A Tortured Analogy

By Keith Kloor | February 3, 2012 11:43 am

The Guardian has published an essay titled, “Once men abused slaves, now men abuse fossil fuels.” The author, Jean-François Mouhot, is a historian. The parallels between fossil fuels and slaves occurred to him in the mid-2000s, he recounts:

I was reading a book on climate change which noted how today’s machinery ““ almost exclusively powered by fossil fuels like coal and oil ““ does the same work that used to be done by slaves and servants. “Energy slaves” now do our laundry, cook our food, transport us, entertain us, and do most of the hard work needed for our survival.

Intriguing similarities between slavery and our current dependence on fossil-fuel-powered machines struck me: both perform roughly the same functions in society (doing the hard and dirty work that no one wants to do), both were considered for a long time to be acceptable by the majority and both came to be increasingly challenged as the harm they caused became more visible.

This is quite a comparison, one the author has sketched out in more detail in this paper.

In fairness, Mouhot also says:

Obviously, there are differences between the use of slaves and of fossil fuels. Fundamentally, slavery is a crime against humanity. Fossil fuel use is not a moral evil, but burning coal or oil contributes to global warming, already causing widespread harm: it now directly or indirectly kills 150,000 people per year according to a 2004 World Health Organisation study.

Leaving aside the dubious statistic he plucked from an 8-year old WHO report, Mouhot’s analogy to this point strikes me as forced. Eventually his line of reasoning becomes clear:

Unlike the harm caused by slavery, the harm in the use of fossil fuels is of course indirect, long range, even unintended. It seems at first glance to be a fundamentally different kind of harm, and the unintended consequences of ongoing use of fossil fuels have only recently become understood. Initially, their use was seen as positive and progressive. But now that we know the consequences, and continue, globally, to increase emission levels, how can we still consider these consequences “unintended”?

And here’s the argument that he (and others) have been advancing in recent years:

It should thus come as no surprise that there is so much resistance to climate science. Our societies, like slave-owning societies, have a vested interest in ignoring the scientific consensus. Pointing out the similarities between slavery and the use of fossil fuels can help us engage with the issue in a new way, and convince us to act, as no one envisages comfortably being compared with a slave-owner.

Furthermore, because of the striking similarities between the use of slaves and of fossil fuels, policymakers can find inspiration from the campaigns to abolish slavery and use them to tackle global warming. For example, the history of the abolition of slavery, in the UK at least, suggests that an incremental approach and the development of compromises worked better at moving the cause forward than hardline stances.

As I mentioned, the equivalence with abolition has been made before. I discussed it here two years ago.

I think there is an ethical case to make with climate change. (I don’t believe it will carry the day.) I just don’t find the slavery/abolition argument to be convincing or even helpful in that regard. Personally, I think the best chance for progress lies with some kind of vision and blueprint for sustainability that is workable. It also has to catch fire in the public mind and appeal to a broad constituency.

A tall order? For sure. But in case you haven’t noticed, staving off climate doom doesn’t seem to be a winning narrative.

  • Jarmo

    Just read the story in the Guardian.

    This is why Marc Morano does not have to work hard to make climate activists look ridiculous.  

  • harrywr2

    I think the best chance for progress lies with some kind of vision and blueprint for sustainability that is workable

  • hunter

    OMG, the ability of fanatics to misunderstand something seems limitless.
     thanks for pointing out yet more alarmist dreck.

  • kdk33

    I think there is an ethical case to make with climate change.

    Indeed there is, and it goes like this.  Decarbonization will be terribly expensive.  Destroying that much wealth will cause significant human suffering – people will die.  How many prople are warmists willing to kill.  How certain should we be about the C in CAGW before we begin the executions.

    Yea that’s harsh.  But it’s real.

  • EdG

    Setting aside all the moral issues for a moment, in terms of an energy source fossil fuels could be compared to slaves – they both were/are a source of energy. And they were/are both used to build civilizations. Indeed, they were both essential to that process and, if we consider serfs or modern ‘wage slaves,’ they still are.

    So what does that really mean?

    If we reduce our fossil fuel slaves, which do so much ‘work’ for us, that would suggest that we must increase the supply of wage slaves or postmodern serfs, doesn’t it?

    Or we must increase the number of very expensive ‘energy slaves’ like wind or solar – at the expense of the wage slaves. Looking at the results of the AGW project, which is creating energy poverty in such places as the UK, it certainly looks like that.

    That said, this ‘slavery’ argument is not intended to be considered logically. It is just another slimey attempt to inject faux moral arguments into a discussion that cannot be won with logic. I assume that soon some desperate AGW promoter will find a way to inject the race card into this. In fact, this ‘slavery’ line already does inject that card  for those who have minimal or no knowledge of the real history of slavery and are stuck in the recent past.

    In real history, blacks enslaved other blacks, whites enslaved other whites, Asians enslaved other Asians, and Native Americans enslaved other Native Americans.

    But wait! Did slavery impact the climate? Yes! Of course. Everything does! Using the logic of AGW promoters, the correlation between slavery in Egypt and the Biblical plagues and droughts and all that is clear proof – if you want it to be.

    So, what next? Slavery is hard to top when framed in modern political correctness. And being “addicted” to fossil fuels didn’t really catch on… since we are similarly “addicted” to food. And the whole ‘terrorism’ angle is worn out due to overuse. Same for ‘the children’ and the ‘polar bears.’ So… what great fake moral lever will they pull out next? I guess we shall see.

  • Paul Kelly


    That was my first thought, too.


