Slavery and Climate Change: the same question we were never good at answering

Carbon slaves

“…[if] the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.”
Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part 4. (350 BCE)

Aristotle was correct. The day that brute human labour was no longer needed to achieve productive output, slaves would not be wanted.

I don’t believe for a second that there was a sudden uprising in human morality that led to the end of legalised ownership of people. In fact, in the quoted book above, Aristotle himself notes that, more than two thousand years ago, there were some people who thought slavery unjust.

No, our species has never felt entirely comfortable with slavery, but worked hard to justify it while they thought it necessary to reach a given standard of living.

For instance, Aristotle argued in Politics that it freed superior men from brutish toil, allowing them to become upright statesmen.

He wasn’t alone, of course. Many of the ancient thinkers and even The Bible not only condoned slavery, but provided guidance on how to most appropriately, that is, “morally”, master one’s human property.

There’s no surprised that it only went out of fashion with the Age of Enlightenment, the birth of modern science and the accompanying technological revolution. Rather quickly we had machines that methodically completed such tasks without the setbacks of slaves.

Indeed we could finally weave without guiding hands.

The end of legalised slavery was not a win for human morality, but merely a byproduct of changing technology and economic activity. Had advances in thought and technology been a century earlier or later, the results would be much the same, except with different names to the champions in our history books.

How does this relate to climate change?

It’s more than similes and parallels, but entirely the same problem.

For decades, academics have tried to argue the case, from evidence alone, as to why we should be concerned about growing carbon emissions and their impact on our fruitful (and very stable) Holocene climate.

Equally, the moral argument has grown ever louder for the rights of future people as well as the more vulnerable developing nations of today.

Yet, here we are, at 2016, with little more than token mitigation gestures to show for all the education and moral discussion.

The fundamental underlying problem is the same as with slavery: How can we maintain the standard of living we have, and expect to enjoy, without the cheap energy we currently exploit?

With human stock, the answer was only found when machines could fill the gap and business as usual could continue.

The underlying question took thousands of years to answer in the case of slavery. Why should we believe societies today to be any better with, again, answering the same problem, from a different energy source?

We must expect that the answer will be technological, not in education, or through morals or an uprising in, say, a minimalistic culture.

I know that many of us feel uncomfortable in betting on a “techno-fix” but human nature, as illustrated through our recorded history, leaves us with that as the most likely method for success.

To Supercede the Industrial Revolution…

Accepting that research and technological advancement are the only way to meaningfully mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to unavoidable climate change isn’t to handball the problem off to academics and industry so we can sit back and enjoy a cup of tea.

To act quickly requires, no, demands, public will.

Votes and the wallet don’t just speak, they shout.

Who we choose to represent us and what we choose to purchase both influence research and development. This is the democratic power we have in capitalistic countries.

Further, we know that climate change has, and will continue to have, significant impact on our global economy. To Invest in research and technology to replace the current carbon emitting systems is to invest in future prosperity.

We either let future climates make us poor or envision new markets, new niches and new ways of living for future wealth.

Thus the real champions to tackle climate change will come from the same group who led us to the problem – the entrepreneurs. Others might be remembered for great speeches and good policies, but it will be the entrepreneurs who will not only make these ideas reality, but also make them profitable, household names.

Slavery didn’t end because we worked to replace human hands with mechanics, but because of the reverse; new machines were seen to suit these tasks and were cheaper per unit of output.

Because our ancestors justified slavery, it wasn’t addressed until it was rendered unnecessary.

If we take a similar approach with climate change, we will be extremely poor before we face the question and thus be in a position unable to answer it. There’s a strong economic incentive to invest in finding the answer today.

Moreover, the so-called “debate” is rendered mute. We’re no longer pulling the moral or intellectual reins, but instead paving the path many steps ahead. That’s how progress is primarily achieved, as history teaches us.

Wars of ideology have never led us to prosperous futures. They only lead to a loss of life, wealth and intellectual freedom. The dreamer paved the way for the electrical light, radio and the aircraft.

The future is the entrepreneurs’ canvas while the ideologue does nothing but anchor us to the past. Climate change is the problem for the indefinite future.

If the car would drive and the city live without carbonised fossils to power them, the nation wouldn’t want fossil fuels nor the citizen the combustion engine.

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