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Challenging the Four Evil Ps: What the Abolition of Slavery Can Teach Us About Climate Change

With 87 countries ratifying the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate accord, it’s a big deal that world leaders finally acknowledged the climate crisis and did something about it.

But let’s not kid ourselves. To actually save the planet — and ourselves — we need to get beyond the scientific and technological solutions. Instead, we must transform the cultural, economic and political conditions at the heart of the climate crisis.

There’s a model for that: the abolition of slavery in the 19th century.

The parallels between slavery and the fossil fuel economy driving climate change are striking. Religious institutions once ordained dominion over slaves as divine providence; similar doctrines sanction human dominion over nature. Just as slaves were deemed inhuman and intellectually inferior, pseudo-science now claims climate change is a hoax. Laws and legal institutions are used to protect property rights and discriminatory practices that serve the affluent. Financing institutions are used to grow power and privilege through preferential lending.

In that respect, the changes called for in the so-called Paris Climate Agreement are meager compared to the global climate crisis. Many current efforts tackling climate change are transactional rather than transformative. They do not get at the root cause: a globalized fossil fuel economy committed to extraction and exploitation of our natural and human resources, without regard for short- or long-term consequences of diminished biodiversity, resource depletion, income inequalities, and toxic communities.

Moreover, climate change is narrowly framed as an “environmental issue,” when in fact it is tightly interwoven with the crucial economic and social issues of our time, like inequality and structural racism. To say that climate change is about the environment is like saying that slavery was about farming practices.

However, the abolitionist movement offers us a playbook for advocates working toward climate, economic, and social justice. That movement challenged the very foundation of the global slave economy by dismantling the four evil “Ps” that supported the slavery of Black people: property rights, profits, privilege, and power.

Property Rights. The abolitionists successfully challenged the idea that some people were property to be bought, sold and owned. Building a sustainable and just economy requires a similar shift in thinking about nature.

Just as slaves were denied agency and self-determination, we now prevent nature from regenerating. We have, for example, diminished the quality and supply of our freshwater resources — rivers, lakes, ponds, aquifers — denying their capacity to nourish the coral reefs, and the fish, animal, and human species dependent upon them.

And yet, the right to extract our water supplies (and other natural resources) is fiercely protected by private property laws and public indifference to their mistreatment. Advocates for water are losing the battle against private property rights in American courts. Twenty-seven states are currently suing the EPA’s latest effort to water sources. Opponents of the EPA ruling charge that it is an “unconstitutional land grab.”

Abolitionists faced a similar challenge. The Constitution clearly permitted exploiting African slaves for their commercial value: the three-fifths compromise; the slave trade clause (Article I, Section 9.); and the fugitive-slave law (Article IV, Section 2). But those “rights” fell to a constitutional challenge, and ultimately to the 13th amendment, which outlaws the right to own slaves.

Similarly, dismantling the fossil fuel economy requires challenging the right to own, extract, and exploit the environment as personal property. These rights are scattered throughout the Constitution, with private property protections supported by “due process,” the “takings” clause and “contracts,” found in the 5th and 14th amendments and in Article 1.

A constitutional challenge and an amendment are essential for protecting our environment. A credible climate change movement must be a worldwide effort, such as the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, to challenge constitutional rights to hold nature as property and to acknowledge “that nature and all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.”

Profit. Profit generation is a fundamental driver of climate change. Massive accumulation and maldistribution of wealth in the slave and fossil fuel economies occur from exploiting and controlling the sources of energy that drive production.

Three hundred years of free slave labor fueled the growth of the agricultural and domestic economies, only to be replaced by fossil fuels as the fuel of choice in the industrial economy.

In the antebellum South, slaves—and wealth—were concentrated in the hands of an estimated 3,000 owners of large plantations, creating considerable political and economic power where “cotton was king.” Many northern industrialists supported the abolition of slavery in order to shift political power and wealth from the South to the emerging class of industrial robber barons. For those industrialists, coal [and other fossil fuels] was king for fueling factories, trains, ships, and more. Dismantling the slave economy—while partly religious and humanitarian in intent—was, in the main, a fierce struggle for power and control over the means of production and the wealth it generated.

There will be a long-term struggle over climate change. Notwithstanding the moral, environmental, and other costs of fossil fuels, they have made a small group of people very rich. In the fossil fuel industry, wealth is concentrated in the top five oil companies, which made [a total of] $93 billion in profits in 2013; forty percent of those profits were used to repurchase stock to increase the wealth of shareholders. The CEOs of the top five oil companies were paid $96 million in that same year (not including bonuses), which was 400 times the US median family income.

The fight for sustainability, therefore, is also a fight for economic justice. The base struggle is over fossil fuels vs. renewables, as it means the demise of a legacy industry and the emergence of a new one. Beyond that, however, is the ethical question of who will own and control the new industry—the harvesting of the sun, wind and other renewable energy sources. And at a deeper level is the question of who controls the engines of the economy.

Power and Privilege. Finally, the transition to a sustainable future requires grappling with questions of power and privilege — who has it, how it is used, and how it is distributed and controlled.

The slave economy created a society of haves and have-nots separated by race, class, gender and privilege. Notwithstanding the larger premise that all men are created equal, the slave economy baked structural inequalities into all aspects of society. The Constitution, laws and informal sanctions denied African Americans access to citizenship, voting rights, education, health, family life, quality housing, food, clothing, language, religion, culture and more. These denials were essential to maintaining power and control over property and profits.

As we see inequality persisted post-slavery and adapted to support the power and privilege of the fossil fuel economy today. Dismantling the fossil fuel economy should entail another effort to contest all the ways that our institutions support inequalities. Hence, if the abolitionist movement teaches us anything about how to save ourselves from climate change, it is this: We need a movement for transformative societal change. In some ways, we are all slaves to the fossil fuel economy. It is embedded in all aspects of our economy and lives. It is deeply entrenched in our culture and mindset. “Abolition” of climate change requires changing norms, values, and strongly held beliefs about property, profit, power, and privilege. But, while the challenges are great, we don’t have an option.

DENISE G. FAIRCHILD is the inaugural president of the Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to building a sustainable, just and resilient U.S. economy. She produced this piece as part of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. More @IP_URP.