Thomas Jefferson and I

tags: slavery, Thomas Jefferson

J.F. Mouhot was until recently a post-doctoral research fellow based in the history department of Georgetown University (Washington D.C.). He has a long-standing interest in environmental and energy issues, particularly climate change. He has recently published several articles and a book showing the connections that exist between the use of fossil fuels today and of slaves in the past. 

In the eyes of many, Thomas Jefferson embodies the contradictions of the young American republic. The principal writer of the Declaration of Independence was a man deeply committed to the democratic and equalitarian ideals of the Enlightenment and who professed to hate slavery. Yet, he was at the same time one of the largest slaveholders of Virginia and emancipated very few of his own slaves. Considering most Africans to be inferior intellectually and physically to Europeans and fearing racial mixing, he was also what we would today call a "racist." However, Jefferson probably fathered several children with his slave, Sally Hemings. Most people, and indeed most historians, find these apparent contradictions extremely puzzling.1 I don't. 

I don't because, like Donella Meadows some 16 years ago,2 I very much identify with the paradoxes and dilemmas Jefferson must have felt during his lifetime regarding slavery. Like him, I am a large slave-holder. Like him, I consider the idea of owning slaves to be abhorrent but feel as though I cannot really do without them. Like him, I fear that without these slaves my world, indeed our entire civilization, would collapse. I sympathize with his feeling that slavery was like "holding a wolf by the ears"—we cannot hold it, but we cannot let it go either.3 Like him, I feel these slaves have a corrupting influence on me and on society in general. Like him I believe that it's a great evil to own these slaves, but since society around me finds this largely acceptable, I carry on. Like him, I love books and the life of the intellect and feel that if I had to do all the chores that are necessary to sustain my everyday life, I would be left with no time to read and write these books. Like him, I like the comfort slaves bring me. Like him, I consider myself a decent person: I have never broken up any slave families nor whipped anyone. This is because my slaves, unlike his, are (mostly) not human beings. They are "energy slaves"—a term coined by Buckminster Fuller in the 1940s to designate modern machines that perform the same services slaves and servants used to provide for their owners. 

Oh, yes, you must think, "How dare you!" But these kinds of "slaves" are perfectly acceptable: they don't suffer, they don't cry, they don't want to run away. 

The problem does not stem from the machines themselves but from the fossil fuels and the nuclear power plants that are necessary for them to run. Energy comes at an increasingly great economic, social, and moral cost. The first issue concerns the procurement of oil or gas—an activity that is often very messy environmentally and politically. The necessity for the Western World to guarantee the constant flow of oil at gas stations is a direct or indirect source of corruption and a cause of conflict throughout the world (think of Iraq and the Gulf wars). It poses risks to the national security of the US and other industrialized nations because it places these countries in a situation of dependency on oil suppliers. Even "home grown" oil and gas are not bereft of problems: domestic production scars the landscape, disturbs ecosystems, and exposes the environment to the dangers of large-scale pollution. The long-term environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" are not at all well understood. If history teaches us anything, it's that technologies once hailed as today's solutions often turn out to be tomorrow's problems. Yet, due to the pressure to extricate the United States from a cycle of energy dependence that involves countries the American government would prefer not to depend upon, most people and politicians prefer to look the other way—even when the risk of causing earthquakes and polluting aquifers are not negligible. 

There are also problems of pollution caused by cars and other fossil fuel-powered devices. In the past century, the number of lives claimed by atmospheric pollution exceeded the combined casualties of World War I and II.4 The direct consequences of the use of fossil fuels have been known for some time, but the advantages seemed, until recently, to outweigh the disadvantages to the extent that few voices raised moral concerns over the use of cars. ...

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