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A Tortured Analogy

By Keith Kloor
Feb 3, 2012 10:43 PMNov 20, 2019 6:01 AM


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The Guardian has published an essay titled, "Once men abused slaves, now men abuse fossil fuels." The author, Jean-François Mouhot, is a historian. The parallels between fossil fuels and slaves occurred to him in the mid-2000s, he recounts:

I was reading a book on climate change which noted how today's machinery "“ almost exclusively powered by fossil fuels like coal and oil "“ does the same work that used to be done by slaves and servants. "Energy slaves" now do our laundry, cook our food, transport us, entertain us, and do most of the hard work needed for our survival. Intriguing similarities between slavery and our current dependence on fossil-fuel-powered machines struck me: 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.

This is quite a comparison, one the author has sketched out in more detail in this paper. In fairness, Mouhot also says:

Obviously, there are differences between the use of slaves and of fossil fuels. Fundamentally, slavery is a crime against humanity. Fossil fuel use is not a moral evil, but burning coal or oil contributes to global warming, already causing widespread harm: it now directly or indirectly kills 150,000 people per year according to a 2004 World Health Organisation study.

Leaving aside the dubious statistic he plucked from an 8-year old WHO report, Mouhot's analogy to this point strikes me as forced. Eventually his line of reasoning becomes clear:

Unlike the harm caused by slavery, the harm in the use of fossil fuels is of course indirect, long range, even unintended. It seems at first glance to be a fundamentally different kind of harm, and the unintended consequences of ongoing use of fossil fuels have only recently 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"?

And here's the argument that he (and others) have been advancing in recent years:

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.

As I mentioned, the equivalence with abolition has been made before. I discussed it here two years ago. I think there is an ethical case to make with climate change. (I don't believe it will carry the day.) I just don't find the slavery/abolition argument to be convincing or even helpful in that regard. Personally, I think the best chance for progress lies with some kind of vision and blueprint for sustainability that is workable. It also has to catch fire in the public mind and appeal to a broad constituency. A tall order? For sure. But in case you haven't noticed, staving off climate doom doesn't seem to be a winning narrative.

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