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Energy BOOKSHELF: Emancipate Slaves, End Climate Change?

March 25th, 2017 · No Comments

Head-slapping moments liberate intellectually. A weltanschauung shifting moment is powerful, especially that sudden light bulb over the head event which seems so self-evident in retrospect.

  • Slavery fosters pollution
    • Slavers are operating outside the law already and thus typically have utter disdain for any form of environmental regulation and/or protection.
    • Slavers are despoiling humans for profit, why not despoil the planet.
  • Fighting slavery fights pollution — including global warming.

Kevin Bales, in his impassioned and well-written Blood and Earth: Modern slavery, ecocide, and the secret to saving the world, brings us to this simple realization.

Where there are slaves, the environment is under assault, forests are being destroyed, endangered species are dying, and climate change is worsening – and all of this destruction is driven by profits from products we buy.

To provide the shocking scale,

we now know that if slavery were a country it would be the third largest producer of CO2 in the world after China and the USA,

“The third largest producer of CO2 in the world after China and the USA” and not a word to be found about this in the Paris Climate Accords …

A question to be asked, it seems, is whether ‘attacking slave labor’ around the world is something that can unite people who might battle at the corollary of ‘to fight climate change and reduce pollution’?

Bales’ makes a lot of sense and has convinced me that fighting slavery will also mean fighting against environmental damage.  The question is: to what extent?  Does eliminating slavery eliminate that ‘third largest producer of Co2’?  Bales certainly implies this … yet, the roughly 40% of deforestration that Bales attributes to slave labor wouldn’t end if slavery ended. As another reviewer put it

where workers are so vulnerable that they can be pressed into modern slavery, and rule of law is weak enough to tolerate profound environmental destruction, free labor will usually be available to do the same bad work on marginally better terms. Bales knows that modern slavery is a symptom of complex social vulnerability, rooted in poverty, violence and ecological displacement. Turning around to propose that a new abolition movement would reverse these deeper problems may work as a homily, but it is unpersuasive as policy.

Blood and Earth is highly worth the read and, as this review started, it changed my thinking in a head-slapping moment.  However, Bales’ assertions fall short as to what the environmental benefit would be from ending slavery and his work fails to provide a set of viable prescriptions for individuals, businesses, and societies as to how to move forward to eliminate slavery and its associated environmental destruction.

There is a key point — the vast majority of (consumerist) humanity is complicit (mainly unknowingly and mainly uncaringly) in the enslavement of tens of millions around the world. Whether miners digging up materials that end up in cell phones or families choking on charcoal fumes or weavers of cheap clothing or those cleaning shrimp for evening cocktails, consumers around the world are eating, wearing, using slave-enabled products almost constantly without realizing that this is the case.

It is essentially impossible for an individual to look at the choices before them in the lens of ‘is there an enslaved 10-year old behind this’.

That’s the thing about criminals that commit slavery and ecocide, they hide what they do and make things hard to trace. [64]

In light of this, perhaps the key tool for fighting slavery is attacking supply chains — getting corporations to work to ensure that their suppliers (and their suppliers suppliers) are operating legally, without (at least illegal) abusive and destructive labor (e.g., slaves) and environmental practices. Blood and Earth is painful reading in sometimes surprising ways.  Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel — Silicon Valley’s Trump enabler and enthusiast — comes off as a hero when it comes to tracking down supply chain violations of human liberty.

There are no sidelines in the struggle for dignity and freedom. Those who know what goes on in the world cannot sit back … [p 61]

Reading Bales has me thinking — buying from a US or European fisherman certainly is an indicator that slaves weren’t involved and that (the worst) environmental excesses likely didn’t occur. This, however, doesn’t eliminate (hidden) slavery from my life and, well, Bales truly doesn’t provide a definitive path for either the individual or society to achieve this transformation.

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Tags: energy bookshelf · environmental · environmental justice