16 2020: A Proposal

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We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are

“enlightened” all maintain that those coolies ought to be set

free; but our standard of living, and hence our “enlightenment”

demands that the robbery shall continue.

—George Orwell

By a large margin 1998 was the warmest year ever recorded. The previous

year was the second warmest (IPCC 2001). A growing volume

of scientific evidence indicates that, given present trends, the combustion

of fossil fuels, deforestation, and poor land-use practices will

cause a major, and perhaps self-reinforcing, shift in global climate

(Houghton 1997). With climatic change will come severe weather

extremes, superstorms, droughts, killer heat waves, rising sea levels,

spreading disease, accelerating rates of species loss, and collateral political,

economic, and social effects that we cannot imagine. We are

conducting, as Roger Revelle (quoted in Somerville 1996, 35) once

noted, a one-time experiment on the earth that cannot be reversed

and should not be run.

The debate about climatic change has, to date, been mostly about

scientific facts and economics, which is to say a quarrel about unknowns

and numbers. On one side are those, greatly appreciated by

some in the fossil fuel industry, who argue that we do not yet know

enough to act and that acting prematurely would be prohibitively expensive

(Gelbspan 1998). On the other side are those who argue that

we do know enough to act and that further procrastination will make

subsequent action both more difficult and less efficacious. In the

United States, which happens to be the largest emitter of greenhouse

gases, the issue is not likely to be discussed in any constructive manner.

And the U.S. Congress, caught in a miasma of ideology and partisanship,

is in deep denial, unable to act on the Kyoto agreement that

called for a 7 percent reduction of 1990 carbon dioxide levels by

2012. Even that level of reduction, however, would not be enough to

stabilize climate.

To see our situation more clearly we need a perspective that transcends

the minutiae of science, economics, and current politics. Because

the effects, whatever they may be, will fall most heavily on future

generations, understanding their likely perspective on our

present decisions would be useful to us now. How are future generations

likely to regard various positions in the debate about climatic

change? Will they applaud the precision of our economic calculations

that discounted their prospects to the vanishing point? Will they

think us prudent for delaying action until the last-minute scientific

doubts were quenched? Will they admire our heroic devotion to inefficient

cars and sport utility vehicles, urban sprawl, and consumption?

Hardly. They are more likely, I think, to judge us much as we now

judge the parties in the debate on slavery prior to the Civil War.

Stripped to its essentials, defenders of the idea that humans can

hold other humans in bondage developed four lines of argument.

First, citing Greek and Roman civilization, some justified slavery by

arguing that the advance of human culture and freedom had always

depended on slavery. “It was an inevitable law of society,” according to

John C. Calhoun, “that one portion of the community depended

upon the labor of another portion over which it must unavoidably exercise

control” (W. L. Miller 1998, 132). And “Freedom,” the editor of

the Richmond Inquirer once declared, “is not possible without slavery”

 (Oakes 1998, 141). This line of thought, discordant when appraised

against other self-evident doctrines that “all men are created equal,” is

a tribute to the capacity of the human mind to simultaneously accommodate

antithetical principles. Nonetheless, it was used by some

of the most ardent defenders of “freedom” up to the Civil War.

A second line of argument was that slaves were really better off

living here in servitude than they would have been in Africa. Slaves,

according to Calhoun “had never existed in so comfortable, so respectable,

or so civilized a condition as that which it now enjoyed in

the Southern States” (W. L. Miller 1998, 132). The “happy slave” argument

fared badly with the brute facts of slavery that became vivid

for the American public only when dramatized by Harriet Beecher

Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852.

A third argument for slavery was cast in cost-benefit terms. The

South, it was said, could not afford to free its slaves without causing

widespread economic and financial ruin. This argument put none too

fine a point on the issue; slavery was simply a matter of economic survival

for the ruling race.

