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Slavery and Climate Change

Recently I posted a page that showed some of the excuses made against abolition of slavery, and how similar they are to those made against taking decisive action to stop climate change emissions. Since then I read Eric Metaxas' book Amazing Grace about the life of William Wilberforce. I was struck by the many wide-ranging parallels between our situation and that of Wilberforce and his campaign to abolish slave trade and then slavery itself. The following is a table of some I found; others are to be added.

Section Slavery Climate Change,
Global Economy,
Environmental Responsibility
What fired Wilberforce "God has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of [attitudes]" p.85 It is God who sets this great object before us - the suppression of the structures which cause environmental damage, and the reformation of attitudes - and the two are linked.
Deep result "What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental ... he vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world ..." p.xv That is what we need: to destroy the mind-set which makes environmental irresponsibility and generation of climate change emissions acceptable, and replace it with another way of seeing the world. That Wilberforce did it shows it can be done.
Deep result "Wilberforce overturned not just European civilization's view of slavery but its view of almost everything else in the human sphere." p.xv It can be done!
Results "The 1807 victory [abolition of slave trade] paved the way for all that followed." p.xiv More will follow if we first take major action. We should see what we do as 'paving the way' for more.
Results "inspiring other nations of the world to follow suit" p.xiv Setting an example is worthwhile. Those who say "Well, if we cut our emissions China won't follow suit' are liars and worse.
Deep result "Monks and missionaries knew of these ideas and lived them out in their limited spheres. But no entire society had ever taken these ideas to heart in the way that Britain would. That was what Wilberforce changed forever." p.xv While various groups live environmentally in their limited spheres, we need the entire society to take these ideas to heart. Wilberforce showed it can be done.
Context "The poor and suffering were almost without champions in the public sphere" p.xvii We don't have it quite so hopeless as that. Blair, Brown, Cameron (in the UK) and others have spoken much about climate change - but they don't allow it to jeopardise such things as economy or 'reliable energy supply'. So effective environmental responsibility is almost without champions in the public sphere, despite the pressure groups.
Context Two ways of thinking about the poor: either look down on them or ignore them, seeing their plight as unavoidable price of 'modern civilization'. p.85 We find similar. Some ignore climate change and environmental responsibility. Some see environmental damage as an unavoidable price (worth paying) of our Western lifestyles, which we export throughout the world.
New way of thinking "But Wilberforce would introduce a third way of responding to the situation. This response would neither judge the poor and suffering nor ignore them, but rather would reach out to them and help them up, so to speak." p.85 Our responsibility as human beings is to 'reach out' to the rest of creation and 'help them up, so to speak'. Neither judge it nor ignore it.
Leadership "all leaders in society are responsible for being moral examples" p.83 This is still true - of politicians, business leaders and media leaders and opinion formers. But especially the latter fail to see their responsibility.
The evil "Slave Trave like all evil systems corrupted and ruined the lives of all who touched it" - e.g. sailors as well as those of slaved. p.116 Perhaps (especially when in future we look back in retrospect) we will see that the global economy and system corrupts and ruins the lives not only of the poor and powerless but also all those who touch it.
The evil "On whatever branch of the system I [Thomas Clarkson] turned my eyes, I found it equally barbarous. The trade was, in short, one mass of iniquity from the beginning to the end." p.116 Perhaps (especially when in future we look back in retrospect) we will see that the system of global economy and climate change is barbarous; one mass of iniquity from beginning to end - though it does not seem so. After all, it is much cleaner than the slave trade. But, whereas the evil effects of the slave trade could be seen immediately, the evil effects of climate change will be in 50 years time, heaped on those who cannot do anything about it and who do not stand to 'benefit' in the way we believe we do.
