Rewriting Slavery

by | Aug 8, 2008

In the August edition of History Today, Jean-Francois Mouhot argues that ‘reliance on fossil fuels has made slave owners of us all’.


Most of us approach slavery with the underlying assumption that our modern civilization is morally far superior to the barbaric slave-owning societies of the past. But are we really so different? If we compare our current attitude to fossil fuels and climate change with the behaviour of the slave owners, there are more similarities than one might immediately perceive.

Mouhot begins his article by drawing some links between the industrial revolution and the slave trade. Goods such as weapons, chains, and locks were made in Britain, to keep slaves in bondage, and their labour created the goods that flowed back; sugar, cotton, tobacco.

Slave traders therefore played a significant – if perhaps indirect – role in the establishment of the industrialist system at the core of our contemporary societies.

Industrial society, it seems, only owes itself indirectly to slavery. And he continues to say that there are also links between industrialisation and the end of slavery. There seems to be no coherent basis for Mouhot to continue, yet he carries on with this tired comparison, seemingly only on the basis that steam power was unable to make slavery redundant in the cotton-fields. Mouhot turns to human nature itself to explain why this might have been.

The comparison starts with a hypothesis that it is a feature of human nature that whenever humans have had the possibility to find someone or something else to work for them for free or for a small cost, they have almost always taken advantage of it, even if it came at a high moral cost.

This is a very cynical conception of human nature and a particularly flawed hypothesis. What is more, it is an ahistorical hypothesis. History shows that slavery was rejected to the point that it is now considered to be disgusting. The transformation to the contemporary view of slavery from its general acceptance centuries ago shows how our moral sense, and our conception of humanity has changed. The difference between getting ‘someone else’, and ‘something else’ to work for us for free is stark. It is only by assuming this ahistorical position, and in fact degrading that developed sense of humanity, that Mouhot can substantiate his argument for a moral equivalence between using labour-saving devices and being a slave-owner.

Mouhot shows that to maintain the same standard of living, without fossil fuels, we would need about a hundred people working for us, full time. (Surely this is a good thing? After all, given that he has argued that humans ‘will always take advantage of the possibility of cheaper ways of doing things’, then the alternative to using oil is that humans are put to work as slaves. There could not be a more compelling argument for the continued use of fossil fuel). In fact, Mouhot misses an even deeper historical lesson. Industrialisation created the conditions in which the poor of the world were able to challenge their conditions. As poor people were widely distributed, and lacked the means to organise themselves, and had nothing to bargain with, they had no political capital. When the industrial revolution concentrated labour in towns, and created the possibility of the exchange of labour for wages, it made labour a political force. Industrialisation and capitalism toppled feudalism. This process happened as progressive theories were developing about the way in which people related to one another, and how they ought to relate to one another. In 1762, Rousseau, whose thoughts have shaped today’s world, wondered, in The Social Contract:

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.

Of course, Rousseau was speaking generally about slavery. But then, Mouhot himself uses the term very loosely in order to make his point. Mouhot is simply wrong to imagine that ‘high moral cost’ was a consideration in the exploitation of slave labour. It happened in a different age, where different ideas about what constitutes a human influenced the way people related to each other. We haven’t merely developed industrially, our morals, ethics and values have been transformed by the political ideas and struggles that have taken place over the last few centuries. In that time, the prevailing view has changed from one in which people were the property of Kings by Divine Right, to today, where people are (or ought to be) entitled to inalienable human rights. Nonetheless, Mouhot’s poor reasoning and ahistorical thinking continues:

Second, slavery caused harm to human beings, as does our current large-scale burning of fossil fuel. Some might argue that it is not possible to compare pain triggered by the use of slaves and pain caused by the use of oil, gas or coal, as in the latter case we are dealing with inanimate objects. However, when we burn oil or gas above what the eco-system can absorb, we are causing pain and suffering to other human beings. The release of carbon dioxide is already causing harm and human suffering and is forecast to produce much more, by increasing droughts and flooding, threatening crop yields and displacing large numbers of people.