A fourth argument, developed most forcefully by Calhoun, held

that slavery, whatever its liabilities, was up to the states, and the Federal

government had no right to interfere with it because the Constitution

was a compact between independent political units. Beneath

all such arguments, of course, lay bedrock contempt for human equality,

dignity, and freedom. Most of us, in a more enlightened age, find

such views repugnant.

While the parallels are not exact between arguments for slavery

and those used to justify inaction in the face of prospective climatic

change, they are, perhaps, sufficiently close to be instructive. First,

those saying that we do not know enough yet to limit our emission of

greenhouse gases argue that human civilization, by which they mean

mostly economic growth for the already wealthy, depends on the consumption

of fossil fuels. We, in other words, must take substantial

risks with our children’s future for a purportedly higher cause: the

material progress of civilization now dependent on the combustion of

fossil fuels. Doing so, it is argued, will add to the stock of human

wealth that will enable subsequent generations to better cope with

the messes that we will leave behind.

Second, proponents of procrastination now frequently admit the

possibility of climatic change, but argue that it will lead to a better

world. Carbon enrichment of the atmosphere will speed plant

growth, enabling agriculture to flourish, increasing yields, lowering

food prices, and so forth. Further, while some parts of the world may

suffer, a warmer world will, on balance, be a nicer and more productive

place for succeeding generations.

Third, some, arguing from a cost-benefit perspective, assert that

energy conservation and solar energy are simply too expensive now.

We must wait for technological breakthroughs to reduce the cost of

energy efficiency and a solar-powered world. Meanwhile we continue

to expand our dependence on fossil fuels, thereby making any subsequent

transition still more difficult.

Finally, arguments for procrastination are grounded in a modernday

version of states’ rights and extreme libertarianism which makes

squandering fossil fuels a matter of individual rights, devil take the


Of course, we do not intend to enslave subsequent generations,

but we will leave them in bondage to degraded climatic and ecological

conditions that we have created. Further, they will know that we

failed to act on their behalf with alacrity even after it became clear

that our failure to use energy efficiently and develop alternative

sources of energy would severely damage their prospects. In fact, I am

inclined to think that our dereliction will be judged a more egregious

moral lapse than that which we now attribute to slave owners. For

reasons that one day will be regarded as no more substantial than

those supporting slavery, we knowingly bequeathed the risks of global

destabilization to all subsequent generations everywhere. If not

checked soon, that legacy will include severe droughts, heat waves,

famine, changing disease patterns, rising sea levels, and political and

economic instability. It will also mean degraded political, economic,

and social institutions burdened by bitter conflicts over declining supplies

of fossil fuels, water, and food. It is not far-fetched to think that

human institutions, including democratic governments, will break

under such conditions.

Other similarities exist. Both the use of humans as slaves and the

use of fossil fuels allow those in control to command more work than

would otherwise be possible.We no longer use slaves but we do have,

on average, the fossil fuel equivalent of 75 slaves at our service (Mc-

Neill 2000, 16). Both practices inflate wealth of some by robbing others.

Both systems work only so long as something is underpriced: the

devalued lives and labor of a slave or fossil fuels priced below their replacement

costs. Both require that some costs be ignored: those to

human beings stripped of choice, dignity, and freedom or the cost

of environmental externalities, which cast a long shadow on the

prospects of our descendants. In the case of slavery, the effects were

egregious, brutal, and immediate. But massive use of fossil fuels simply

defers the costs, different but no less burdensome, onto our descendants,

who will suffer the consequences with no prospect of

manumission. Slavery warped the politics and cultural evolution

of the South. But our dependence on fossil fuels has substantially

warped and corrupted our politics and culture as well. Slaves could be

manumitted; victims of global warming have no such prospect. We

leave behind steadily worsening conditions that cannot be altered in

any time span meaningful to humans.