No simple blame The African chiefs also bear some of the blame; they would start 'wars' in order to gain captives to sell to the slave traders on the coast, but .... p.119-120 We must recognise that it is not only 'the west' which is to blame (for example China is, as the excusers keep on telling us, building a power station a day (or whatever)), but ...
We to blame "... but Europeans had instigated the inhuman system" p.120 ... but it is we the West, to whose lifestyle the rest of the world aspires, who instigated this evil system (and lifestyle, habits, expectations, worldview) which is changing the climate.
Our blame "the entrenched selfishness he saw among the rich and privileged" p.53 We in the West are now the 'rich and privileged'. Our selfishness is entrenched when, for example, we drive or fly when it is not necessary to do so, and do so without a second thought - as though driving is the 'natural' form of transport and getting to where we want with convenience is almost treated as a basic human right. These assumptions are false.
Our blame "profligacy ... which, taking its rise among the rich and luxurious has now extended its baneful influence and spread its destructive poison though the whole body of the people." p.53 The assumption that we have a basic right to comfort, convenience, pleasure at will - in short, luxurious living - which is peddled through our media, is very similar to that which the "rich and luxurious" of Wilberforce's day held. Are not we, 'ordinary' people with Western lifestyle, the 'rich and luxurious'? This assumption is still a 'destructive poison', and it spreads through "the whole body of the people" of the world: our Western lifestyle is spread by globalized capitalism and globalized media such that people in the developing world aspire to our 'rich and luxurious', 'profligage' lifestyle.
Christ "The ideas are at the heart of the gospel" p.xv The ideas of environmental responsibility are at the heart of the gospel, not on the periphery. See New View on Theology.
God's work "If Britain took its faith seriously, if it actually believed the doctrines it claimed to believe, it could never have countenanced the slave trade or the institution of slavery itself." p.171 That was spoken by Wilberforce then, and appears clear in retrospect. Just as many who professed Christian faith saw nothing wrong in the slave trade, so we must expect that many who profess Christian faith will see nothing wrong in environmental rape and pillage including climate change emissions. But if the USA and Chinese Christians take their faith seriously, they could never countenance such environmental disregard. Thus it will appear in retrospect.
Intuitively right "The phenomenon that was George Whitefield [who indirectly influenced Wilberforce] ... No one had ever told these poor people what this man with a voice like a trumpet was telling them, but it was as if they were hearing something they had always known was true but had forgotten." p.8 The notion of responsibility before God towards the rest of his creation is something people know deep inside but do not realise it until they hear it from us in the right way like a trumpet.
Strategy Wilberforce used "a subversive and politically brilliant strategy" p.83 So should we.
Basis of strategy "It was exceedingly progressive of Wilberforce ..." p.85 - his strategy and vision came not from standard thinking but from an agile mind in submission to and in love with God. We will be 'progressive' if we are driven by agile minds in complete submission to and love with God.
Tactic The abolitionists were highly pragmatic and hard-working, even though fired by a high caaling. For example, they collected lots of evidence, including impact on sailors etc. which they did not expect. Clarkson interviewed 20000 sailors. But even this was not enough. We should also be pragmatic and hard-working, even though fired by a high calling. Perhaps we should go round collecting evidence. We need someone dedicated like Thomas Clarkson, who will do the humble duty of collecting evidence. We must respect the facts. But do not expect that facts will persuade, when people set their hearts in self-centred ways.
The opposition There was considerable opposition from many quarters. We will find considerable opposition from many quarters.
The excuses Here are some of the excuses made at the time - not from Metaxas' book but from a speech by Bannister Tarleton at the time (reported by BBC Radio 4 on 25 March 2007).

