Friday, February 3, 2012

Once, men abused slaves. Now we abuse fossil fuels

Jean Francois Mouhot further elaborates on a brilliant point he made in 2010, this time in the Guardian (UK): ...The history of slavery and its abolition shows how blurred the frontier between what is considered good and evil can be, and how quickly it can shift. We have a mental image of slave-owners as cruel, sadistic, inhuman brutes, and forget too easily the ordinariness of slave ownership throughout the world. 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.

... Why is all of this relevant for climate change policy? Our contemporary economies have become extremely dependent on fossil fuels, just as slave societies were dependent on their slaves – indeed far more than the latter ever were. As one scholar remarked: "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."

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.

Furthermore, because of the striking similarities between the use of slaves and of fossil fuels, policymakers can find inspiration from the campaigns to abolish slavery and use them to tackle global warming. 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....

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....

An image of the Congress of the Confederacy in the US, 1861

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