2nd Annual Cultures of Energy Spring Symposium, Rice University, Houston, TX


I recently gave a talk at the 2nd Annual Cultures of Energy Spring Symposium, Rice University, organised by Dominic Boyer and Caroline Levander.

The title of my talk: Fossil fuels, slavery and climate change: past & present similarities and interconnections between slavery and fossil fuel use.

Abstract: This paper expands on my recent article “Past connections and present similarities in slave ownership and fossil fuel usage” (Climatic Change, 2011) and my book Des esclaves énergétiques: reflexions sur le changement climatique (Champ Vallon, 2011). The paper will look at the multiple connections between slavery and the Industrial Revolution and how in particular the arrival of steam-driven machines facilitated the abolition of this inhuman institution. It will then presents similarities between societies in the past that have used slave labor and those in the present that use fossil fuels and argue that slaves and fossil-fueled machines play(ed) similar economic and social roles: both slave societies and developed countries externalise(d) labour and both slaves and modern machines free(d) their owners from daily chores. It will also suggest that, in differing ways, suffering resulting (directly) from slavery and (indirectly) from the excessive burning of fossil fuels are now morally comparable. When we emit carbon dioxide at a rate that exceeds what the ecosystem can absorb, when we deplete non-renewable resources, we indirectly cause suffering to other human beings. Similarly, cheap oil facilitates imports of goods from countries with little social protection and hence help externalise oppression. The conclusion draws on the lessons which may be learned by Climate Change campaigners from the campaigns to abolish slavery: environmental apathy can be opposed effectively if we learn from what worked in the fight against slavery.

The full program of the symposium can be found on Rice University website.


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