What Can the Abolitionists Teach Us About Climate Change?

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​  This Post Was Originally Published On Trim Tab. 

At the Paris climate conference (COP21) late last year, 195 countries adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate accord. It is a big deal that world leaders have finally acknowledged the climate crisis and committed to do something about it. But let’s not kid ourselves. As Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org put it, “This agreement didn’t save the planet, but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.”

To actually save the planet—and ourselves—we need to get beyond the scientific and technological solutions that comprise the Paris Accord. Indeed, we must transform the cultural, economic and political conditions at the heart of the climate crisis. It sounds impossible, but history offers a model for this kind of transformative change: the dismantling of the slave economy in the 19th century. Understanding the centuries-long abolitionist movement offers insight into the vision, the structural changes, the personal commitments, the political struggles, and the global movement required to stave off catastrophic climate change.

Too Weak and Too Late

The changes called for in the Paris Accord are meager in relation to the global climate crisis. The strategies outlined are not specific enough, nor are they likely to be quick, deep, or distributive enough to change the status quo. The agreement’s carbon targets are too weak and too late to stem the negative effects of climate change on our environment, food, water, air, and overall quality of life. A Paris Accord with teeth would have demanded the elimination of fossil fuel combustion as an uncompromising solution.

It’s time to get serious about our climate crisis. And, in fact, a host of actors—governments, corporations, nonprofits and consumers—are advancing a range of climate mitigation and adaptation initiatives. We are greening our buildings to increase energy and water efficiency. We are decarbonizing our transportation systems with mass transit solutions. And, even though the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is held up in litigation, many states are moving forward with plans to decarbonize the power sector. Solar and wind farms are harvesting renewable energy. Distributed energy, food, and water systems are answering the call to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate.

These efforts are necessary but not sufficient for tackling global climate change. Many are transactional, not transformative. They operate at the edges of substantive issues of property, profit, power and privilege. They do not get at the root cause: a globalized fossil fuel economy committed to extraction and exploitation of our natural and human resources, without regard for short- or long-term consequences of diminished biodiversity, resource depletion, income inequalities, and toxic communities.

Moreover, climate change is narrowly framed as an “environmental issue,” when in fact it is tightly interwoven with the crucial economic and social issues of our time, like inequality and structural racism. To say that climate change is about the environment is like saying that slavery was about farming practices.

Going deep on climate change means disrupting the status quo. The climate goals and challenges we face today are existential in nature, requiring re-examination of our cultural values and the workings of our industrial economy. We need a movement that is the vanguard of all other movements, one that seeks to make the way we live not only more sustainable and resilient, but also socially and economically just.

But for the most part, this is not the change we seek or even envision. Even the most radical and transformative vision of Buckminster Fuller—to “make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone”—while squarely addressing interrelated issues of environment, economy and equity—assumes that change can come without struggle, that it will be “spontaneous and cooperative.”

If we are serious about climate change, we need to dismantle the fossil fuel economy and replace it with a moral economy that values ecosystems, sufficiency, distributive justice, and real democracy. And that kind of transformation will not come without struggle. The only precedent that comes close in scope is the movement to dismantle the slave economy: the abolitionist movement.

Parallels Between the Slave and Fossil Fuel Economies

The abolitionist movement offers a playbook for advocates working for climate, economic, and social justice. That movement challenged the very foundation of the global slave economy by dismantling the pillars that supported it: property rights, profits, privilege, and power.

Property Rights. The abolitionists successfully challenged the idea that some people were property to be bought, sold and owned. Building a sustainable and just economy requires a similar shift in thinking about nature.

The bedrock of climate change is an industrial economy rooted in exploiting and commercializing the environment. The earth’s natural resources—water, minerals, forests, the atmosphere—are enslaved to the global market economy in a way that is analogous to Africans under the slave economy. Like human slaves, our natural resources are devalued and chained to private interests by legal protections.

Just as slaves were denied agency and self-determination, we now prevent nature from regenerating—with consequences that are both immediate and intergenerational. We have, for example, diminished the quality and supply of our freshwater resources—rivers, lakes, ponds, aquifers—denying their capacity to nourish the coral reefs, and the fish, animal, and human species dependent upon them.

And yet, the right to extract our water supplies (and other natural resources) is fiercely protected by private property laws and public indifference to their mistreatment. Advocates for water are losing the battle against private property rights in the US courts. Twenty-seven states are currently suing EPA’s latest effort to define and protect the Waters of the United States (WOTUS). Opponents of the EPA ruling charge that it is “unconstitutional,” “communism,” and a “land grab.”

The Abolitionists faced a similar challenge. Dismantling the slave economy required a long, global struggle to outlaw the right to own, control and exploit African labor for commercial gain. Whether or not the US Constitution directly sanctioned and defined slaves as property is debated. What is clear, however, is that three clauses in the Constitution clearly permitted exploiting African slaves for their commercial value: the three-fifths compromise; the slave trade clause (Article I, Section 9.); and the fugitive-slave law (Article IV, Section 2). But those “rights” fell to a constitutional challenge, and ultimately to the thirteenth amendment, which outlaws the right to own slaves.

