Climate change and slavery
I read an interesting piece from Simon Leadbetter today, naming climate change sceptics as "our generation's slavery apologists". It made me dig out a speech from Lord Puttnam from 2007, when the Climate Change Bill was going through parliament. I think it's the most powerful speech I've ever heard on climate change.
As the stakes on climate change get ever higher, with time running out so fast, and with political leadership as absent as ever, Lord Puttnam's speech is more relevant than ever. Here's a long extract from it - do read it, and pass it on, and press our political leaders to act.
"It was a Bill, the 200th anniversary of which we unanimously celebrated earlier this year, which led to the abolition of the slave trade. So, 200 years apart, we find ourselves facing the same timeless question of whether we have a duty of care towards our fellow human beings: "Are we our brother's keeper?". In both cases the same economic question arises: what is the true cost of the energy we use to drive our economy?
Two hundred years ago, slavery was perhaps the primary source of energy, a cheap and apparently infinite generator of power, and regarded by many as the foundation stone of British commerce and prosperity. As with our energy industries today, slavery appeared to represent a large and vital component of the economy. At the time of its abolition, the slave trade and its associated activities were reckoned by those opposing the Bill to account, quite astonishingly, for well over a quarter of this nation's GDP, a fact which helped to drive one of the central arguments deployed by the anti-abolitionists: that the overly hasty abolition of slavery could prove only ruinous to the nation's economy. In exactly the same way, their counterparts of today—the dominant energy interests—argue that any overly hasty commitment to change will prove economically catastrophic. If change is necessary, they argue, let it be incremental, gradual, and it will all come out right in the end.
But those same vested interests who argued that a speedy end to the slave trade would be ruinous were profoundly wrong. In fact they were doubly wrong. Far from proving damaging, the abolition of the slave trade allowed Britain to leap forward, as if a metaphorical ball and chain had been lifted from the economy. Slavery, far from being the foundation stone
That misjudgment arose, as such misjudgments usually do, from an irrational fear of the unknown and, more significantly, from a refusal to recognise that the real cost of the slave trade was infinitely wider and deeper than anything that could be measured by the profits made by a few prosperous souls in Bristol and Liverpool. The true price, the human price, was ignored by the anti-abolitionists because it was not them, their friends or their communities that were paying; it was someone else, and that "someone else" did not have a vote.
Is it not exactly the same today with the debate surrounding the use of fossil fuels? Those who refuse to acknowledge the mounting cost of climate change do so because they are not yet the ones who are paying the price. Of course climate change is likely to affect every one of us in the long run, but it is already having a devastating impact on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth—in Bangladesh last week; in Mexico the week before; and in parts of Africa, almost every week of the year.
Just as the real cost of slavery was displaced on those least able to pay, so the real cost of our profligate use of fossil fuels is displaced on those least able to absorb it—the poor, the already disadvantaged, those who do not have the power to affect change themselves or the power to vote for change in countries such as ours which, for all the rapid growth elsewhere in the world, are still the real wastrels of energy and resources...
...At the heart of the Bill lies a moral dilemma that has to be wrestled to the ground, and like most moral or ethical questions it comes down to a simple choice. Can we decide to be honest today—not just a little bit honest; not honest abroad but dishonest at home; not honest in willing the ends but dishonest in denying the means; but properly honest? We could for once trust the electorate with a full and frank confession of the need for radical change, and then offer the leadership and commitment to achieve it....
Should we choose to close our eyes, our children and our children's children will pay a truly crippling price—a price that will make a mockery of the comforts and the pleasures of the civilised life that today we all take for granted—and they will justifiably curse us as a generation for having been dishonest and irresponsible on a scale that would make the behaviour of the most callous slave trader in the 18th century pale into insignificance. Should we fail to get to grips with this impending crisis, there will be no need to ask for whom the bell tolls. It will be tolling for every man, woman and child on this once quite beautiful planet."
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