Friday, December 31, 2010

Climate change, or why we are like slave owners

Jean-Francois Mouhot has a great piece in the Ecologist, working out an analogy that has crossed my mind: Why does climate change science generate so much heat and controversy? In a recent article in the journal Climatic Change, I argue that we have a vested interest not to cut carbon emissions, similar to that of slave-owners in the 19th century who opposed the abolition of slavery.

First, slaves and fossil-fuelled machines play(ed) similar economic and social roles: ‘energy slaves' (machines powered by fossil fuels) now do the work in our homes, fields and factories, which used to be carried out by slaves and servants in the past. Both slave societies and developed countries externalise(d) labour (labour came from slaves in the former case and 'work' is provided by machines in the latter), and both slaves and modern machines free(d) their owners from daily chores.

Before the advent of fossil fuel powered appliances, 'slavery was the most efficient means by which the ambitious and powerful could become richer and more powerful. It was the answer to energy shortage', writes historian John McNeill. This was well understood by educated men and women from the antiquity onwards. As the leading historian of slavery David Brion Davis has noted, 'what made slavery so appealing and seductive, especially in the long era before self-powered appliances, engines, and other labor-saving devices, was the freedom it brought for slaveholders'. As a consequence, economically and socially, we are today as dependent on fossil fuels as slave societies were dependent on bonded labour.

Second, in differing ways, suffering resulting (directly) from slavery and (indirectly, through Climate Change) from the excessive burning of fossil fuels are now morally comparable. When we burn oil or gas at a rate that exceeds what the ecosystem can absorb, we contribute to global warming, which in turn contributes to droughts, floods or hurricanes. These climatic events cause suffering to other human beings, today and in the future. They contribute to crop failures and put some people at risk of falling into debt bondage, a condition similar to traditional slavery. Other people are driven away from their land because of poverty, and become refugees, stationed in camps, where they may have to work for unscrupulous employers or in prostitution rings (a form of slavery in which refugees are over-represented).

Similarly, cheap fossil fuels facilitate imports of goods from countries without (or with grossly inadequate) legislation to protect economical and social rights of employees and workers. Indeed, our global economy rests on Ricardo's famous comparative advantage concept, which is based on the assumption of negligible transport costs. The availability of cheap energy is a required condition for the transportation of foreign goods on a massive scale over large distances, otherwise it would become uneconomical. Fossil fuels hence help externalise labour and perpetuate oppression….

"Black Conscience Day" by Carlos Latuff

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