Similarly, dismantling the fossil fuel economy requires challenging the right to own, extract, and exploit the environment as personal property. These rights are scattered throughout the Constitution, with private property protections supported by “due process,” the “takings” clause and “contracts,” found in the fifth and fourteenth amendments and in Article 1 of the Constitution’s main text.

A constitutional challenge and an amendment to the US Constitution are essential for protecting our environment. A credible climate change movement must integrate with the efforts of the global south and the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, which argues that “there is no justice as long as nature is property in law.” This movement is a worldwide effort to challenge constitutional rights to hold nature as property and to acknowledge “that nature and all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.” The Alliance’s eco-centered approach balances the needs of humans and other species without exploiting one to the detriment of the other.

Profit. Profit generation is a fundamental, but hidden, driver of climate change. Massive accumulation and maldistribution of wealth in the slave and fossil fuel economies occur from exploiting and controlling the engines (sources of energy) that drive production. Three hundred years of free slave labor fueled the growth of the agricultural and domestic economies, only to be replaced by fossil fuels as the fuel of choice in the industrial economy.

In the antebellum South, slaves—and wealth—were concentrated in the hands of an estimated 3,000 owners of large plantations, creating considerable political and economic power where “cotton was king.” Many northern industrialists supported the abolition of slavery in order to shift political power and wealth from the South to the emerging class of industrial robber barons. For those industrialists, coal [and other fossil fuels] was king for fueling factories, trains, ships, and more.

Dismantling the slave economy—while partly religious and humanitarian in intent—was, in the main, a fierce struggle for power and control over the means of production and the wealth it generated. There is a lesson here for climate change advocates: As we transition our economy once again to a new source/form of energy, we must be mindful of the economic consequences and struggles behind our decisions.

This is likely to be a long-term struggle. Notwithstanding the moral, environmental, and other costs of fossil fuels, they have made a small group of people very rich. In the fossil fuel industry, wealth is concentrated in the top five oil companies, which made [a total of $93 billion in profits in 2013; forty percent of those profits were used to repurchase stock to increase the wealth of shareholders. The CEOs of the top five oil companies were paid $96 million in that same year (not including bonuses), which was 400 times the US median family income [see note].

The fight for sustainability, therefore, is also a fight for economic justice. The base struggle is over fossil fuels vs. renewables, as it means the demise of a legacy industry and the emergence of a new one. Beyond that, however, is the ethical question of who will own and control the new industry—the harvesting of the sun, wind and other renewable energy sources. And at a deeper level is the question of who controls the engines of the economy. But economic issues of profit and wealth distribution get lost when climate discourse is focused on incremental solutions like living buildings, greening the economy, or winning a university divestment.

The structural changes in the transition to a clean energy economy could be as profound as those that accompanied the transitions from the agricultural to the industrial and digital economies. We need to widen the lens and take a holistic view of what’s at stake. A growing number of climate justice advocates have framed these changes as a “just transition,” seeking to create a sustainable economy that is fair and inclusive for everyone. For example, a Just Transition could include a shift from energy monopolies to “energy democracy,” community-owned renewable energy that is treated as a public “commons.”

Power and Privilege. Finally, the transition to a sustainable future requires grappling with questions of power and privilege—who has it, how it is used, and how it is distributed and controlled.

The slave economy created a society of haves and have-nots separated by race, class, gender and privilege. The US Constitution, for example, counted African slaves as three-fifths of a person. Notwithstanding the larger premise that all men are created equal, the slave economy baked structural inequalities into all aspects of society. The Constitution, laws and informal sanctions denied African Americans access to citizenship, voting rights, education, health, family life, quality housing, food, clothing, language, religion, culture and more. These denials were essential to maintaining power and control over property and profits.

Dismantling the slave economy was the earliest effort to eradicate such privilege and inequities. The ratification of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, in 1868, granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” Unfortunately, the vestiges of inequality persisted post-slavery and adapted to support the power and privilege of the fossil fuel economy. Dismantling the fossil fuel economy should entail another effort to contest all the ways that our institutions support inequalities. Again, there are parallels between slavery and the fossil fuel economy:

  • Religious institutions once ordained dominion over slaves as divine providence; similar doctrines sanction human dominion over nature.
  • Pseudoscience is used to justify privilege: Just as slaves were deemed inhuman and intellectually inferior, pseudo-science now claims climate change is a hoax.
  • Educational institutions institutionalize power and privilege through textbooks that transfer culturally biased “knowledge and values” in favor of privileged groups.
  • Laws and legal institutions are used to protect property rights and discriminatory practices that serve the affluent.
  • Financing institutions are used to grow power and privilege through preferential lending.

Building a Transformative Movement

If the abolitionist movement teaches us anything about how to save ourselves from climate change, it is this: We need a movement for transformative societal change. It won’t be easy. In some ways, we are all slaves to the fossil fuel economy. It is embedded in all aspects of our economy and lives and entails a deeply entrenched culture and mindset. “Abolition” of climate change requires changing norms, values, and strongly held beliefs about property, profit, power, and privilege. But, while the challenges are great, we don’t have an option.