MOUHOT Jean-François, Energy slaves, French publisher Champ Vallon, 2011
(150 pages, 17€)
Related article by the author (in English) on the Guardian website.
Will our own descendants call us barbarians one day? Some scandalmonger may say they would have a lot of reasons to do so, but the author focuses on one of them, probably not the most obvious for profanes: the use of fossil fuels. Indeed, fossil fuels are the source of the major part of our greenhouse gases emissions, which are likely to lead to a violent destabilization of our environment (including health related, social and political) in a more or less close future
In this easy to read, small, exciting book, the author draws a parallel between slave-owning societies and our fascination for steam machines and its modern evolutions:
- Slavery, just like fossil fuels, has been the enabler of an industrial society by providing goods essential to the growth of factories, in particular cotton (early industry days are closely linked to the invention of weaving machine)
- Slavery enabled an overflow of mechanical power for “free men”, overflow now provided by machines powered by fossil fuels
- Slavery had an unethical side since it caused suffering to some men for the benefits of others, exactly like the extraction of fossil fuels does, and more importantly the climate change induced by their utilisation will cause suffering of some for the benefit of others
- In both cases, those in favour of status quo focus on minimizing the downsides of the system
Since we struggle so much today to do without fossil fuels, how can one explain that we managed to do without slaves? Simply, the latter were replaced by machines…using fossil fuels. This hypo(thesis) is supported by many historical references, even if in at an early stage, both usages (fossil fuels and slaves) did rather reinforce each other than the opposite (thanks to textile industries using cotton and steamboats boosting transatlantic trade)
Another key point of the book, focusing on the future this time, is the compared analysis of the way the two countries (US and UK) most involved in slave trade got their way out of it, with radically different strategies:
- In the US, supporters of abolition adopted an all-or-nothing strategy which led to civil war. Slavery was abolished but then segregation policies developed, which in their tougher forms were nearly as violent as slavery
- In the UK, supporters of the abolition followed a progressive approach, but in the end it led to faster abolition than in the US, and with no war.
The conclusion is clear, even if not explicitely stated: in order to reduce our dependency to fossil fuels, a string of pragmatic and gradual measures has more chances to lead to success than an unlikely revolution, which at best would achieve the goal only to the price of a major breach in society.