Art credit: heath hinegardner
“It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow.”
—Thomas Paine, Common Sense
A few years ago I visited two plantations on South Carolina’s Ashley River, just upstream from Charleston Harbor, which was the entry point for about 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to North America and the flash point for the start of the Civil War.
The tour on Magnolia Plantation—established in 1676 and still owned by descendants of the founders—emphasized the opulence of the main house, with its fine furnishings and gala balls, its belles and beaus, and its sumptuous gardens. This was a seat of high civilization, according to the guide, who made passing reference to “servants” but never to “slaves.” Nor did slavery feature in the Rice Field Boat Tour (with views of alligators), the Zoo & Nature Center, the Swamp Garden, the Peacock Café, or the Gift Shop. If one wished to learn anything about the captive workers who had sustained and enriched this place for two centuries, one could pay an additional fee and tour a cluster of slave cabins.
These cabins, recently restored, were spick-and-span, with fireplaces, whitewashed clapboard siding, and metal or shake roofs. The exhibit conveyed the impression that life here, though frugal, might have been bearable—bearable, that is, had the inhabitants not been prisoners, without the right to marry or learn to read, without property, without claim to their children or their own bodies.
The guide’s commentary was mildly apologetic, in keeping with the tone of the Magnolia website, which notes “the vital role that Gullah people and culture plays [sic] in any interpretation of Lowcountry history. By addressing this often overlooked part of the region’s narrative, Magnolia seeks to respectfully afford credit where credit is due. Visitors have the option to take a shuttle to the cabins, where they will experience an engaging and interactive discussion of the dynamic issues that shape this delicate inquiry.”
The language betrays a reluctance even to bring up “this often overlooked part of the region’s narrative”—the fact that the glamour and comfort of those living in the main house depended on the squalor and misery of enslaved human beings, who were prevented from fleeing the plantation by chains, whips, vigilantes, and hunger.
This core truth, barely touched on in the “delicate inquiry” at Magnolia, was forthrightly addressed at the neighboring plantation of Drayton Hall, which I visited next. Once the property of the same family that owned Magnolia, Drayton Hall had been acquired, restored, and opened to the public by a nonprofit trust.
Here, the guide, an African American woman, stressed that the grand architecture and equally grand lifestyle of the main house, once known as Drayton’s Palace, were the fruits of slave labor. She spoke of the many skills the captives had brought from Africa, including knowledge of rice cultivation, and she described the harsh living conditions they had endured, the malaria and malnutrition, the broken families, the children sired by masters. I concluded my visit by exploring a cemetery where slaves had been buried, most of their graves unmarked, in a forest glade that the trust protected as sacred ground.
On the Drayton Hall website, equal billing is given to the Drayton family and to an African American family named Bowens, whose ancestors had been slaves on the plantation, perhaps from as early as the 1670s until the Civil War. By contrast, the Magnolia website notes that the plantation “saw immense wealth and growth through the cultivation of rice during the Colonial era,” but does not mention who did the cultivating; it recounts the trials and tribulations of the owners, but says nothing of the people they bought and sold.
Most revealingly, the Magnolia website declares, “The outbreak of the American Civil War would threaten the welfare of the family, the house, and the gardens themselves.” The reader must fill in the source of that threat, which was the emancipation of the slaves.
My visits to these two plantations gave me a stark lesson in the power of historical perspective: One is viewed, even today, through the eyes of those who exploited their fellow human beings; the other is viewed through the eyes of those who were exploited.
It is easy for me to scorn the slaveholders. How could they have enjoyed their islands of luxury in a sea of misery? Likewise, when I reflect on who might be their counterparts today, it is easy for me to denounce the world’s wealthiest 1 percent, who control as many global assets as do the remaining 99 percent. How can they live so extravagantly, with their private jets and multiple mansions, while billions of people lack bare necessities?
When I probe deeper, however, I discover that by the measure of annual income rather than wealth, I, too, belong to the richest 1 percent—as does every member of a household with income greater than $32,000 per year. Half of American households fall into that category.
Granted, a dollar in the United States will not stretch as far as an equivalent amount of money in Nigeria, say, or Thailand. Here, a family would struggle to pay for housing, healthcare, groceries, and other essentials on $32,000 per year. Still, even allowing for our high cost of living, from a global perspective millions of Americans are super rich, living in houses equipped like palaces, feasting on delicacies, traveling for pleasure, constantly looking for new garments or gadgets to buy.
Like a slave society, our consumer society provides a lavish way of life for a minority while imposing suffering on untold other beings. The comparison might seem exaggerated. But consider: How many of the goods we buy were made in sweatshops or forced labor camps? How many were made by children who never attend school? For that matter, how many of those goods were made not by oppressed workers but by actual slaves, of whom there are some 21 million worldwide, according to a U.N. estimate?
Which tyrannical regimes do our gasoline dollars support? How many civilians die in the wars waged to protect American economic interests? An estimated half a million so far in Iraq alone. Which of the corporations that we patronize reap the most from U.S. military spending? (Boeing, Humana, Hewlett-Packard, and General Electric make the top twenty-five.)
How many indigenous tribes are uprooted and how many acres of rainforest are leveled to pasture the beef served in our burger joints? If we eat poultry or meat, were the animals confined to pens and cages before their slaughter? If we are vegetarians, what wildlife habitat was cleared to grow our food, and what conditions did the migrant workers endure while planting and harvesting? Which of our fellow species are vanishing before the onslaught of suburban sprawl?
