As I See It: Harriet, climate change and impeachment

Michael Sales

I recently saw the film “Harriet,” a dramatization of the life of Harriet Tubman, a slave who became a freedom fighter. (Shout-out to The Screening Room!)

The film covers the period of Tubman’s life from 1849 to 1863. As a child, Tubman was whipped for not stopping a white infant from crying. An “overseer” cracked her skull open when she was a teenager. The conditions she confronted were 200-plus years old, and there was no doubt that slavery would continue forever.

However, by 1850, the winds of change were blowing. Slavery generated conflict. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scott decision, the Kansas Wars, the agitation by the abolitionists – including Newburyport’s William Lloyd Garrison – and many other factors created the context in which the seeming inevitability of slavery was transformed into the more powerful inevitability of the Civil War and its 700,000 dead.

Slavery was a vestige of the so-called “Dark Ages” (500 to 1000 AD) when superstition reigned. Human bondage, conspiracy theories, religious hatred, limited intellectual inquiry and brutality were the order of the day. 

The American project thoroughly repudiated that way of thinking and being. Enshrining individual liberty, human rights and self-government based on the rule of law in our founding documents, our creed set our nation on a collision course with the evil at the heart of the Confederacy. The South was a “lost cause” because it made no sense in an America guided by science and pragmatism.

Southerners like Founding Father Thomas Jefferson were tormented by the contradictions of the system that they were part of. Jefferson, a brilliant man and a racist, fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

He believed that blacks were inferior to whites, and he knew slavery was wrong. He felt that, unchained, slaves would kill people like him. Ultimately, the battle over slavery engulfed the South in a cataclysm. About a quarter of all Southern men ages 20 to 24 died in the Civil War.

Over time, systemic forces aggregated and overturned a seemingly immovable and implacable way of being. Once the tides of history started moving, change happened swiftly and dramatically.

Climate change is like that.

For over a century, the world’s economy has relied on an unsustainable energy system. Fossil fuels are killing us, and that trend is accelerating.

As a member of Elders Climate Action, I’ve studied climate developments fairly intensively. The more you know, the more you wish you didn’t know.

For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has established that the Arctic is warmer now than it has been in 4,000 years. Many scientists believe that Greenland’s ice sheet is on track to disappear completely, maybe as soon as 2050. Sea levels will rise by 20 feet. Goodbye Newburyport. 

Climate change deniers like Donald Trump rage that climate change is a “hoax” invented by atheistic, overeducated wonks who’ve turned grant writing into a business. But the vast majority of educated young people, in particular, are saying, “Are you freaking kidding me?”

Literate, forward-thinking and fact-respecting Americans fought a war because they rejected the depravity of slavery against those who tried to uphold it. That is the nature of the climate action struggle unfolding now on a worldwide basis. Yes, it is the case that most people don’t really know much about climate change and don’t incorporate information about it into their individual decision-making or their politics. But, just as with the institution of slavery 160 years ago, the facts on the ground are becoming harder to avoid. 

Trump’s insolence needs to be seen in the larger context of our era. Like the heartless plantation owners who beat and sought to humiliate Tubman, Trump epitomizes a system that is refusing to budge in the face of a tsunami of evidence that the core of our economic system is obsolete: It is time to get off carbon. Informed people are unwilling to tolerate Trumpian ignorance. The future he and his kind portend will make the Dark Ages seem like a day at the beach … in the Berkshires. 

As Trump’s impeachment trial opens, the conventional wisdom is that it’s a waste of time, an exercise in futility. That’s the same frame of mind that existed in the U.S. 160 years ago. Even Lincoln did not initially seek to free the slaves or abolish slavery.

But bigger forces were at work, and their dynamics could not and were not understood in advance. The future unfolded unpredictably. This is the case with climate change as well. Increasingly, reality is either going to push the status quo out of the way and open a new path to the future or plunge us back into an unimaginable darkness. Which door do you want to go through?

Michael Sales lives in Newburyport.

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