Thursday, May 2, 2013

What Were We Thinking?

There is no group easier to take down these days than antebellum Southern plantation owners--those folks  who saw absolutely nothing wrong with living a life of ease made possible by the backbreaking, unpaid labor of other human beings. To our 21st century minds, their discombobolation at the end of slavery--the sudden "rudeness" of formerly docile servants, the "ingratitude" of slaves who just up and left one day--seems comical. What did they think would happen? we ask.

I can't help but wonder if someday our descendants will think the same of us when it comes to our fossil fuel addiction. I think in analogies--and I'm just working this one out--but it seems to me that (and here = stands for "roughly analogous to"):

  • Our dependence on oil and natural gas=the plantation South's dependence on slave labor
  • The long-term damage to the planet caused by over-dependence on fossil fuels = long-term damage to the Southern economy caused by over-dependence on cotton as a cash crop
  • Damage to soil caused by unsustainable dependence on petroleum-derived fertilizers and resulting monoculture practices (like growing corn, corn and more corn) = damage to soil caused by monoculture created by growing cotton, cotton and more cotton
  • Our indifference to/defensiveness about the human role in climate change for the last 50 years = antebellum South's attitude toward growing anti-slavery sentiment for most of the 19th century 
  • The willingness of Western society to let poorer (and let's face it, mostly brown-skinned) nations pay the price for climate change = the willingness of white Southerners to get a free ride out of slave labor
It may not be a perfect analogy, but I think it's got some meat to it. Comments welcome. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tracy,

    I think you're spot on here (and not just because I've been making a similar case for many years now).

    The usual approach for ecological economists (not to be confused with mainstream environmental economists) is to speak in terms of the metaphor of "energy slaves." By standard estimates, the lifestyle of the average American today is based upon having between 50--and several multiples of 50--energy slaves.

    The further implications you illuminate here are equally valuable, in my opinion. It's not just that our civilization is fatally exploiting the living (but mortal) earth and climate, but that in doing so we fantasize that we are benign, under duress, or indeed without any conceivable alternatives.

    The reasoning behind your analogizing follows the example of the great and neglected historian of comparative civilizations, Oswald Spengler.