    The analogy is beyond forced. It is ludicrous. It stands the meanings of words on their heads. If you told me it came from The Onion, I’d believe you.

  • Jeff Id

    Well the genius of the argument is that slavery represents the oppressed vs the powerful.
    The argument has nothing whatsoever to do with actual oppressed.  It is to do with the populist sub-message. Even though 99% reject the terminology, the “feeling” of the message remains as a residual.

  • Jarmo

    Just woke up and checked the temp outside: -26 C.

    Looks like it’s time to put some renewable climate slaves in the fireplace. 

  • BBD


    I just don’t find the slavery/abolition argument to be convincing or even helpful in that regard.


    Personally, I think the best chance for progress lies with some kind of vision and blueprint for sustainability that is workable.

    We’d best get started then. It’s going to be a long weekend 😉

  • hunter

    Confusing a chemical or even a family of chemicals with slaves is either anthropomorphization to a neurotic extent, or dehumanization to a disturbing degree.
    Confusing a set of tools with slaves is just stupid. Does anyone think of their car, stove or computer as a slave?

  • hunter

    You peg it well. Monbiot is actually calling for the enslavement of many people by means of energy impoverishment and restrictions in order to satisfy the faith based rationalizations of of him and his co-believers.

  • BBD


    You are deranged. I hate to be so blunt on a Saturday afternoon, but it really needs saying.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller
  • Menth

    Historian>*takes hit from bong* Dude, I was thinking about something.
    Friend>*takes hit from bong*What man?
    Historian>You know how, like there used to be slaves and sh*t? And they used to do everything for us?
    Friend>*coughs from bong hit* Yeah.
    Historian> Well now it’s like tractors and sh*t do all that stuff now.
    Friend> Yeah, so?
    Historian> Well, it’s kinda like fossil fuels are our slaves! Or it’s at least morally equivalent and sh*t.
    Friend>Holy Sh*t! You should write an essay about that man!

  • Tom C

    Menth –


  • Tom C

    Well, on second thought, maybe it’s a bit unfair to pot heads.

  • harrywr2

    BBD Says:

    We’d best get started then. It’s going to be a long weekend
    We probably need about $20 billion and 10 years to bring the Gen IV and Thorium based reactors to ‘commercial viability’. Then once we’ve mastered that we need to figure out the ‘energy storage’ puzzle.
    Of course ‘climate change’ is such an emergency that we don’t have 10 years and the world will be beyond ‘the point of no return’ in 10 years.
    So maybe it’s just best to build a bunker in Montana stocked with a lifetimes supply of food and fuel and enough ammo to hold off the hordes of ‘climate refuges’ that will be beating a path our door.
    Or maybe we should whine and complain about the unfairness of the media and blame it all on George Bush, Dick Cheney and the Koch Bros.
    Personally I blame ‘Walt Disney’ because ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ created a false belief in ‘magical solutions’.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett
  • J.Doug Swallow

    I had thought that I had seen all of the mindless trash that the anthropogenic global warming clan could come up with but they are always good for something even more stupid than the last totally stupid assumptions.

    “I was reading a book on climate change which noted how today’s machinery ““ almost exclusively powered by fossil fuels like coal and oil ““ does the same work that used to be done by slaves and servants. “Energy slaves” now do our laundry, cook our food, transport us, entertain us, and do most of the hard work needed for our survival.”

    Do machines have hearts and souls? They may wear out and need repaired and maintained and when done, they can be recycled.  Evidently there are idiots that can not think beyond that aspect and want to compare humans with fossil fuel powered machines with out realizing that not too many years ago it took 80% of the population in an industrialized society to raise the food for them selves and the rest of the population where now it requires about 2% to do the same job and that is because of the “slave” of fossil fuels.  I must say, this is about the stupidest bit on nonsense I have ever wasted my time reading.

  • OPatrick

    Keith, you seem to have made the same mistake here as you did in your post discussing this 2 years ago (Andrew Hoffman’s email that you show in your update paints a very different picture from your original presentation of the discussion). You say “In fairness Mouhout also says…” as though this is in some way tangential to the points he is making, but in fact what he ‘also says’ is absolutely central.

    As you can see from the comments here, and the equally unreflective comments at the Guardian, the ‘alarmist say using fossil fuels is morally equivalent to slavery’ is a cheaply attractive argument. You are not incapable of reading though and surely know full well that this is not Mouhout’s position. The analogy is not exact, no analogy is, but there are interesting parallels. We could of course just bow to the inevitable faux-outrage and not even begin to engage with these interesting points. But better to aim for adult discussion.

    I don’t think you have facilitated such a discussion here.

  • Matt B

    I prefer Hans Rosling’s take on using “energy slave” machinery:


    And the statement Our societies, like slave-owning societies, have a vested interest in ignoring the scientific consensus….can be restated as “a vested interest in keeping the labor-saving machines running”. In fact almost all of us have a definite personal interest in keeping these machines running. 

    If these machines run on something other than fossil fuels, we’ll be fine with that.

    If the only thing that is keeping them running is fossil fuels, then we’re fine with that too.

    If there is a longer-term problem with using fossil fuels (and there certainly is; who cares about climate science, the fossil fuels will definitely run out someday), then most people will be interested in ways to mitigate the problem, BUT not at the expense of shutting down the machinery.   

  • EdG

    Just for the record, I am opposed to torturing analogies. They can be forced to say almost anything.

  • hunter

    BBD, there is an interesting link to consider between scarcity of work saving machines and the number of slaves.
    As to deranged, I am not the one believing apocalyptic clap-trap. You are.


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Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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