The immorality of climate change, a reflection on slavery and the Civil War

Today, few people look back upon African slavery in the Americas as a good thing.  There are no rousing speeches defending slave owners rights over their property, or demands not just to maintain the institution of slavery within their own borders but also to expand slavery into neighbouring states.  There are no armies of poor white men fighting to keep rich white men’s dominion over black slaves in the hope that one day, they too might become rich white men lording it over their own field and house negroes.  And yet a mere 150 years ago, in the United States, this morality existed and a great Civil War took place between the Northern and the Southern states.  150 years is not a long time. Photography, telegraphs, railroads and huge factories existed.  Many of your grand or great grand parents would have been alive.

The people who lived then were recognisably like ourselves, and yet millions of them did look upon African slavery as a good thing, and did fight to maintain it.  This raises two interesting questions.  First, how did their sense of morality allow them to think this way and second, if we project ourselves 150 years into the future will our grand and great grand children look back at the way we live in a similar mixture of fascination and horror?  Will our management of the environment, global warming, fisheries collapse, species extinctions be equally vilified?

Buying and selling men, women and children was morally wrong, but widespread.


African slavery grew gradually but by 1831 there was a widespread belief that the institution would die off as both the British Parliament and the US Congress abolished the international slave trade. With no ability to buy and then trade slaves from the west African coast, the theory went that eventually the slaves that were in circulation would literally die off, leaving even the Southern states slave free.  This view became increasingly tenuous as slave owners discovered the financial joys of breeding their own slaves, for personal use and for sale within the southern states, and the rise of the cotton industry in the 1840-1850s.  Cotton had previously been difficult to process, but new cotton gins, machinery that allowed the fluffy white part to be separated from its harder skin, meant that cotton rapidly became a cash crop, making planters in the South, where cotton was most viable, incredibly wealthy.

In the North, this renewed Southern enthusiasm for slavery clashed with their sense of morality.  Why was the United States, the icon of freedom and liberty who had inspired the French revolution and the 1848 revolutions across Europe, the only major country to continue to have slavery?  With no suitable land for cotton and no embedded plantation class, the North saw the sins of slavery and did not enjoy the economic benefits.  In the South, the economic benefits trumped any moral qualms that they may have had.  Getting rid of slavery in the United States, however, was no easy task.  By 1847 there were 15 slave and 14 free states.  The North had the majority of the population and thus greater control over Congress, but each state had only two senators, effectively allowing the slave states to block any anti slavery legislation.

But the North had a trump card: expansion of the number of states.  Following the 1836 Texas declaration of independence from Mexico and the 1846 -7 Mexican war with the United States, a whole number of new states could be created. If those states were free states, the balance of power in the Senate would swing away from the South, making it more likely that both Congress and the Senate would pass bills banning slavery.  With the victory of Lincoln and the Republicans in 1860, on an anti slavery platform, the writing was on the wall.  Preemptively, before Lincoln had even been inaugurated, many of the Southern states seceded from the Union, setting the stage for the American Civil War.

The struggle over slavery had become a struggle over the way of life for people in the South.  And yet, very few of the 5 million whites in the South were large slave owners: 48,000 had more than 20 slaves.  Very large slave owners numbered in the hundreds and were the richest and most politically powerful men in their communities. Defence of slavery became synonymous with a defence of Southern life and values.  Morality was completely thrown out of the window and the more the North looked as though it was going to win the battle for black slaves the more the South reacted against it.

Today, we live in a world that still abounds with morally suspect choices.  We still do things that we know are damaging for us all.  We destroy habitats, rain forests, kill dolphins, whales, great apes, tigers and other endangered species. The science about climate change is unambiguous: the planet is getting hotter and mankind is the cause.  Fisheries are on the verge of collapse around the world.  And yet there are a vocal number of people who stand up against the onslaught of history and push for more oil, gas and coal and push back against renewables.  There are people who push for more subsidies for large factory fishing vessels and even higher quotas for catches.  Like the Southern States there are rich, powerful vested interests who want to maintain the status quo and like the Southern States there are millions of poor who support and identify with their cause, despite gaining no financial benefit.

This struggle between economically vested interests pursuing morally dubious choices does not have to end, like the United States, in conflict.  The Civil War also showed us that people can go directly against their economic interest if they can be persuaded to put morality first.  The Confederate South believed from the outset that Great Britain would support them in the war: it was British cotton mills that purchased the bulk of the 4 million bales of cotton that the South produced every year.  They calculated that it would be disastrous for the mill owners if they could not get the raw ingredients to feed their mills.

They were wrong. The anti slavery movement was so strong that Britain turned its back on Southern cotton. Some mills did do badly, others found alternative sources.

They adjusted, and so should we.

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  • No doubt our nephews will blame us for being so selfish and stupid and especially for not thinking about them.
    Many generations in western countries has blessed their predecessors for leaving them skills, trade links, infrastructure and natural resources in form of plantations, livestock and especially financial resources. Our next generations will blame us for the desertification, climate change, pollution and all the destruction in species, ecosystems, urban and monumental heritage.
    No doubt they will say we are selfish, but at the end they will understand we are simply stupid!

  • The premise, “The science about climate change is unambiguous: the planet is getting hotter and mankind is the cause”, is incorrect. The earth’s climate is not static and has experienced heating and cooling trends throughout it’s history and long before the existence of the human species. The supposed “indisputable fact” that mankind has created the latest trend is a stretch.

