The Abolition Analogy

By Keith Kloor
Oct 29, 2010 11:18 PMNov 20, 2019 1:31 AM


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What does slavery have to do with climate change? Here's how Andrew Hoffman, an engineer who teaches sustainable development at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, makes the connection in an email exchange with John Broder at the NYT:

Just as few people saw a moral problem with slavery in the 18th century, few people in the 21st century see a moral problem with the burning of fossil fuels. Will people in 100 years look at us with the same incomprehension we feel toward 18th-century defenders of slavery?

I've had a running argument with Steve Bloom over this analogy, who raised it over a week ago, but his comparison was more politically oriented:

the history of abolition of slavery in this country, and in particular the U.S. Senate's role in it, is highly instructive. Our political system was designed to have a hard time producing a solution to the slavery problem, and it's ironic in the extreme that the dead hand of the slaveholders continues to exert such an influence in the present.

Now I can be a pretty righteous guy. I browbeat litterers in the street, run after renegade bicyclists who ignore red lights and nearly run over me and my two little boys in a crosswalk. And I'm sensitive to human barbarity; Nicholas Kristof columns make me want to weep. Some of my own work as a journalist (see here and here, for example) has social justice undercurrents. I also get that there is an ethical component to the climate change issue. But for some reason, I'm not getting this abolition analogy, especially the one made by Professor Hoffman. Slavery (and then lynching) in the United States was an institutionalized evil, a heinous crime against a class of people made even more heinous because it was normalized by society. So it was happening in full view; people had direct knowledge of it. I don't see the burning of fossil fuels as an equivalence, unless you are making a pollution argument, in which you are then saying that people today are dying because of pollution related diseases from coal emissions, etc. But that's a different argument, and one with plenty of evidence. That's not the abolition analogy. The way I read that argument is that our descendants who get hit with climate change will wonder why we were so morally bankrupt for continuing to burn fossil fuels when we full well knew the dangers it posed to our children and grandchildren. The problem for me is that climate change is not present the way slavery was and there are no heinous images of its existence that future generations will regard with the same abhorrence that is elicited today by visual reminders of slavery's past. For these reasons, I cannot grasp the slavery analogy, but I'm open to persuasion. UPDATE:Andrew Hoffman sent me an email. He has permitted me to reproduce his response to the lively comment thread: No where in the NYT article did I equate climate skeptics with supporters of slavery. I didn't mention skeptics at all. Nor, did I equate climate change with slavery in all its components. That is never possible (as Pascvaks rightly points out). The point I was making was that: (a) At its core, the problems and solutions of climate change are organizationally and culturally rooted. While technological and economic activity may be the direct cause of environmentally destructive behavior, individual beliefs, cultural norms and societal institutions guide the development of that activity. To properly address climate change, we must change the way we structure our organizations and the way we think as individuals. It requires a shift in our values. But, the magnitude of the cultural and moral shift around climate change is as large as that which accompanied the abolition of slavery. (b) The similarity arises in scale because (b) Today, we live in a fossil fuel-based economy. Fossil fuels are our primary source of energy and support our entire way of life. As scientific evidence mounts that this critical institution is causing changes to the global climate, we are faced with a technological and social dilemma. In slavery, (c) few people at the time saw a moral problem with this critical institution. People simply did not believe, as we do today, that all people have a right to freedom and equality. Slavery was seen as the natural order of things, unquestioned and even supported by many through the words of the Bible. (LCarey makes this point well at the beginning of his/her statement, but I don't follow the logic to the end). So, (d) Calls to end our dependence on fossil fuels are being met with the same kind of response as did calls to end our dependence on slavery: such a move would wreck the economy and the way of life that is built upon it. This assessment leads to a conclusion that a value shift is required for humankind to come to terms with a new cultural reality. (e) The first piece of this reality is that humankind has grown to such numbers and our technologies have grown to such a capacity that we can, and do, alter the Earth's ecological systems on a planetary scale. It is a fundamental shift in the physical order "” one never before seen, and one that alters the ethics and morals by which we judge our behavior as it relates to the environment around us and to the rest of humanity that depends on that environment. (f) The second piece of that reality is that we share a collective responsibility and require global cooperation to solve it. The coal burned in Ann Arbor, Shanghai or Moscow has an equal impact on the environment we all share. The kind of cooperation necessary to solve this problem is far beyond anything we, as a species, have ever accomplished before. International treaties to ban land mines or eliminate ozone-depleting substances pale in comparison. Looking at climate change through the parallel of slavery helps us to see the magnitude of the issue before us. (g) In the end, just as few people saw a moral problem with slavery in the 18th century, few people in the 21st century see a moral problem with the burning of fossil fuels. Will people in 100 years look at us with the same incomprehension we feel toward 18th-century defenders of slavery? If we are to address the problem adequately, the answer to that question must be yes. If people want to debate about what I wrote, they can argue about points (e), (f) and (g). Points (c), (d) and (e) seem to me to be evident, although people can debate them if they wish. Point (a) is merely my overarching statement. Now, if someone doesn't beleive climate change is real, this whole discussion may be moot. Or they can argue that we can't alter the environment on a planetery scale (e), or that we do not share a collective responsibility towards protecting it (f). If those are true then there is no moral argument (g). Similarly, (skeptic or convinced) people might argue that we will never see a moral problem with emitting CO2 (g); we all do it everyday when we breath. I think this is simply a matter of scale. I think that once the damages of gross pollution become visible, we begin to put apply a moral lens to it. For example, if I owned a company and told one of my workers to dump a flatbed of drums of organic chemicals in the river in back, I think many people would have a moral problem with that. The implications are known. Will we get there on CO2? I really don't know. To me, that's the big question. In the end, however, this debate has become like "abortion politics" in Roger Peilke's terms. We live in a time where people don't debate your ideas, they debate your motives.

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