Mouhot is simply wrong to claim that CO2 is ‘already causing harm and human suffering’. It cannot be shown, and it has not been shown by any sound method. He certainly hasn’t subjected the claim to any scrutiny. What is clear, and what we have pointed out on many occasions, is that the victims this kind of argument exploits for moral capital – the poor – would not be vulnerable to climate were they as wealthy as we are. The ethical case for equality is distorted by arguments such as Mouhot’s, which replace it with an ethic to stabilise the weather. What is missing from this process is the voices of the people on whose behalf Mouhot seems to be speaking. Let us imagine they have been asked, ‘what would you prefer, a stable climate, or Western levels of wealth?’ What do we think their reply would be? Of course, this would liberate Mouhot’s eco-slaves, and turn them into the climate criminals that he compares to slave owners. In other words, liberating the world’s poor who are vulnerable to climate by making them voices, rather than victims means that he can no longer turn to them for moral capital. So who is the slave owner? Mouhot has an answer to these points…

It is argued that there are some long-term benefits from the carbon economy: the hospitals, schools and roads we build today through the use of fossil fuels will benefit future generations. What is more, not all of the consequences of climate change are negative: a rise in temperature by a few degrees will have some beneficial aspects. However, these arguments are erroneous as the predicted overall damage, according to the IPCC, far outweighs any positive impacts climate change may have.

What predictions? The IPCC does not make any predictions. What Mouhot believes are ‘predictions’, are in fact ‘projections’, which consider what might happen under a range of possible scenarios, as assumptions. For example, The Technical Summary of IPCC AR4 Impacts and Vulnerability Group states:

Future vulnerability depends not only on climate change but also on development pathway.
An important advance since the Third Assessment has been the completion of impacts studies for a range of different development pathways, taking into account not only projected climate change but also projected social and economic changes. Most have been based on characterisations of population and income levels drawn from the SRES scenarios [2.4]. These studies show that the projected impacts of climate change can vary greatly due to the development pathway assumed. For example, there may be large differences in regional population, income and technological development under alternative scenarios, which are often a strong determinant of the level of vulnerability to climate change [2.4]. [OUR EMPHASIS]

The report also pointed out that more research was needed:

[TS 6.2] there has been little advance on:

• impacts under different assumptions about how the world will evolve in future – societies, governance, technology and economic development;

• the costs of climate change, both of the impacts and of response (adaptation and mitigation)

If that is not sufficient to convince anyone that development is a key determinant of vulnerability to climate, then there is plenty more. For example:

Vulnerability to climate change can be exacerbated by the presence of other stresses.

…Vulnerable regions face multiple stresses that affect their exposure and sensitivity as well as their capacity to adapt. These stresses arise from, for example, current climate hazards, poverty and unequal access to resources, food insecurity, trends in economic globalisation, conflict, and incidence of disease such as HIV/AIDS [7.4, 8.3, 17.3, 20.3].

Finally, what the IPCC do here is barely science at all, but the construction of stories by social scientists and economists, based on scientific projections given by climate scientists. And it is far from unchallengable. Nevertheless, it is clear that the claim Mouhot makes is not substantiated by the IPCC. It depends on a very subjective interpretation of its work, which combines a huge number of highly significant assumptions, complete with caveats – all of which are ignored. The IPCC is cited by Mouhot, not in order to point readers towards supporting information… it doesn’t exist. The purpose is to invoke scientific authority to support his specious moral reasoning. All Mouhot has done is to make something up, and attribute it to the IPCC. And anyway, anyone who disagrees is a ‘denier’.

But let’s not single Mouhot out. This is the standard to which even academics writing about climate change aspire. This is not an unusual case.

