Climatic Change

, Volume 105, Issue 1–2, pp 329–355 | Cite as

Past connections and present similarities in slave ownership and fossil fuel usage

  • Jean-François MouhotEmail author


The first part of the paper demonstrates the connection between the abolition of slavery and the Industrial Revolution: steam power changed the perception of labour; new techniques facilitated diffusion of pro-abolition pamphlets; fewer threats to basic existence resulting from industrial advances fostered sensibilities and moral standards toward abolitionism; and, through industrial development, the North grasped victory in the American Civil War. The second part presents similarities between societies in the past that have used slave labour and those in the present that use fossil fuels. It argues that slaves and fossil-fuelled machines play(ed) similar economic and social roles: both slave societies and developed countries externalise(d) labour and both slaves and modern machines free(d) their owners from daily chores. Consequently, we are as dependent on fossil fuels as slave societies were dependent on bonded labour. It also suggests that, in differing ways, suffering resulting (directly) from slavery and (indirectly) from the excessive burning of fossil fuels are now morally comparable. When we emit carbon dioxide at a rate that exceeds what the ecosystem can absorb, when we deplete non-renewable resources, we indirectly cause suffering to other human beings. Similarly, cheap oil facilitates imports of goods from countries with little social protection and hence help externalise oppression. The conclusion draws on the lessons which may be learned by Climate Change campaigners from the campaigns to abolish slavery: environmental apathy can be opposed effectively if we learn from what worked in the fight against this inhuman institution.


Fossil Fuel Slave Trade Slave Owner Steam Engine Steam Power 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryUniversity of BirminghamBirminghamUK

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