The rhetoric of slavery and climate change

Then: Abolition would wreak havoc on the economy of the South. Now: Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol would punish all Americans.

Published February 27, 2008 4:33PM (EST)

Is there a moral equivalence between defending the institution of slavery and climate change denialism?

When I first considered this question, after having been alerted by Globalization and the Environment to the existence of a new paper comparing congressional rhetoric on the topics of slavery and the Kyoto Protocol, I was skeptical. The act of buying and selling human beings, it seemed to me, carries with it a stench of reprehensibility that greenhouse gas emissions, no matter how polluting, don't quite measure up to.

But after reading Marc Davidson's "Parallels in reactionary argumentation in the U.S. congressional debates on the abolition of slavery and the Kyoto Protocol," I am willing to concede that there are some interesting congruencies. When you consider, for example, the commonly heard argument that abolition of slavery would cripple the economy of the South, it does sound an awful lot like the contention that a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system would be a death blow to the modern U.S. economy. And in both cases, what we are really talking about are energy inputs: whether in the form of "free" labor through slavery, or by burning fossil fuels.

Davidson does some over-reaching -- comparing the Declaration of Independence with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is a stretch. But it's always worthwhile going back and reviewing the outrageous declarations that were part of the national discourse on slavery in the 19th century, if only to give us some insight into how Americans in the 22nd century might look back in goggle-eyed amazement at the nonsense uttered by current American politicians.

Sen. John Caldwell Calhoun, Feb. 6, 1837:

"The Central African race ... had never existed in so comfortable, so respectable, or so civilized a condition as that which it now enjoyed in the Southern States" ... [Slavery was not] "an evil. Not at all. It was a good -- a great good."

Sen. James Inhofe, July 28, 2003:

"Thus far, no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophic predictions by alarmists. In fact, it appears just the opposite is true, that increases in global temperature have beneficial effect on how we live our lives ... What gets obscured in the global warming debate is the fact that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. It is necessary for life."

Or how about this nugget, taken from a debate in the Virginia Legislature in 1831/32...

"There is slave property of the value of $100.000.000 in the State of Virginia, &c., and it matters but little how you destroy it, whether by the slow process of the cautious practitioner, or with the frightful dispatch of the self-confident quack; when it is gone, no matter how, the deed will be done, and Virginia will be a desert."

...Compared to this gem from Sen. Chuck Hagel in 1997, discussing what would happen if the Senate ratified the Kyoto Protocol:

"The economic impact would be devastating for the United States. We would see the loss of millions of jobs, entire industries would flee to other countries, our people would face higher fuel costs, higher taxes, leading to lower productivity and a lower standard of living."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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