Uncomfortable parallels

By Bryan Walker 04/02/2012


I’ve often been struck by what I see as parallels between the defence of slavery in earlier times and today’s persistence with fossil fuel-based economies. I explored this in a post some time ago but an article in yesterday’s Guardian encourages me to return to the theme. Jean-François Mouhot, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University, writes about similarities between slavery and our current dependence on fossil-fuel-powered machines:

Both perform roughly the same functions in society (doing the hard and dirty work that no one wants to do), both were considered for a long time to be acceptable by the majority and both came to be increasingly challenged as the harm they caused became more visible.

Our revulsion from the institution of slavery today leads us to forget too easily the ordinariness of slave ownership in the past:

To many, slavery seemed normal and indispensable. In the US, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Lifestyles and healthy incomes were predicated upon it, just as we today depend on oil. Similarly, many slave-owners lived with the impression that they were decent people.

He’s not suggesting that fossil fuel use is a crime against humanity in the sense that slavery was, but we do now know that it contributes to global warming and is already causing widespread human harm. The harm was unintended and it’s only recently that the consequences of ongoing use of the fuels have become understood.

Initially, their use was seen as positive and progressive. But now that we know the consequences, and continue, globally, to increase emission levels, how can we still consider these consequences “unintended”?

But we have become extremely dependent on fossil fuels, just as slave societies were dependent on their slaves, indeed more so. And that leads us to resist the science and rationalise the continued use of the fuels. Mouhot quotes the remark of one scholar:

“That US Congressmen tend to rationalise fossil fuel use despite climate risks to future generations just as southern congressmen rationalised slavery despite ideals of equality is perhaps unsurprising.”

And continues with his own comment:

It should thus come as no surprise that there is so much resistance to climate science. Our societies, like slave-owning societies, have a vested interest in ignoring the scientific consensus. Pointing out the similarities between slavery and the use of fossil fuels can help us engage with the issue in a new way, and convince us to act, as no one envisages comfortably being compared with a slave-owner.

He goes on to suggest that lessons can be learned from the campaigns to abolish slavery.

For example, the history of the abolition of slavery, in the UK at least, suggests that an incremental approach and the development of compromises worked better at moving the cause forward than hardline stances.

The evidence also implies that slavery came to be challenged and finally abolished when people became aware of an alternative. This alternative — steam power — was of course a great moral improvement until we came to know the consequences of fossil fuel consumption. This, in turn, suggests that we will restrain our use of fossil fuels if we can favour a new energy transition and find clean sources of energy — and that we should concentrate our efforts on developing “green” technologies at the same time as reducing our consumption of fossil fuels.

Mouhot opened his article by remarking how difficult his history students found it to entertain the idea that some slave-owners could have been genuinely blind to the harm they were doing. Slavery seemed to the students so obviously evil that slave-holders could only have been barbarians.  He concludes with reflection on how we might be viewed by our descendants if we carry on along the fossil fuel path:

If we do not change, the human family will pay heavily for the consequences of our reckless activity. Moreover, future generations will look back at us and wonder how our civilisation could have been so backward and have lived in such appalling moral blindness. Will the next generation have any awareness that industrialised societies had mitigating circumstances? Probably not. They are more likely to curse us for the irreparable damage we have done to the planet. Surely, they will say, we were a barbarian people.

In my amateur reading around the history of the slave trade and slave-owning societies  parallels with our slowness to act on climate change have often struck me, most of which Mouhot explores. One is the normality with which the institution came to be regarded by much of society (though never by all).  Abolitionists had to work against moral inertia and try to prod consciences awake. ’Am I not a man and a brother?’ asks the shackled slave figure on Josiah Wedgwood’s mass-produced medallion in the 18th century. Societies already vulnerable to climate change and coming generations have a moral question to put to us which we so far seem little attuned to.  Another parallel is the argument that slave trading and slavery was so woven into some economies that it would destroy them if it was no longer permitted. Compare that to the widespread claims today that our economies will be ruined if access to and use of fossil fuels is denied. Then there’s the question of property rights. Slaves were valuable and even the slave-free states in the American union were for some time prepared to return runaways to their southern owners as their legitimate property. Think of the vested interests in fossil fuels today — all that investment that could be stranded, all that financial profit denied, if the brakes are applied to continuing fossil fuel exploration and use. Another parallel is the specious arguments that were advanced to make slavery unobjectionable, ranging from the inferior humanity of the enslaved races to claims that slaves were better cared for than the poor of free societies.  Compare that with the phony arguments of climate change denialism.  And so it goes on. I don’t want to push the parallels too strongly, but I agree with Mouhot that they are there and that they may help us better understand and address the current societal impasse.