The curse of slavery, the curse of oil

Still from "12 Years A Slave"

Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film 12 Years A Slave.

Against all odds, a film based on a 150-year-old, almost forgotten book has generated international acclaim and is positioned to sweep multiple Oscars categories.

The recently-released film 12 Years A Slave is based on the autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, a free black man who lived in New York state with his wife and two children before the Civil War. (Download the text of the 1855 edition of Northrup’s book free).

In 1841, Northrup was kidnapped and sold into bondage in Louisiana; the balance of the film recounts his travails and, with the help of a white abolitionist, his ultimate restoration to freedom. The audience travels with Northrup through the southern landscape, whose the beauty is contrasted with the brutality and violence to human nature suffered by enslaved people. We are immersed in the flavorful locutions of 19th century English spoken by the actors and in director Steve McQueen’s leisurely pacing which evokes the tempo of life in antebellum America. The emotional complexity and historic truths of 12 Years A Slave effectively discredits Hollywood’s rose-colored, Gone With the Wind vision of slavery forever.

But, in the center of almost every scene in the film, and in the periphery of all, is something almost as shocking as the moral outrage of bondage: the sheer physical toil required of the slaves to carry out their daily labor.

From sunup to sundown, we see the enslaved people — including women and children — cutting cane, planting crops, scrubbing clothes, picking cotton (a prime field hand could gather 500 pounds per day), tending fires, chopping wood, building structures — all through the use of their own bodies and a few rudimentary tools.

The period portrayed in 12 Years A Slave was a radically different world from the one we experience today, not just in attitudes, but in the realities of life imposed by and grounded in natural limits. It was a world powered by wood, by water, by wind.

A largely agrarian world, it was built on human labor and supplemented with draft animals. The slaves, it becomes clear, were the linchpin of this human-labor centered world, what the film’s screenwriter John Ridley termed the “south’s economic platform.”

12 Years a Slave powerfully depicts how an economic “choice” embedded in human bondage had attained the status of tradition, with elaborate justifications, Biblical and otherwise; and had become enshrined as a necessity, to be defended and ruthlessly practiced as though no other choice existed.

Unable or unwilling to change, the south’s dependence on chattel slavery doomed the region to economic backwardness as its economy was surpassed by the dynamic industrial practices and efficiencies of the northern states.

More oil, less toil

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, slaves had been emancipated and the legal institution of slavery was banned throughout the United States.

By the decade’s end, a powerful energy source was supplanting the domination of human energy for labor. Petroleum refined into oil, the perfect source to power the roaring industrial expansion sweeping the country, came into widespread production in the 1880s. Along with coal, it now accounts for 85% of the world’s energy picture.

bicylists

Human Power Station. Photo: Prof. Linda Robson. Used with permission.

The properties of oil lend themselves to components used in almost every consumer good in our economy today, from paint to medical devices. Some are amazingly beneficial to society at large; others (let’s say, as examples, leaf blowers and electric towel warmers) indicate that a steady supply of cheap, abundant oil can enable our demands to become as indiscriminate and indulgent as those of any antebellum slaveholder.

To gain a perspective on the enormity of modern energy demands, consider this 2009 story about a British family living in a four-bedroom house who became part of “a subversive energy experiment about modern slavery.”

As Andrew Nikiforuk writes, “While the foursome flicked on gadgets one Sunday with the abandon of Roman patricians, an army of volunteers (The Human Power Station) furiously pedaled a hundred bicycles next door to generate the needed energy.”

The unsuspecting family, of course, had no idea they had been unplugged from a power grid fueled largely by fossil fuels.

At the end of the day the slave masters literally dropped their jaws when a BBC television crew introduced them to the exhausted slaves that boiled their tea. (Get this: it took 24 pedalers to heat the oven and 11 cyclists to make two slices of toast.)

At the end of the experiment many of the cyclists collapsed. Several couldn’t walk for days. The pedalers actually consumed more energy in food than they generated by pedaling.

The experiment crudely illustrated the global state of North American energy consumption.

The point of the experiment — and this review — is not to equate the suffering of human servitude on a par with fossil fuels. A lump of coal has no feelings (that we know of). Nor would it be pleasant or desirable to return to a way of life illuminated by tallow candles.

The point is to reveal the real, often hidden, dimensions and consequences of our actions, to nudge us to question: What is the collateral damage?

Imagining another way of life

Ending the institution of legal slavery was the defining moral, economic, and political struggle of the 19th century.

Avoiding ecocide is ours.

Today, just as the southern slavery apologists defended the “peculiar institution” as crucial to maintaining their way of life, most politicians, economists and media pundits today reinforce an entrenched “no option” mantra: that modern civilization must continue its foundation on fossil fuels or risk collapse, poverty and misery.

They point to the recent upsurge in North American natural gas production as proof that there need never be any reason for Americans to cut back on energy use. And even when or if oil runs out, they promise, technology will come up with a substitute – despite the fact that the landscape is littered with once-promising energy “silver bullets” (cold fusion, anyone?)

Meanwhile, baby steps in alternative energy generation, conservation, and curbing the most egregious corporate violations against the environment continue apace. But they’re not enough. We Americans – citizens of the nation that developed the first commercial oil drilling corporation – are the world’s most prodigious consumers of fossil fuels (responsible for 25% of global use), and thus a leading contributor to climate change.

We urgently need to find practical methods of persuasion and action to emancipate ourselves from a poisoned energy system. And this will take commitment, creativity, discipline and the strategic acumen of the 19th century slavery abolitionists.

The word “emancipate” means to “to free from controlling influence, as traditional mores or beliefs.” It hints that we’re not fated to settle for a Faustian bargain that dooms us to ecological destruction in order to meet human needs. As with the slavery system, there are vast business and political interests arrayed to continue the status quo. Change will not be easy, but our past history as a nation shows that we can overcome entrenched power for something better – one that preserves a common environmental heritage to pass on to future generations. Achieving that would be a monumental emancipation for our times.

Take action

The historic abolitionist reformers, writers, and activists worked over decades to affect a public shift against slavery. One of their tools was economic — refusing to buy or consume slave-produced goods. They established alternative “slave-free” stores and used the profits to fund anti-slavery campaigns. Fossil Free, a campaign of 350.org, challenges institutions and individuals to

  • Immediately freeze new investment in fossil fuel companies
  • Divest from direct ownership of fossil fuel investment
  • Withdraw form fossil fuel investment in individual portfolios

Visit Fossil Free to learn how to participate in a global movement.

This piece originally ran at WilliardWorks.

– Gerri Williams, Transition Voice

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Comments

  1. says

    I agree with the article yet one point is missed on 350.org which I follow. We have to get out of and get rid of the car. If we don’t nothing will change. This is our hidden pollution and until we recognise that while we drive we cannot change what is happening to the climate. It is no use making token gestures, we have to work together.

  2. GusFarmer says

    I was not aware of the British experiment; I knew we used a lot of “human labor equivalent” via oil & other fuels, but that was eye-opening. That said, though, your statement about “the sheer physical toil required of the slaves to carry out their daily labor,” while certainly true, misses one key point — they were being FORCED to do it for the profit of others who did very little work of their own. If we eliminate that parasitism, people won’t have to work so much b/c they can stop at self-sufficiency. Encouraging people to do SOME physical work is actually a good thing; far too many people today are unhealthy b/c they don’t, and our bodies evolved to move around far more than our culture wants us to.

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