Both slavery and fossil fuel–powered industrial societies require a

mass denial of responsibility. Slave owners were caught in a moral

quandary. Their predicament, in James Oakes’s words,was “the product

of a deeply rooted psychological ambivalence that impels the individual

to behave in ways that violate fundamental norms even as

they fulfill basic desires” (1998, 120). Regarding slavery, George

Washington confessed that “I shall frankly declare to you that I do not

like even to think, much less talk, of it” (ibid., 120). As one Louisiana

slave owner put it, “A gloomy cloud is hanging over our whole land”

TABLE 16.1. A Comparison of Slavery and Procrastination on

Efforts to Limit Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Issue Argument for slavery Argument for procrastination

Progress Historically necessary for Energy consumption

human improvement necessary for economic


Improvement Slaves better off here A carbon-enriched world

will be better for agriculture

Cost-benefit The southern economy Costs of energy efficiency

depends on slavery are too great to bear; let’s

wait for better technology

Rights The federal government’s The rights of presentrights

stop at states’ generation carbon emitters

borders trump those of all others

(ibid., 110). Many wished for some way out of a profoundly troubling

reality. Instead of finding a decent way out, however, the South created

a culture of denial around the institutions of bondage. Southerners

were enslaved by their own system until it came crashing down

around them in the Civil War.

We, too, find ourselves in a quandary. From poll data we know

that most Americans believe that global warming is real and that its

consequences could be tragic and irreversible. But the response of

Congress and the business community has been to deny that the

problem exists and continue with business as usual. Proposals for

higher gasoline taxes, increasing fuel efficiency, or limits on use of automobiles,

for example, are regarded as politically impossible as the

abolition of slavery was in the 1830s. Unless we take appropriate

steps soon, our system, too, will end badly.

We now know that heated arguments made for the enslavement

of human beings were both morally wrong and self-defeating. The

more alert knew this early on. Benjamin Franklin noted that slaves

“pejorate the families that use them; the white children become

proud, disgusted with labor, and being educated in idleness, are rendered

unfit to get a living by industry” (Finley 1980, 100). Thomas

Jefferson knew all too well that slavery degraded slaves and slave

owners alike, while providing no sustainable basis for prosperity in an

emerging capitalist economy. On one hand, it is possible that the extravagant

use of fossil fuels has become a substitute for intelligence,

exertion, design skill, and foresight. On the other hand, we have every

reason to believe that vastly improved energy efficiency and an expeditious

transition to a solar-powered society would be to our advantage,

morally and economically. Energy efficiency could lower our energy

bill in the United States alone by as much as $200 billion per

year (Hawken et al. 1999). It would reduce environmental impacts

associated with mining, processing, transportation, and combustion

of fossil fuels and promote better technology. Elimination of subsidies

for fossil fuels, nuclear power, and automobiles would save tens of billions

of dollars each year (Myers 1998). In other words, the “no regrets”

steps necessary to avert the possibility of severe climatic

change, taken for sound ethical reasons, are the same steps we ought

to take for reasons of economic self-interest. History rarely offers such

a clear convergence of ethics and self-interest.

If we are to take this opportunity, however, we must be clear

that the issue of climatic change is not, first and foremost, a matter of

economics, technology, or science, but rather a matter of principle

that is best seen from the vantage point of our descendants. The same

historical period that gave us slavery also gave us the principles necessary

to abolish it. What Thomas Jefferson called “remote tyranny”

was not merely tyranny remote in space, but in time as well—what

has been termed “intergenerational remote tyranny.” In a letter to

James Madison written in 1789 (Jefferson 1975, 444–451), Jefferson

argued that no generation had the right to impose debt on its descendants,

for were it to do so the future would be ruled by the dead,

not the living.

A similar principle applies in this instance. Drawing from Jefferson,

Aldo Leopold, and others, such a principle might be stated thus:

No person, institution, or nation has the right to participate in

activities that contribute to large-scale, irreversible changes of

the earth’s biogeochemical cycles or undermine the integrity,

stability, and beauty of the earth’s ecologies, the consequences

of which would fall on succeeding generations as a

form of irrevocable remote tyranny.