The point of such questions is not to induce guilt, that futile emotion, but to acknowledge that our privileged way of life, like that of the slaveholders, is built on suffering. The legacy of slavery still haunts our nation in the form of racism, along with the higher incidence of poverty, disease, unemployment, incarceration, and other afflictions among African Americans. In the same way, our prodigal consumption today, especially of fossil fuels, will haunt our descendants, in the form of reduced biodiversity, depleted soils, diminished forests, polluted waters, and disrupted climate.
What do I mean by “prodigal consumption”? The average size of a newly built house in the United States has increased by 50 percent since 1983, even as the average family size has decreased. The average number of vehicle miles driven per person in the United States has increased by more than 50 percent since 1971. While Americans comprise roughly 5 percent of the global population, we use one-third of the world’s paper, one quarter of the oil, more than a quarter of the aluminum, and produce more than 16 percent of the greenhouse emissions.
Once one grasps the present and likely future impact of our current excesses, the ideology of perpetual growth—of markets, profits, and consumption—appears as abhorrent as the ideology of chattel slavery.
The only moral response, for those of us rich enough to have a choice in the matter, is to consume less of the world’s goods, to share more with those who have the least, and to leave more resources intact and a healthier planet for coming generations.
It may seem naïve to imagine that moral arguments will prompt significant numbers of Americans to live in a materially simpler way or share more of their wealth with those in need. Yet that is precisely what the Jesus of the Gospels instructs his followers to do.
“Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor,” he tells the rich man, “and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other Hebrew prophets, Jesus repeatedly warns against piling up earthly treasures and calls for generous treatment of the needy. Surely such teaching ought to carry some weight with the roughly 70 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Christians. Similar instructions can be found in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and indigenous religions, and other spiritual traditions.
The abolitionists hoped that moral suasion might bring an end to slavery. They were first ignored as cranks, and then as their influence grew they were attacked—not only by slaveholders and their white sympathizers, but also by ship owners, factory owners, and merchants in the North who profited from slavery. When Angelina Grimké, daughter of a prominent, slave-owning judge in Charleston, began speaking out in favor of abolition, citing the Gospels, she was shunned by her family and community. William Lloyd Garrison had a price put on his head, and was once nearly killed by a gang in Boston for publishing his abolitionist paper, The Liberator. Harriet Beecher Stowe was vilified throughout the South for her depiction of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852.
Another abolitionist classic, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, caused outrage by documenting not only the cruelties of slavery but also the hypocrisy of the supposedly Christian slaveholders.
“The religion of the South,” Douglass wrote, “is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.” By exposing the masters from the victims’ point of view, Douglass made himself a target for slave-catchers, and was forced to seek refuge in England.
In the end, as we know, speeches and writings failed to convert the slaveholders; the slaves were emancipated not by appeals to conscience but by wholesale bloodshed.
Appeals to conscience may prove as futile in curbing hyper-consumerism today as they proved a century and a half ago in curbing slavery. But if they do prove futile, then what? Ever more extreme measures will be required to maintain a supply of natural resources, as we already see in the oil and gas industry, with fracking, tar sands mining, and offshore drilling. Battles over resources, especially fresh water, will intensify. The depletion of arable lands and the disruption of natural systems, from oceans to atmosphere, will create ever harsher living conditions for the majority of the world’s people, even as the human population swells.
Rising sea levels, more frequent floods and droughts, extended heat waves, and the spread of epidemic disease will produce an ever-increasing flow of refugees. (The United Nations estimates that in 2014 there were nearly 60 million “forcibly displaced” persons worldwide.) Many of those refugees will perish before securing aid, but many will survive to invade the precincts of the rich, and they will press their needs—violently, if necessary.
Advocates for hyper-consumerism dismiss such warnings. They claim technology will overcome limits to growth and compensate for environmental damage. They predict that the continued expansion of global capitalism and industrialism, which brought on these crises, will somehow solve them. In any case, they argue, an economic system based on selfishness and greed is the only one compatible with human nature. In short, they claim that we can exploit Earth without limit but that we cannot change human behavior.
I think they are wrong on both counts. Scientists have identified nine planetary boundaries which must not be violated if our species is to flourish. Several of these have already been exceeded, including the rates of biodiversity loss and climate change; we are fast approaching other thresholds, including freshwater use, ocean acidification, habitat disturbance, and global flows of nitrogen and phosphorous.
Again, the advocates of perpetual growth dismiss any such warnings. But on physics, chemistry, and biology, I trust scientists more than economists, merchants, and advertisers. On matters of human nature, I am convinced by my forty-year experience as a teacher, by the testimony of history and biography, and by countless examples of people whom I have known, that we are creatures capable of learning, capable of imagining and caring about others, capable of changing our minds and our ways.
In the end, which is more naïve—to believe that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet, or that restraint is necessary? And which view of our nature is more convincing—that we are prisoners of selfishness and greed, or that we can also act out of compassion and generosity? The choice we make will shape our lives, and the lives of those who come after us.
Scott Russell Sanders is a Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University and the author of more than twenty books, including Earth Works: Selected Essays and Divine Animal: A Novel.