Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Slavery and Fossil Fuels: Unethical Energy, Then and Now

Preface: Actors study for a role in part by seeking in themselves aspects of the character they wish to portray onstage. That technique, or instinct, could be used to more deeply understand a time long past. When Princeton University began to look into the role slavery played in its past, researchers and archivists found all sorts of interesting documents, then recently invited the public to take a look. Attending events, I couldn't help but exercise the actor's approach, looking for aspects of today that can help us more vividly understand a seemingly distant era. Even without considering how slavery's long shadow extends into our century, the parallels between past and present were so numerous that I felt an eerie connection with that antebellum era. Most eerie is the tacit acceptance of a disturbing status quo. There's a great risk in not talking about our dependency on unethical energy. It nearly split a nation in two, and now threatens a civilization's future. 

The Slavery in Princeton project’s revelations have blurred distinctions between good and evil, North and South. For me, they also blur distinctions between past and present. The symposium will rightly focus on racial injustice, but additional insight can come from comparing economies dependent on unethical energy, slave-based or otherwise.

To make the point, here's what I've learned thus far from Slavery in Princeton's events, exhibits, and website, plus some additional reading:

Slaves were sold on Nassau Street. Slavery was common in Princeton, a part of everyday life, and seldom discussed. The university benefitted from wealth generated by the slave economy. Nationally, the Bible and junk science were used to rationalize the continued use of slaves and to claim that victims were actually beneficiaries. Those most victimized by slavery had no vote. Those calling for a rapid end to slave use were considered radical. New Jersey chose to phase out slavery over many decades. Everyone supported the slave economy by buying its products. A few people of conscience sought to buy slave-free goods, but struggled with issues of higher cost and verification. A technological breakthrough made slavery much more profitable as time went on, expanding U.S. exports and stiffening political resistance to ending the slave economy. Ending slave use would mean stripping slave owners of the tremendous wealth bound up in the slaves themselves. The political party advocating continued slave use became radicalized, in part because demographic trends might erode its power. That Party chose to secede rather than face the unethical nature of the slave economy. Even after slave use was abolished, its harmful effects would linger for centuries.

Now, reread the above paragraph, substituting the word "fossil fuel" for slave and slavery. The technological breakthrough, by the way, was the cotton gin then, fracking now, and secession was from the Union then, from reality-based thinking now.

There are, of course, important distinctions. Slavery in the U.S. was an intentional subjugation, a race-based exploitation of one person by another, with much of the overt or covert cruelty playing out in real time.

Climate change, by contrast, is collective, unintentional and impersonal, essentially collateral damage from the carbon-based economy. Its veiled, crowd-sourced form of cruelty is largely indirect, displaced in distance and time, disguised within the natural variations of the weather. Climate change most directly targets earth, which can be thought of as a body, physically scarred by extraction, its oceans acidified, its land and sea made feverish by a 40% increase in carbon dioxide. These radical changes to atmosphere and oceans cripple nature and increasingly endanger people through a devastating intensification of winds, floods, droughts, and heatwaves.

And yet we drive down freeways, which function as climate change factories, with the best of motivations--to get to work, run an errand, or do a favor--exiling awareness of collective consequence. To more deeply understand slavery's grip on society, consider how unethical energy continues to trap even free people in dependencies that can be viewed as both perfectly normal and unconscionable.

Background readings that I found helpful can be found at this link

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