The claims made by Mouhot, that ‘predictions’ show that negative impacts will outweigh the positives, are not science. They are not made by scientists, and they fail to take into account what is possible through increased wealth. Indeed, the IPCC is wedded to the anti-wealth, sustainability agenda, which takes the view that wealth itself is environmentally destructive. In other words, the IPCC, through the sustainability agenda, is attached to a particular political idea that will influence the direction of development throughout the world over the coming decades. This is the counterpart political orthodoxy to the ‘scientific consensus’. And it is this political idea which is reflected as Mouhot considers a challenge to his argument, on the basis that slavery implies a relationship between slave and master, which does not exist in our reliance on fossil fuels.

…comparatively cheap energy is a required condition for the transport of foreign goods on a massive scale and over large distances. As it is inexpensive to transport those goods from the Far East to Europe or America, it is possible to import products often made in slave-like conditions for a fraction of the cost of producing them in our countries. We have delocalized slavery and put it far from view, but it still exists and we benefit from it. Secondly, the harm caused by climate change often amounts to violence or force against a large number of people. Global warming, like slavery, is already limiting the possibilities they have for living a good life. Floods, droughts and rising sea levels will force millions of people to become refugees; their land will be taken away from them and they may have to work in slave-like conditions instead of growing their own crops. Even if they do not become refugees, in the ‘developing world’ many poor peasants have to contract debts to survive. Any crop failure, which can be caused or worsened by climate change, put these peasants at the mercy of debt bondage. It is even possible that the consequences of climate change will be far worse and longer lasting, and affect a much larger number of people, than slavery ever did.

First, Mouhot’s imaginations are predicated on the principle of zero economic, political and social development in the developing world. Not only is this ahistorical, again, it is also counter-factual. Of course, working life in the developing world is not something that we would tolerate in the West, but it is still an improvement upon the conditions endured by people living in subsistence economies. That is why we see mass migration towards cities throughout the world, and in particular why people in China have abandoned rural lifestyles to work in factories in cities. And that is why we see development in China on an unprecedented scale. And of course we benefit from cheaper labour and production, and there is an element of ‘unfairness’ to this relationship. But this relationship is a transformation from no relationship. Equality cannot be achieved where there is no relationship.

Second, the claim that global warming is ‘already’ causing pain and suffering to the poor, or will in the future, also imagines that development does not offer protection against the elements. But why does Mouhot not imagine that governments in the developing world invest in infrastructure that will protect it from the climate, changing or not? After all, at the very least, even if the plight of humans isn’t worth a stuff, factories and other installations are worth protecting. Whereas, self-evidently, subsistence economies cannot afford to build protection for themselves against the elements.

Third, the lifestyle that Mouhot seems to want people in the developing world to continue living precludes the possibility of industrial development and economic growth. That in turn precludes the possibility of political transformation of the unequal relationships they are on the bad end of. In other words, Mouhot argues for the slave-master relationship to be sustained, lest it ‘damages the environment’. Mouhot cares not a hoot for these ‘slaves’.

What Mouhot writes is unmitigated nonsense. It is ahistorical, it is counter-factual, and it is ultimately an argument which can be used to sustain the conditions which are endured by the very people he claims to wish to save.

That ought to be the end of this already long post. But there is more to this story. At the bottom of the article is a very revealing profile of Mouhot.

* Jean-François Mouhot is project research officer at the University of Birmingham. He worked until recently for an environmental NGO campaigning against climate change. He is a member of the Rescue!History network:

The environmental movement makes a lot of noise about the interference of political interests in the public presentation of issues relating to climate change. It is constantly surprising to see that you can be an ecological activist without having your integrity challenged. But the slightest whiff of a connection to the oil industry is enough to ignite furious letters to the censor. So let’s allow Mouhot his biased influence on research which continues to sustain inequality in the world.

Rescue! History is an organisation that intends to connect the issue of climate change with the social sciences and humanities.