    If your comparison was of the issue of global warming/climate change to slavery as a tool used by politicians to agitate the populace and motivate citizens to vote for them, you might be on to something. Slavery was definitely the lightning rod political issue of its time as the political parties framed their entire platforms around it. The same is being done with the climate change issue, albeit as part of a larger argument between the differing economic theories (capitalism vs. collectivism) held by the parties.

  • Ken, From the preponderance of all the available evidence, you are correct in that we seem to be going through a period of natural temperature rise, but wrong in that it seems exacerbated by human actions. The mass psychology of cultural change and it’s denial are very much like the consequences of slavery as a vested institution. While we celebrate our growth beyond direct slavery, we ignore our investment in a system in some ways even colder than forced use of human labor through violent coercion. We have progressed to a situation where poorer citizens of all races are simply threatened with starvation and social disenfranchisement, if they do not cooperate in dominant class takes all world. As frequently pointed out, the masters of slaves needed to be sure that slaves were at least fed to protect their economic investment in the labor.
    In our disposable property society this also applies to workers who need to feed themselves or be replaced regardless of how poor the pay…it’s not the concern of their ‘owners’. Our culture’s rejection of the all too obvious science by otherwise well educated members today directly parallels, the reaction of slave owners. That went beyond denial to calculated methods of seeing that a brutal and obsolete economic arrangement stayed put. The rebellion of a slave population in Haiti, establishing the second democracy in the New World, spun an outmigration of slave holders to the prospering American South, who went as far as publishing manuals on how to keep slaves in bondage for consumption by the US class of owners. Ignorance of lower class and middle class Americans to the extent of global climate change due to their attainment of very limited and shrinking shares in the national wealth is undermined by scare campaigns sponsored by the very rich. ‘Obama is a Socialist’ makes sense as a threat only to a population that has been previously conditioned to regard ‘Socialism’ as a dark evil menace… Obama is no socialist. Far from it he is like Romney a willing tool of Wall Street and the powerful forces it represents. Maintenance of a deadly economic regime in the face of it’s clear self-destructive consequences has no technofixes or ideological covers as it happens in front of the faces of our people. Neither Republican denials or Democratic half measures will reverse the changes already in motion on the surface of the planet.
    yes, it is a political game in part, but one where the politically tainted atmosphere has inhibited even all but the bravest climatologists from reporting just how bad the present situation is and will become. Talk of small temperature change in the scientific journals is common, but scarce is any realistic discussion of the predictable consequences of changes in precipitation that dictate our food supplies major upheaval,,,in spite of the fact that they are observably happening now. Even the ultra-rich can not escape the long term effects of food shortage, and the best results we can expect at the ballot box is simply the popular recognition that all we can do with political changes is realistic economic restructuring aimed at blunting our own contributions to biological disaster.
    We are all slaves to the dictates of the weather.

  • Tristan,
    I am an energy engineer, specializing in ways to use waste heat, and in some solar thermal systems. I started working in this area full time in 1977, after working part time in it for several years previous. I have yet to make a good living with thermal energy, even though 40% of the source energy for buildings in the Northeast US and the Upper Midwest is thermal.

    The constant emphasis on solar and wind power misses the point that we need heat as well as electric power.

    The current emphasis on solar and wind also misses the point that transportation also needs renewable energy. Apart from a return to sailing ships, this is a tougher nut to crack.

    Widespread cultivation of biomass (possibly algae) may help provide fuel while sequestering carbon.

  • Both the financial plutocracy and the biosphere catastrophe from CO2 poisoning are self feeding exponential phenomena (as Nazism was). CO2 poisoning is with no historical precedent since there were dinosaurs, and they died.

    Any exponential phenomena affecting humanity is, by definition, immoral.

    The CO2 curve is not just immoral but also pathological. Only extreme force can be called upon crushing such spiralling towards destruction. In such cases, violence, the usage of extreme force, has to rise to the ultimate occasion. That is moral. Appeasement is immoral. More in:

  • Tristan, good, provocative article.

    Long before anyone was talking about global warming, the destruction of our environment, as you describe, was well underway. We continue to make the air, water and soil dirtier, and to build up harmful chemicals in our bodies. So the quality of life and “our way of life” is already being threatened by the wealthy vested interests. It is slow enough and common enough that we have, unfortunately, gotten used to it. Global warming is a manifestation of this history.

    In contrast, clean energy will not only improve the quality of our lives, but will create a robust and sustainable prosperity, unless of course, you are part of the vested interests and refuse to get on board. If you look at the big picture, it is hard to perceive this situation any other way than “us versus them”.

  • Michael, I was at a conference where the Planning Manager for Corporate Strategic Planning of Exxon Mobil Corporation spoke. Afterward I had a chance to talk to him about the cleanest source of power you can imagine, that from power satellites. What I was after was for them not to oppose it.

    To my surprise he made it clear that they support it. If cheap power came along Exxon Mobil would buy it in the hundreds of GW and use carbon sources all the way down to CO2 out of the air to make synthetic liquid transportation fuels.

    It’s their field of expertise, and they know how to make money on synthetic fuels. So for this case, and probably most or all of the oil companies, the will support clean and cheap energy.

  • Pingback: Roots: A historical understanding of climate change denial, creationism and slavery – 1629-1775 - History, Future. Now.()

  • Article. Slavery is now widely condemned. How will our actions about climate change be perceived in 100 yrs? Read on…

  • Friday Read: Slavery was supported pre Civil War. What do we do today which will be shunned in the future?

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