05 February 2009

Slavery and Carbon

Consider the following, from Dorinda Outram's 2005 book The Enlightenment:
Slavery and the slave trade, and especially the version of it that reached its peak in the Caribbean and Brazil, were essential to the increasingly integrated world economy of the Enlightenment. They were embedded in powerful, highly organized, economic structures. Slave labour returned high profits to those in the slave trade, and also to those involved in colonial plantation production. While these profits might not have been the key to the industrial revolution, they certainly primed the economic pump, and provided higher tax revenues to the ever-expanding governments… To begin to question the existence of slavery itself, rather than deploring the situation of individual slaves, was thus in Enlightenment terms to have to think thoughts which were not only difficult but which also logically involved the dismantling of a profitable, successful, and globally organized economic structure. It is not difficult to see why anti-slavery mobilization took so long to come together.

What strikes me is the ease with which such a description could apply to the modern, carbon-burning economy. It is just as true for us that the exploitation of coal and oil is so deeply embedded in our global economic structure that it is hard to see how we could extricate ourselves.

My question, then, is to what extent the details of this historical case may be guidelines to resolving our present situation.


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