“Energy Slaves” and convicts- a story of Australian attitudes to labour and mining #climate

Jean-Francois Mouhot who wrote an article Past connections and present similarities in slave ownership and fossil fuel usage  published in Climatic Change in 2011, He also makes the point that

147energyslavesThe history of slavery and its abolition shows how blurred the frontier between what is considered good and evil can be, and how quickly it can shift. We have a mental image of slave-owners as cruel, sadistic, inhuman brutes, and forget too easily the ordinariness of slave ownership throughout the world. To many, slavery seemed normal and indispensable. In the US, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Lifestyles and healthy incomes were predicated upon it, just as we today depend on oil. Similarly, many slave-owners lived with the impression that they were decent people.

In Australia there are ongoing debates about the morality and the economics of betting our future prosperity on ever-increasing coal exports to an energy-hungry Asia.

And in the same way that Mouhot and others would have us think about fossil fuels and slaves, we should think about Australia’s convict past and the arguments about whether that was a Good Thing – and who it was a good thing FOR.

“There was at the same time a campaign both for and against transportation going on in Australia itself. Those who benefited from the cheap labour of convicts could not agree that depravity was contagious. As early as 1822, their views found their way into the Bigge Report. Bigge had concluded that the children of convicts were a ‘a remarkable exception to the moral and physical character of their parents’. In 1838, in the New South Wales Legislative Council, the supporters of transportation resolved that it continue. They claimed the Molesworth Committee had misrepresented the moral condition of the colony, and that the rising generation, far from being corrupted by convict depravity, were impressing  ‘ a character of respectability upon the Colony at large.’ Earlier these same men had been more disposed to argue the contagion of convict depravity as a reason to oppose free institutions in the colony: that, after all, would have detracted from their own influence.

However, it was not only the colonial supporters of transportation who resisted the image of the colonies as corrupted for generations to come. There were local capitalists who saw more benefit in skilled free immigrants than in convict labour, and they knew that ‘sober and industrious’ workers would not be attracted to a moral dungill.”

White, R. (1981) Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980. Sydney: Allen & Unwin .page 25

And so we have a battle between the way things have been done – fossil fuel extraction, both capital intensive and highly centralised, and the vision of renewables, decentralised, reliant on local initiatives (and storage technology and enormous – centralised- battery factories.)

Incumbents will always highlight the current benefits of the status quo, and paint the darkest picture they think they can sell of the costs and risks of change.  That doesn’t mean they’re always wrong, of course, just that they shouldn’t be taken at face value…  Meanwhile, while we debate the finer points, species die, the oceans warm and the rough beasts slouch…

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