Last September, long before the weird, unpredictable weather that has beset us so far in 2010, well in advance of the shattering quakes that have laid waste to Haiti and Chile, a conference was held in London on the theme of "Climate Forcing of Geological and Geomorphological Hazards."
The upshot of that meeting: As the conference organizer, Bill McGuire of University College London, put it, "You don't need huge changes to trigger responses from the crust. The changes can be tiny."
Localized translation: If your community happens to be located on the apex of the New Madrid fault, as Memphis and Shelby County notoriously are, maybe it's time to take a long vacation. Better yet, stick to your stations and, calmly but carefully, be a good citizen by helping the likes of fellow Tennessean Al Gore raise consciousness concerning the reality of climate change and the not-so-farfetched peril that comes with it.
In an op-ed last week for The New York Times, Gore noted, "January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago." Further, "[S]cientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept."
Gore further notes the scientific consensus that even the unprecedented snowfalls of the last month probably stem from the increased presence of moisture in the atmosphere, due to heat-induced evaporation from ocean surfaces.
All of which, hopefully, is enough to shake us out of our skepticism and our lethargy. If we're both responsive and lucky, maybe that will be the only shake-up we need experience.
Thanks to Gene Dattel, a locally raised historian, it is possible to get perhaps a truer sense of what the Civil War was and why it was fought than ever before. Dattel, a former managing partner of Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley, is the author of a well-received new book, Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power.
His volume goes beyond the old arguments of slavery versus "states' rights" as the proximate cause of the carnage that raged from 1861 to 1865. And it also goes beyond issues of morality by demonstrating that some of the leading abolitionists of the time were as opposed to black equality — and to black emigration to the North — as they were to slavery.
Speaking to the Memphis Rotary Club on Tuesday, Dattel spoke to these facts and then delivered the clincher for his thesis: The day before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he drew up a bill to finance the expulsion of freed slaves to Haiti and Liberia.
So what then was the Civil War about? Not slavery and not cotton but "slave-produced cotton," which, so long as it lasted, gave the South a chance at economic monopoly of the Union or, in the case of secession, economic hegemony over the North American continent. Only by separating cotton — the dominant American export from 1803 to 1937 — from Southern slaveholders could Northern interests, which largely took over the trade after the war, prevail economically.
A downer in the history-book sense, but an eye-opener all the same.