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
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
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
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.
Posted by Charles Justice