Such a principle will likely fall on uncomprehending ears in Congress

and in most corporate boardrooms. Who, then, will act on it?

Who ought to act? Who can lead? What institutions represent the interests

of our children and succeeding generations on whom the cost

of present inaction will fall? At the top of my list are those that educate

and thereby equip the young for useful and decent lives. Education

is done in many ways, the most powerful of which is by example.

The example the present generation needs most from those who propose

to prepare them for responsible adulthood is a clear signal that

their teachers and mentors are responsible and will not, for any reason,

encumber their future with risk or debt—ecological or economic.

And they need to know that our commitment is more than

just talk. This principle can be stated in these words:

The institutions that purport to induct the young into responsible

adulthood ought themselves to operate responsibly,

which is to say that they should not act in ways that might

plausibly undermine the world their students will inherit.

Accordingly, I propose that every school, college, and university stand

up and be counted on the issue of climatic change by beginning now

to develop plans to reduce and eventually eliminate or offset the

emission of heat-trapping gases by the year 2020.

Opposition to such a proposal will, predictably, follow along

three lines. The first line of objection will arise from those who argue

that we do not yet know enough to act. In other words, until the

threat of climatic change is clear beyond any possible doubt (and also

less easily reversed), we cannot act. Presumably, these same people do

not wait until they smell smoke in the house at 2 A.M. to purchase fire

insurance. A “no regrets” strategy relative to the far-from-remote possibility

of climatic change is, by the same logic, a way to insure our descendants

against the possibility of disaster otherwise caused by our


A second line of objection will come from those who will argue

that educational institutions on their own cannot afford to act. To be

certain, there will be initial expenses, but there are also quick savings

from reducing energy use. In fact, done smartly, implementation of

energy efficiency and solar technology can save money. Moreover, it is

now possible to use energy service companies that will finance the

work and pay themselves from the stream of savings, making the transition

budget neutral. The real problem here has less to do with costs

than with moral energy and the failure to imagine possibilities in

places where imagination and creativity are reportedly much valued.

A third kind of objection will come from those who agree with

the overall goal of stabilizing climate, but will argue that our business

is education, not social change. This position is premised on the

quaint belief that what occurs in educational institutions must be uncontaminated

by contact with the affairs of the world and that we

have no business objecting to how that world does its business. It is

further assumed that education occurs only in classrooms and must

be remote from anything having practical consequences.Were the effort

to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, however, done as a 20-year

effort in which students worked with faculty, staff, administration,

energy engineers, and technical experts, the educational and institutional

benefits would be substantial. How might the abolition of fos-

sil fuels occur? In outline, the steps are straightforward, requiring

(1) a thorough audit of current institutional energy use; (2) preparation

of a detailed engineering plans to upgrade energy efficiency and

eliminate waste; (3) development of plans to harness renewable energy

sources sufficient to meet campus energy needs by 2020; and

(4) competent implementation. These steps ought to engage students,

faculty, administration, staff, and representatives of the surrounding

community. They ought to be taken publicly as a way to educate

a broad constituency about the consequences of our present

course and the possibilities and opportunities for change.

Some colleges are beginning to act on climate change. Fifty-six

college presidents in New Jersey agreed to meet or exceed the Kyoto

Protocol.Tufts University has launched a “Cool Planet, Clean Air” initiative

with an alliance of New England colleges and universities.

Oberlin College, working with the Rocky Mountain Institute, has

completed a study of what would be required for the institution to

become “climatically neutral” by the year 2020. The longer-term goal

of such efforts is to begin, from the grass roots, the long-delayed transition

to energy efficiency and solar power. Perhaps our leaders will

follow one day when they are wise enough to distinguish the public

interest from narrow, short-run private interests. Someday, too, all of

us will come to understand that true prosperity neither permits nor

requires bondage of any human being, in any form, for any reason,

now or ever.