Climate Change, Like Slavery, Needs a True Cultural Shift to Stop It


photo: Agustín Ruiz/Creative Commons

It may seem overly provocative to compare climate change to the scourge of human slavery, but when it comes to the sorts of cultural changes that are needed to stop them, they really have much in common. That's what University of Michigan professor Andy Hoffman posits in a new issue of the journal Organizational Dynamics. In a less dramatic example, Hoffman also equates this shift to the one which led to smoking bans in many cities in the United States. In both cases, I think he's right on the mark. Climate Change Not Yet Seen As 'Social Fact'
On the smoking analogy (before we get to the more contentious one), Hoffman notes that for years prior to smoking bans scientists had been highlighting data indicating the links between tobacco smoking and lung cancer, but public acceptance and awareness of that data lagged behind.

A similar thing exists now with climate change science. The overwhelmingly majority of climate change scientists (97%) say that human activity is the main cause of global warming and the other climatic changes we're observing, but acceptance of that has not reached the point of it being a 'social fact'.

Slavery Abolitionists Accused of Threatening a Way of Life
On the climate change-slavery connection Hoffman rightly notes that during the 1700s slavery was a primary source of energy and wealth around the world and singles out the slaving actions of the British Empire. Those people who fought for the abolition of slavery were described as challenging the way of life in the Empire, in the colonies, and abolition would lead to sure economic collapse.


image: Flickr
Arguments Against Slavery Abolition Parallel Those Against Climate Change Action
Hoffman isn't alone in making this connection. Polly Higgins, a lawyer who has been crusading to make ecocide a recognized crime, highlights how eerily similar the arguments against slavery abolition, and the solutions offered by industry, are to ones against taking strong action on climate change and on the even more radical notion of banning outright the burning of fossil fuels.

In her latest book Eradicating Ecocide (look for the TreeHugger review of this next week), Higgins explains how right before Great Britain outlawed slavery in the 19th century, there were some 300 companies facilitating the slave trade.

They all fought against the abolition arguing that it would lead to the loss of jobs, that it would be economic, that the public demanded it and that it was a necessity. What they offered was a voluntary compliance scheme whereby numbers [of slaves] would be capped. Hay would be supplied for bedding. Trading of limited numbers, through an auctioning process between the companies, was proposed. Better to leave it to the voluntary market forces, they argued, and self-governance. It was conceded by a few that conditions would be improved but that the imposition of any laws would be unduly onerous on business. As a final concession, businesses proposed a levying of fines if they were caught exceeding import limits.

As we know, the abolitionists won the argument, former slave-trading firms moved on to trade in tea and other commodities, and the British economy did not collapse.


Will one day we look back on old coal-fired power plants like we now see old slave-trading posts. Architecturally and historically interesting, but ultimately signs of a more ignorant and inhumane past? Photo: hiroo/Creative Commons.
In 100 Years Will We Look Back on Fossil Fuel Use Like We Do on Slavery?
Hoffman here doesn't go as far as Higgins in advocating abolition of fossil fuels, but he does say that a radical values shift is required:

First, acknowledging that the scale of human activity, both in numbers and environmental impact, is such that we can and do alter the Earth's ecosystems on a daily basis; Second, that we all share a collective responsibility in this and that global cooperation is required to solve it.

Hoffman concludes,

Just as few people saw a moral problem with slavery in the 18th century, few people in the 21st century see a moral problem with the burning of fossil fuels. Will people in 100 years look at us with the same incomprehension we feel towards 18th-century defenders of slavery? If we are to address the problem adequately, the answer to that question must be yes--our common atmosphere will no longer be seen as a free dumping ground for greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Perhaps even to a larger degree than with slavery, fossil fuels and other climate change-causing practices and substances are so interwoven into the fabric of our daily lives in that there is no overnight change possible. Transition is what is required, active transition with hard targets for reduction in the short-term and absolute abolition thereafter.

But this transition will not happen (peak oil forcing the situation aside...) unless both there is a cultural shift in perception of climate change as outlined by Hoffman and strong action against polluters as advocated by Higgins, fully incorporating the industries doing the polluting but at the same time ignoring these fearful corporate cries that such action will destroy the economy. It will not.

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More on Global Climate Change:
Debunking the Great Global Warming Conspiracy Conspiracy
We Believe Global Warming is Happening, Just Not Necessarily to Us
On a Climate Change Knowledge Test, Half of Americans Would Flunk

Tags: Economics | Energy | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Solutions

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