Fossil fuels and slavery from a systems perspective

March 6, 2022 by Joshua
in Models, Nature, Nonjudgment, Visualization

You’ve heard my conversations with award-winning authors, scholars, and other experts on slavery. With a couple I’ve talked about the connection between that system and ours. Most of the time, I’ve thought of the connection as an analogy. For a while, I’ve seen the connection as closer.

Andrew Hoffman, University of Michigan professor in its business school and its School of Natural Resources and Environment, wrote of his discovering the historical connection between slavery and fossil fuels:

The first time these two concepts were linked for me was seven years ago, when a senior oil industry executive in London asked me a rhetorical question: “If it wasn’t for oil, where would we get our energy?” His answer, to my astonishment, was “slavery”

The book Industrial Strength Denial also shows an evolution from that system to ours. I’m developing how to discuss the connection productively. I created these diagrams, which I think will help. I’m in the early stages, so they’re in progress.

The Slavery System

First, let’s look at slavery from a systems perspective. There are many ways to break it down. I propose the following. I hope the simplification doesn’t seem to imply any lack of compassion, disgust, misunderstanding of the suffering and more entailed.

This diagram shows one group as people with the power to confine others and cause them suffering. The other group lacks that power. The powerful group uses that power to command and threaten people without that power to get labor and goods from them. That’s the main cycle. It causes people without power misery and suffering. People with power develop entitlement and inhumanity. Nobody wins, not even the powerful, if their consciences matter.

The Dreamed-of Fossil Fuel System

As people harnessed fossil fuel energy to power machines, they replaced human labor. They didn’t change most things to help people. They did them to increase profits. Machines don’t take lunch breaks. More importantly, they could make machines bigger and harness more energy to do more work than humans could.

In this system, the biggest change is in the circle on the right. Replacing people with fuels, they thought they wouldn’t need the threats, wouldn’t cause misery and suffering, wouldn’t feel so entitled, and wouldn’t lose their humanity. Instead of their relevant power being to deprive people of rights and liberties, they’d work with fossil fuels.

If we give fossil fuel developers the benefit of the doubt, that system would have been better by any standard I can think of. Sadly, it didn’t work that way. Still, I mostly do give them the benefit of the doubt. For about two hundred years, there wasn’t much sign that this dreamed-of system would fail. They knew fossil fuels would run out, but didn’t realize the problem that we recently discovered was greater than running out: pollution is killing us, including global warming, plastics, and various poisons.

The Actual Fossil Fuel System

It took about two hundred years for the pollution to build up for us to see it would create more suffering and death than the original slavery system. Here’s the current system:

The current system mostly delayed the misery and suffering to their future generation, which is us, though we’ve seen nothing of the misery, suffering, and death to come. The source of power is still access to extract, exclude, and exploit, not necessarily to hurt people directly in person. Usually they’re hurting people far away and later. They don’t have to threaten. They still end up entitled and inhuman.

I say they, but I mean everyone who can use fossil fuels without in the moment accounting for how they hurt others, including nearly everyone alive. Crazily, we’re hurting ourselves. Some time ago we hurt ourselves out of ignorance. Now, out of denial, since the evidence is overwhelming.

Note that nuclear, fusion (if ever realized), and even so-called renewables (which rely on fossil fuels for manufacture, transportation, installation, and disposal, which pollutes more) all fulfill the role of fossil fuels in this system. They accelerate it since if you make a polluting system more efficient, you may lower pollution locally, but overall you pollute more efficiently.

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