There would be a 7 million loss to the British economy (a million those days, 1807, was huge) Any restriction on road use or on air travel would damage our economy.
Great cities like Liverpool would be ruined. We must have the fifth terminal at Heathrow so that it can be a hub airport like Amsterdam and Paris.
The trade, with all its wealth, would be taken to France. If we don't produce things, then they'll just be produced in China? And does not China build a coal-fired power station every week?
If the slave trade is abhorrent to God, why does the Church of England own sugar plantations? The Bible doesn't tell us to take responsibility for the environment! (Actually, it does.)
Slavery has been in existence for thousands of years. We've been using cars for ages without problem.
Cultivation of sugar and cotton 'raises' the negroes. The developing countries have a right to what we enjoy.
Wilberforce would throw negroes back into barbarism. They just want to prevent developing countries developing.
What else would Wilberforce abolish: theatres, dancing, fun, etc.? They'll be wanting us all to wear hair shirts next; they'll take us back to the stone age.
Slaves are not really badly treated. Driving my car doesn't do any harm. And in any case, it's not certain that climate change is man-made.
If you continue the debate about abolition you will repeat the Haiti slave revolt in Jamaica (a British colony of the time). You will just upset the drivers if you tell people to change their behaviour.

The opposition "Regulate the trade [rather than abolish it] ... the 'middle' way" - this failed. It was little more than a stalling tactic by Dundas etc. p.151 Might carbon trading be such a feeble 'middle way'? Both it and regulation of slave trade pander to the our desire to keep lifestyle and structures as they are. Carbon trading allows us to believe that we can keep on polluting, as long as we can afford it. Both slave trade regulation and carbon trading seem to me an utter, deep derogation of responsibility, and a desire so to do. They both leave us with a feeling that the evil is not really evil.
The opposition "Dundas rose and deftly splashed the single word 'gradually' ..." gradual abolishion of the trade was promised and agreed on - but it never happened. p.152 Gradualism is not the way. Complete abolition of climate change should be our goal.
The struggle Wilberforce and the abolitionists were accused of being hypocritical by many (including Lord Nelson, and Wm Cobbett) p.155 We will be accused of being hypocrites; do not worry. "Show me a climate change activist and I'll show you a hypocrite" [Daily Mail, March 2007] Jesus Christ promised persecution, and Paul "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted". Responsibility for the creation is 'living godly'.
Unexpected allies Fox: "If the colonies cannot be cultivated without it [slave trade] they ought not to be cultivated at all" p.151 Fox was courageous enough to forego something of major economic importance to Britain. We, and our politicians, should be courageous to forego something that seems of major economic importance to us. Remember Fox was a rascal; should we not be at least as courageous as he?
Don't give up "the grand cause [is] not to be the sport of caprice ..." Wilberforce remarked when things went badly. p.159 His bill was defeated many times over 20 yeas before it was passed in 1807. We need people who are of this mind: who will not waver after many defeats. But the environmental movement has been active more than 20 years. Maybe this is because of what John Wesley said ...
Hope Eventually "public sentiment again turned in favour of abolition" [after turning against it for a time during the war with France] p.200 Public sentiment will turn for then against environmental responsibility (e.g. in UK now increasing voices against wind power, road pricing, increasing road taxes, recycling, etc.) - but it will turn back again.
Our debt Wilberforce believed we owed Africa a great debt, and set about doing something about it, e.g. in a group of Christians setting up Sierra Leone. p.191 The debt is still owing. Because we did not pay our debt, Africa is in a mess today - and is arguably the continent most to suffer from climate change. More than that, we owe the planet a great debt. We Christians should not wait for governments and business to do something about it; we should act now.
Long term aim "The idea of ending slavery was so completely out of the question that Wilberforce and the abolitionists couldn't even mention it publicly." [p.xiv] Instead they focused first on aboliting the slave trade - but then some 30 years later slavery itself was made illegal. The idea of complete environmental responsibility, or even of completely stopping climate change emissions, is so far out of the question that we cannot even mention it publicly. But perhaps we should keep it in mind. With God's help, we can.
Work of God Letter from John Wesley to William Wilberforce a few days before JW died:

"Dear Sir, Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it." p.144


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Part of his www.abxn.org pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext. Number of visitors to these pages: Counter.

Created: 24 May 2007. Last updated: 14 October 2007 changed order. 5 January 2009 otg, /nav. 27 April 2014 new .nav, .end.