Jean-François Mouhot: Once, Men Abused Slaves. Now We Abuse Fossil Fuels

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jean-François Mouhot is a visiting researcher at Georgetown University. He is the author of Past Connections and Present Similarities in Slave Ownership and Fossil Fuel Usage, published in the journal Climatic Change, and the book Des Esclaves Energétiques: Réflexions sur le Changement Climatique.

In 2005, while teaching history at a French university, I was struck by the general disbelief among students that rational and sensitive human beings could ever hold others in bondage. Slavery was so obviously evil that slave-holders could only have been barbarians. My students could not entertain the idea that some slave-owners could have been genuinely blind to the harm they were doing.

At the same time, I was reading a book on climate change which noted how today's machinery – almost exclusively powered by fossil fuels like coal and oil – does the same work that used to be done by slaves and servants. "Energy slaves" now do our laundry, cook our food, transport us, entertain us, and do most of the hard work needed for our survival.

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....

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