Andrew Delbanco, one of the top American Studies scholars in the country raises the issue of the moral complexity of abolition, lessons which apply to Climate Destabilization. (see pages 5 and 6 The New Abolitionists: Global warming is the great moral crisis of ...)

Just as the abolition of slavery was the 19th century's defining moral crisis, Climate Destabilization is the defining moral crisis of our generation. It's easy now to morally condemn those who failed to support African American freedom. Hindsight makes the issue obvious.

But Delbanco's major point, what his critics seem to find most provocative, is that it's entirely possible to give the abolitionists their full due, yet still sympathize with the "intellectual and political leaders who, although disgusted by slavery, nevertheless tried to forestall the catastrophic war they feared was coming."

… the immense carnage of the Civil War, which scholars now believe caused on the order of 750,000 military deaths, "has long cast a backward shadow on the American abolitionists."

It's this "shadow" that Delbanco, as a literary scholar, is so interested in probing. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his friend Herman Melville — who described slavery as "a sin . . . no less—
a blot, foul as the crater-pool of hell," but despaired that "Not one man . . . knows a prudent remedy" — were both repelled by the abolitionists' extremism because, it seems, they didn't want the blood of a cataclysmic war on their hands.

Both writers were "sensitive to the crime of slavery but squeamish about the abolitionist response."

Delbanco wants us to be alert and sensitive to this kind of moral complexity, and empathetic toward those who were sincerely conflicted about pushing too hard, too fast.


Just as slavery was the evil economic foundation of much of Western Civilization at that time, fossil fuels are the evil foundation of today's economy. Many reasonable people fear devastating economic consequences if we reject the energy essentials of contemporary civilization.

As Wen Stephenson puts it,

At this late hour in the climate crisis, with the clock ticking down on civilization, to be serious about climate change — based, mind you, on what science and not ideology prescribes — is to be radical. [emphasis mine]

 Or Tim DeChristopher,

…we’re going to be living through the most rapid and intense period of change that humanity has ever faced.

It's human nature to shy away from a more intense period of radical change than humanity has ever faced. Just as it wasn't totally immoral to fear the  onset of civil war, even if you despised slavery, it's not immorality holding back the center. Very serious economic pain NOW from unprecedented changes, that's confusing, especially if you own stock in coal, oil or gas, the industries which extract, transport, refine, or depend upon them. Bankruptcy might loom for your family. Or your family could be torn apart by the conflict, just as many were in the Civil War.

It's taboo to even publicly discuss our laissez-faire population "policy" and what might be needed to coordinate population control fairly.

Until an individual faces that we are already into this period of intense change, and that continuing with business as usual will result in the end of civilization by the end of the century, escape and denial seem reasonable. Have we the moral courage to retake control of planetary ecology by assuming collective responsibility for our population and energy in time to salvage any remnants of a future for the next generation? Or will our species die out because you and I can't face being reviled as radicals, as the abolitionists were reviled?

We're too squeamish for environmental radicalism, while our own future lives and those of our children are on the line.

Tags: New Abolitionists, radicalism

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