Slave ownership and fossil fuel usage: a commentary (and response)

A commentary by Klas Rönnbäck on my 2011 article “Past connections and present similarities in slave ownership and fossil fuel usage” has just been published by the journal Climatic Change. Here is the abstract: “In a recent, thought-provoking article, Jean-François Mouhot argues that there are many similarities between historical slave ownership and present-day fossil fuel usage. For that reason, Mouhot believes, members of modern fossil-fuel-dependent civilization should not feel morally superior to slave owners. While it is easy to sympathize with Mouhot’s intentions of furthering a transition to sustainable energy use, some arguments made in the article are in need of refinement.”

I copy my response below. The full text of my article “Past connections” can be viewed here or on the journal’s website (with subscription).

Author response to “Slave ownership and fossil fuel usage—a commentary” by Klas Rönnbäck


I would like to thank Klas Rönnbäck for his detailed and thoughtful commentary on my article.

Rönnbäck’s (2013) main problem with the first part of my argument concerns the question of whether fossil-fuel-powered machines really “diminished the pressure to own bonded labour.” I emphasized in my article the complicated relationship that machines had on labour.

On the one hand, machines at many times and places superseded the need for manual labour (free or unfree); nonetheless, in some instances, machinery increased the incentive to have slaves. It’s not an either/or scenario. Rönnbäck then puts forward an economic theory (the Nieboer-Domar hypothesis) for the reasons behind the establishment of slavery in certain places as opposed to others, and wonders why I do not discuss it. My main concern in my article was not so much to inquire why slavery was established in some places, but rather why and where it was challenged, and the role played by fossil fuels in this process.
Rönnbäck then devotes a great deal of time to challenging my remark that slavery might make a comeback on a large scale if fossil fuels were to become scarce. Rönnbäck believes that “the historical evidence does not seem to warrant such a fear.” In an attempt to demonstrate that we have nothing to fear, he produces a complex statistical analysis of the impact of different factors on the prevalence of slavery today: the Human Development Index (HDI), Population density, and energy production per capita. The figures on which these calculations are made are only, as the author acknowledges, at best “rough guestimates of an illegal phenomenon”. There are also many differences between today’s forms of slavery and previous forms of slavery. Rönnbäck’s first finding is that there is a clear negative correlation between the HDI and slavery (i.e., the lower a country scores on the HDI, the more likely it is to host a large proportion of slaves). But this claim actually reinforces my thesis: what I have been arguing is indeed that when standards of living rose in the Western World (largely as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the development of machines), slavery was increasingly challenged. Of course, there was no HDI calculation in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it is easy to see that conditions improved thanks to economic development brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Rönnbäck’s second finding in this section is problematic. He attempts to find out whether energy production in a given country is correlated to the existence of contemporary slavery. He finds no correlation. Indeed he finds that the more energy is produced in a country, the more there will be slaves. But I have never stated or implied that the risk of the return of slavery was correlated to individual countries’ production of energy. Rather I suggest that the return of slavery could be correlated to the availability of energy in a given country. What is crucial is availability of energy, not production. For example, Germany produces very little oil, but since petroleum can be obtained on the global market, the country gets all it needs through imports. The problems arise when countries cannot get enough energy. The historical evidence on this issue is compelling. I provide several examples (Mouhot 2011: 339) where energy shortages have led to a resurgence of slavery. Germany during World War II experienced a shortage of oil, and because of the blockade during the war was unable to obtain much. This probably was one reason for the general return to forms of slavery in concentrations camps in Germany and throughout Europe. In short, the historical evidence gives us reason to fear that, were shortages of fossil fuel to appear (either because of a war, the decrease in the global production of oil or due to pressure to reduce consumption because of climate change), slavery is likely to make a come-back.

Rönnbäck reserves the very last section of his commentary to criticize the core idea of my original article, i.e., the similarities between the use of fossil fuels today and the use of slavery in the past. Rönnbäck is right to point out that it’s difficult to compare different forms of suffering that seem on the surface very different in nature. As I make clear in my original article, however, I am not suggesting that the sufferings are equivalent; I am merely highlighting intriguing similarities (and differences), even if I note that in some places, flooding and crop destructions linked to climate change can directly lead to, for example, debt bondage, a form of contemporary slavery still widespread in some places in the world. Many people are uncomfortable with the moral implications of this argument. Rönnbäck suggests I am using a propaganda technique known as “guilt by association.” Yet, my argument is exactly the opposite of propaganda: it is about how blurred the frontier between what is considered good and evil can be, and how quickly it can shift. The comparison really works as a two-edged sword: on the one hand, it is an invitation to refrain from passing easy moral judgments on slave-owners of the past; on the other, it is an invitation to think—in light of how often slave-owners of past centuries are widely condemned by the current generation—about what will future generations think about our current actions. 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 hard-line stances. The evidence also implies that slavery came to be challenged and finally abolished when people became aware of an alternative. This alternative—steam power—was of course a great moral improvement until we came to know the consequences of fossil fuel consumption. This, in turn, suggests that we will restrain our use of fossil fuels if we can favour a new energy transition and find clean sources of energy—and that we should concentrate our efforts on developing “green” technologies at the same time as reducing our consumption of fossil fuels.

Acknowledgments: This research was supported by aMarie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship within the 7th European Community Framework Programme.

Mouhot J-F (2011) Past connections and present similarities in slave ownership and fossil fuel usage. Clim Chang 105:329–355. doi:10.1007/s10584-010-9982-7
Rönnbäck K (2013) Slave ownership and fossil fuel usage—a commentary. Clim Chang. doi:10.1007/s10584-013-0998-7

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