Slavery and Climate Change: Lessons to be Learned

(This text was first published by the History News Network on 10 December 2010 during the Cancun Climate Change Conference; Par ici pour la version française)

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As the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun concludes on Friday, December 10, history can teach us a few things about the surest and quickest way to achieve progress in tackling global warming.  In an interview last year about the previous UN summit, NASA’s Jim Hansen suggested that only radical change would work, and that it would be better for the planet if the conference ended in collapse, rather than a flawed deal.  Hansen claimed that dealing with climate change “is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln… On those kind of issues… you can’t say let’s reduce slavery, let’s find a compromise and reduce it 50 percent or reduce it 40 percent.”

Hansen is right to warn that a weak compromise might give the general public the impression that climate change has been ‘solved,’ and because a deal has been struck we can now carry on with our lives as before.  He is also right to draw a parallel between slavery and climate change: ‘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 in the past, and both slavery and reckless fossil fuel burning are morally inacceptable.  The similarities and analogies in the use of slaves and the use of fossil fuels are numerous and striking, as I have argued in an article published last week in Climatic Change.

Yet, Hansen is wrong to claim that there were no compromises during the campaign to abolish slavery. Slavery was, in fact, first abolished in Britain through a series of tactical moves and compromises.  Campaigners realized it would be almost impossible to abolish slavery in one fell swoop, and chose to focus strategically on abolishing the slave trade.  A watered-down bill was surreptitiously introduced to Parliament that only banned British merchants from participating in the slave trade with foreign colonies.  This was a shrewd move, as the bill stayed below the radar of the pro-slavery faction, by concealing all humanitarian motives.  The focus on national and military self-interest was difficult to attack and the Foreign Slave Trade Bill was easily passed into law in 1806.

This seemingly innocent bill was part of a step-by-step approach calculated to weaken the powerful lobbies who were opposing the end of the slave trade altogether and eventually made possible the abolition of slavery itself in Britain’s colonies in 1833, more than two decades later and after more compromises.  Large concessions were made to the slave-holding lobby, including the gradual emancipation of slaves (through the apprenticeship system) and the payment of compensation for loss of property.  Thus, in Britain, the aim of abolitionists was achieved through gradualism.

In the U.S., an incremental approach to abolition was also attempted and in the parts of the country that resembled Britain (the North) it worked.  But in the nineteenth century any hint of anti-slavery incrementalism directed toward the South (or toward the South’s ambitions in the West) served only to entrench slavery more deeply and to make Southern slave owners and politicians more intransigent.  The new Republican Party of the 1850s was not abolitionist, and yet when Lincoln was elected, the South seceded anyway.  In other words, incrementalism clearly did not work in the American South.  This is, of course, because the American South was not just a society with slaves in remote colonies as in the case of Britain; instead it was a slave society, heavily reliant on bonded labour for its economy and way of life.

Is there any evidence that something could have worked to abolish slavery in the American South, as an alternative to the Civil War?  The tactics of hard-line abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison, who refused to accept anything but the immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves, were actually counter-productive, too.  The leading historian of slavery, David Brion Davis, has suggested that Garrison’s “eccentricities and extreme rhetoric may have deterred many potential converts,” and this might explain why “American abolitionism was always confined to a small minority.” Lincoln won the Republican nomination for president because he was a moderate and, like most Westerners, took a dim view of abolitionists, saying that he loathed their “self-righteousness,” even though he also hated slavery.

Thus, there is no evidence that an incremental abolition could have worked in the nineteenth-century American South.  Yet, something else played a very important role both in Britain and in the U.S.: the industrial revolution.  As John and William McNeill put it, the harnessing of fossil fuels and the abolition of slavery “were connected events and roughly simultaneous.  The use of inanimate energy gradually made labor less scarce, and forced labor less appealing.  It made communication of antislavery ideas easier…  Industrialization, energy use and egalitarian morality all flowed together to refashion the human condition.”  Fewer threats to basic existence resulting from industrial advances also fostered sensibilities and moral standards supporting abolitionism; and, of course, through industrial development, the North grasped victory in the American Civil War.  This, in turn, suggests that we will restrain our use of fossil fuel if we can find clean sources of energy.  We should concentrate our efforts on finding cleaner ways of producing energy.

Yet, history suggests something else too:  technological fixes have rarely been without unintended consequences in the long run.  Consider the industrial revolution.  For all its promises of liberation from toil and social progress, few could have imagined its long-term effects:  the warming of the atmosphere.  Furthermore, even if a truly clean and harmless form of energy could be found (such as nuclear fusion), one wonders if this would be such a good thing for us, given what we have done to the planet with the extraordinary powers that fossil fuels have given us in the past century.

By comparison to the headlong flight towards more technological fixes, self-restraint and humility in admitting our human limitations present far fewer dangers.  But could it work?  Self-restraint clearly failed to abolish slavery in the American South—nothing else bar a war did.  But the future is not written, and we can learn from our mistakes. History suggests that the negotiators in Cancun should thus push for incremental self-restraint while making sure people are offered an alternative to fossil fuels.

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One response to “Slavery and Climate Change: Lessons to be Learned

  1. Pingback: Quelques enseignements de l’histoire à propos du changement climatique | Jean-Francois Mouhot

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