Tim Rickman can't see the emperor's new clothes.


Who are the slave owners now?

Apparently Jefferson, who opposed slavery, owned slaves. The reason for this was presumably that to stop would have reduced his standard of living. In the end, the matter was settled by having a a war over it, and the anti-slavery side won.

Slaves have been replaced by the use of fossil fuel, together with automated control also powered by fossil fuel. Near slavery (and some real slavery) still makes much of our materials, goods and food in the undeveloped world, brought here by fossil fuel. Some of our rubbish is also taken there to be dealt with.

In general, our lifestyles are dependent on fossil fuel, which is available virtually free in unlimited quantities, just by sucking it out of the ground. All that is needed is some attention given to regime change to keep fossil-rich governments friendly to us, and usually not too bothered about their poverty-stricken populations. In principle we have unlimited wealth, by using the oil taps like a currency printing machine. In practice, markets go a bit berserk unless use of both the oil wells and the money printing machines is restrained, but both have been run nearly flat out for the last few decades. Variations in status between consumers does depend, after all, on not quite everything being available virtually free to everyone, as does supply and demand and the incentives that keep everyone in motion. Still, our effectively unlimited supply of almost everything means we don't care how much is stolen at the corporate of government level, and there is no point in most of us being anything more than spectacularly stupid, selfish and greedy. Of course, education exists to apportion status and waste people's time so they don't cause trouble, but there is little need to actually teach things any more. Previously challenging design jobs are now done by ready-programmed computers, and we use brute fossil force to solve most other obstructions. So we've got it made.

Then came climate change. The scientists informed us that, unless we reduced our CO2 emissions to the sort of levels associated with the lifestyles of peasants or prisoners, the destruction of much - or most - of the life on Earth was imminent. Our instinct was to get the massive emissions reductions required done by people elsewhere in the world who, it turned out, don't emit that much in the first place and so can hardly stop doing it. We now want trees planted (or something) so that we can carry on emitting as much as we feel like and can have someone else unemit it. In our role as the new breed of slave owners this seems reasonable, but our mess is too big for everyone else on earth to clear up, even if they are forced to replace their crops with trees or biofuels and starve in the attempt. Our lifestyles are too profligate and there are too many of us new fossil slave owners. There is no prospect of a war to solve the problem because we are nearly all on the same, (wrong) side. So what are we to do?

We could, of course, just carry on. After all, it is probably now too late anyway to avoid the first round of positive feedbacks. Or we could do a bit, but not enough. It is difficult to see how this is actually any better. Or, we could do the unthinkable and do the minimum that may be needed. That way, disaster is not quite inevitable. (Doing the maximum that might be needed is difficult to define but would effectively be impossible anyway.) As well as determining the speed of destruction of the world, each of these options has different implications for how we feel about ourselves and about each other, and that may be what our choice is really all about.

No one ever is to blame

Contact | Action