Jean-François Mouhot, writing in the UK’s Guardian (a former employer of mine) has written an essay entitled “Once, Men Abused Slaves. Now We Abuse Fossil Fuels.” (h/t to Collide-a-Scape)
In it he writes that his students were frankly incredulous that humanity could tolerate a practice as barbaric as slavery. He then connected the use of fossil fuels to slavery, writing , “Intriguing similarities between slavery and our current dependence on fossil-fuel-powered machines struck me: both perform roughly the same functions in society (doing the hard and dirty work that no one wants to do), both were considered for a long time to be acceptable by the majority and both came to be increasingly challenged as the harm they caused became more visible.”
He goes on to elaborate on the analogy, making a rather tortured case that fossil fuels is a crime in the same way that slavery was a crime. He hopes that society awakens a moral collective conscience to fight fossil fuel use in the same way that abolitionists created a consensus against slavery.
It is amazing that a professor of history could so clearly miss one of the glories of human history. (To be fair, he is aware of what fossil fuels contributed to the reduction of slavery, but he clearly equates the two as moral crime.) Slavery, a fixture of human existence for millenia, left the stage at the same time that we learned how to use fossil fuels. That’s not a coincidence. Slavery became less economically competitive with free labor as labor saving devices made it feasible for fewer people to do so much more work that it was possible to pay them, thereby removing much of the moral stigma and high costs attached to large-scale endeavors previously only made practical by forced labor. It became cheaper to pay 10 workers than house, feed and guard 100.
We see this perhaps most clearly by removing the political flash point of slavery and looking at paid domestic service. During the period after the abolition of slavery, the number of families wealthy enough to afford domestic servants grew dramatically. And the number of domestic servants grew as well.
In the decades between 1900 and 1940, the number of domestic servants in the United States grew from 1.5 million to 2 million. However, the ratio of servants to 1,000 families dropped from 94 per 1,000 families to 60. Similar drops occurred in both Germany and Great Britain.
(There’s a bit of chicken and egg circularity here. As industrialization replaced agriculture as the main engine of employment, factory jobs which paid more than domestic service were more easily available. But those factories ran on fossil fuels as well.)
What Professor Mouhot is doing is worse than chicken-and-egging. He is ignoring the role that fossil fuels played in liberating populations from the drudgery of domestic service. (It is now instrumental in liberating the grandchildren of servants from the drudgery of manufacturing.)
I don’t know why Professor Mouhot is separating fossil fuel usage from the rest of the technology innovations that spurred human development. Perhaps the current enthusiasm to reduce their usage (which I share wholeheartedly) has colored his thinking. But the use of fossil fuels freed us. Professor Mouthot seems to think we should abandon fossil fuels on moral grounds whether or not we can replace them.
And that’s just crazy. Develop alternatives? Yes. Reduce waste? Yes. Improve efficiencies? Yes. But throw away the engines that freed all men and women (not just slaves) from a lifetime of servitude and drudgery?