. Its poverty rate is 43 percent, double the city’s overall level. Forty-five percent of its households use food stamps, thrice the rate of Chicago as a whole. Another sociologist, Robert J. Sampson, calculated that West Garfield Park, a separate black Chicago neighborhood, has an incarceration rate more than 40 times higher than the white neighborhood with the highest level.

These neighborhoods may represent extremes, granted; but they remain indicative of the experience of black Americans as a whole. In so many areas — finances, education, longevity — blacks lag other races and ethnicities.

These topics intersect in a third essay that I read this week. (Ironically, it was the first of these items that I encountered.) Last month, Chris Hayes published a 4,700-word article in The Nation under the title “The New Abolitionism.” Hayes’s main subject is climate change, but his work is premised on the fact that, as McKibben described in some detail two years ago, perhaps $10 trillion worth of fossil fuels will have to be abandoned in order to avert disastrous temperature increases.

Writes Hayes, who is editor-in-chief of The Nation as well as an MSNBC television host:

The last time in American history that some powerful set of interests relinquished its claim on $10 trillion of wealth was in 1865 — and then only after four years and more than 600,000 lives lost in the bloodiest, most horrific war we’ve ever fought.

Hayes emphatically notes that he is not saying that owning slaves is morally equivalent to extracting, distributing or using fossil fuels. Rather, he’s arguing that averting calamitous climate change may have economic and societal impacts that are at least as wrenching as those that accompanied the end of the peculiar institution.

Bear in mind that mitigating climate change is a difficult and expensive prospect, one that will exponentially increase in challenges and costs with every delay. And remember that a huge proportion of conservative politicians and Republican activists have shown an increasing commitment to denying either the existence of climate change or humanity’s role in affecting climate (if not both).

America has made tremendous strides in addressing and remedying its legacy of racism, especially over the last few decades. But for all that, problems remain — issues that many conservatives are extremely reluctant to acknowledge, let alone ameliorate.

If our species deals with the looming specter of climate change in as fractious a manner as the United States has handled the great injustice and dire aftermath of slavery, then the lives of many millions, if not billions, will be imperiled. Unfortunately, there are all too many signs that we will deny and dissemble until it’s too late.

I hope that I’m wrong. I fear that I’m right.

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