We therefore propose that as teachers, researchers and students of complex human societies of the past and present, whether as historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, human geographers, demographers, philosophers, writers, students of politics, economics, international relations, religion, literature and culture, or of other related fields, that our role and responsibility must be directed increasingly towards an understanding of how we arrived at this point of crisis. By the same token, we must seek to understand not only how societies, polities and cultures have previously, or currently, sustained themselves in conditions of scarcity and adversity but through our own actions also take some personal responsibility by reducing our carbon footprints if not to remedy then at least to help mitigate the consequences of climate change.

There are three things to consider here.

The first is that academics from these disciplines are being asked to take at face value ‘what science says’, rather than, as has been the case since positivism, for social scientists to challenge scientism – the idea that society can be understood and controlled in strict, scientific terms.

The second is that this statement of intent seems to use urgency to arm political, environmental orthodoxy with moral purpose, and to exclude dissent from academia.

Third, we ought to ask what it is that Rescue! History really aims to rescue. Is it humanity, or is it the humanities? Just as fears about climate change have armed flailing political parties with new purpose, as we have observed, it has breathed new life into academia; it has brought to the fore dusty old geography departments, and made them highly relevant to today’s world, and has reconnected moral philosophy to matters of the survival of the human race through ‘the ethics of climate change’. This is about more than simply capturing research budgets by making History relevant to climate change. This is about redefining History as a discipline, when, perhaps, it is a bit unsure of itself, in much the same way that directionless politicians from the old left and right alike are redefining their core values in environmental terms.

The consequence of all this is that slavery also gets re-written, backwards. If Mouhot’s argument actually emerged from a careful study of history, that would be one thing. But instead, he looks to History for ways of making moral arguments in the present, in favour of Environmentalism. He wants to use History to show that we’re the moral equivalent of 18th Century slave owners, not to advance our understanding of humanity’s transformation through time. In the process, he ignores our political, social, and cultural development, which must be against the very principles of History. These are the things that Environmentalism wants us to discard. Environmentalism’s political objectives, given legitimacy by a re-writing of history makes us all either victims or culprits, are achieved not through broadening and deepening our understanding of history, culture, and society, but by narrowing it in order to make crass, obscene, and bogus moral calculations.

1 Comment

  1. Alex Cull

    As Dr Mouhot is still a card-carrying Westerner and presumably a resident of Birmingham, just about everything he uses, looks at, eats and touches has to be a product of – or connected with – fossil fuel-based industrialisation. If this is truly his deeply-held conviction – that Western-style economic development equates with slavery – then by his lights he is just as tainted and guilty as the rest of us; how does the guy sleep at night? I think I would be a little more impressed if he forthwith declared his intention to renounce his evil slavemaster ways and go live among the Inuit or Yanomamo, or be a subsistence farmer in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

    However, I fear that if he did so, and remained true to his personal ethics, any future academic papers he published would need to be inscribed on narwhal tusks, perhaps (computers and paper being products of the carbon/industrial/slavery complex), or written in berry juice on a suitably flat piece of tree bark. Not an easy feat.

    Then, once having chosen his virtuous, pre-industrial way of life, he might encounter a few more problems. Famine and malnourishment, perhaps, or tribal conflict. A waterborne infectious disease, or an intestinal parasite or maybe an ailment caused by wood smoke pollution. And even if he missed out on these attractive features of the developing world, there is surely something that he wouldn’t be able to avoid. Hard, unremitting manual work, especially if he took the subsistence farmer route. As he broke his back cultivating a field of yams or cassava for his very survival, he would know education to be a luxury that for him, and for his newfound subsistence-farmer comrades, would simply be out of reach without the benefits of economic progress. Once he actually became a Papuan highlander, when would he ever find the time, money or energy to go to university?

    Dr Mouhot indeed has it backwards. Without the money to build schools and libraries, without the industry and advanced agriculture to generate that money, without the cheap, reliable, carbon-based fuel to power that industry and advanced agriculture, people in developing countries will remain stuck in appalling conditions of poverty, hardship and severe limitation. An apt name for these conditions would be – slavery.



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