Monday, January 7, 2008

slavery and fossil fuels

The nineteenth century global economy was a like a small scale version of today's global economy. Trade in slaves, sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cotton were the drivers of global economic growth. But the growing trade in the above mentioned non-human commodities was first made possible by slave labour in plantations in the tropics and the American South.

In our modern global economy, cheap fossil fuels have taken the place of slaves. Industrial farming, convenient travel by automobile, and the transportation of commodities by trucks and tankers is all made possible by fossil fuels.

The nineteenth century movement to abolish slavery, called “Abolitionism” was entirely based on the moral inhumanity of slavery. Slowly but surely, the idea of buying and selling human beings, of separating members of slave families, of punishing slaves with whippings and other forms of torture, came to be seen as morally unjustifiable.

The twenty-first Century movement to stop runaway global warming is based more on science than on morals. Science tells us that the unchecked growth in fossil fuel consumption is leading to accelerating global warming. Science also tells us that this warming has catastrophic potential for all humans because of the increased probability of drought, forest fires, flooding and destruction of biodiversity.

Because the case for preventing global warming is largely based on science it has a much better potential for gaining widespread agreement among the world's nations. It took fifty years for the British abolitionist movement to halt slavery in the British colonies, where it finally ended in 1833. But it took closer to a hundred years and a wrenching civil war for the United States to abolish it.

It's instructive to examine the difference between British and American abolitionism. In both countries slave owners and slave traders stood to lose profits from abolition. But in Great Britain slaveholders were a small society of men who owned plantations in the British colonies, mostly in the Caribbean. In the United States slavery was the basis of the Southern states' economy. When American abolitionists first aimed a direct mail campaign at the South in the 1830's, the Southern reaction was swift and decisive. The entire white population of the South rallied around the cause of slavery, intimidating and physically expelling anyone who dared to disagree.

As a voting block, the South was able to stalemate and paralyse all three branches of the federal government whenever attempts to deal with the issues of slavery were made. It took the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, to end the stalemate, but the Southerners refused to accept the result and quickly declared war on the Northern states.

There is no doubt that the economies of Great Britain and the United States were harmed by abolition. Slavery, was, after all, profitable. But the majority of English and Americans were persuaded that the moral result was worth the cost.

In our modern global economy, it is the richest corporations – the oil corporations like Exxon and Shell that stand to lose the most from our taking action to stop runaway global warming. The fact that they are so profitable is relevant here because their huge profits are being used to subvert political systems all over the world.

Some of the worst examples of this are Canada and the United States where so much oil money is flowing into the coffers of the Republican and Conservative parties that President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Harper have made it their policies to block the kind of national and international action necessary to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Bush has one more year to make mischief, and there's a chance that Harper's Conservatives could be defeated in a spring election. One of our priorities going in to the next federal election should be to put a stop to the undue influence of corporate money on politics. We don't even have ten years to turn things around, let alone fifty. There is no justification for putting the human race at risk for the sake of oil company profits.


  1. Very good writting!

    Charles, you should try to promote this article.

  2. Thanks Steven. Good to hear from you again. Good idea. Do you have any suggestions.

  3. Treehugger is the largest Green forum. For two months, my articles over there had more than 3000 clicks. I think you should post this article there with link to your site.

    Here is the link:

    If you have time, I would ask you to post this article to my forum. The forum is small right now. However, it will grow with many high school students.

    Here is the link:

  4. Excellent. Did you post this anywhere else? Perhaps you could rework it to make it less dated. It seems just as relevant (if not more!) today

  5. Actually, Andrew Nikiforuk wrote an entire book on the subject, four years after I wrote this. It's a great book, I recommend it. It's called The Energy of Slaves.