Climate Change Denial and the Pro-Slavery Lobby: A Rhetorical Comparison

In retrospect, 205 years after the abolition of slavery, the position of reactionary Pro-Slavery forces appears not only appalling and sinister but ridiculous as well.  Rotund men with large moustaches, wigs, top hats, waistcoats and petticoats rose in Parliament and other august fora and put the case for retaining slavery. Despite momentum in the slavery abolition movement in Britain from the 1770s on, the growing support of church, government, and the commons, it wasn’t until 1807 that slavery was finally ended in the UK.  And even then, since it remained legal in the colonies, and the West Indies in particular, it was decades more before Britain’s slave trade was entirely concluded.

The Pro-slavery movement was a success, inasmuch as it helped delay an end to a colonial slave-based economy for two generations in the face of mainstream opposition.

Centuries apart climate change and slavery are not overtly similar issues except perhaps on the points of polarisation and the scale of their effect.   But look more closely at the arguments that underpinned the Abolitionist and Pro-Slavery movements and the similarities multiply.  Of course, the polemic conceit in making this comparison is to suggest that two centuries hence climate change deniers, here likened to the Pro-Slavery camp, will seem equally preposterous. We can hope they won’t be equally successful.

Abolition was progressive, support for slavery reactionary.  Abolition would require substantial change, adjustment, and concession, pro-slavery was an argument for the status quo.  Abolition was a policy aimed at shaping the future – a policy, somewhat selfishly, partly for the British people of the future. Pro-slavery was an argument for retaining the comforts of the day.

From a modern perspective there are two things that might be seen as quickly differentiating  the issue of abolition of slavery from that of climate change action: first the scientific foundation on which arguments about climate change rest, and second the massive disaster that appears to await if nothing is done to arrest warming.    But in fact both of these were central to the Abolition debate. 

There was a central scientific question in the debate on slavery: that of whether slaves were or were not human beings. Fabulous, appalling but of genuine scientific interest to minds of the day.  Those in favour of abolition were generally those who answered this scientific question in the affirmative, those against often answered in the negative.

From a modern perspective a second difference between movements for action on slavery and climate change, 200 years apart,  is that slavery should be stopped to end current injustice and suffering, while action should be taken on climate change to avoid future disaster.  But Abolitionists, like some of those warning of the dire conditions that await us in a warming world, were prone to melodramatic pronouncements about the future. The point of reference for this doomsaying was impending moral rather than environmental catastrophe:  the long-term cost to Britain’s moral standards and standing.  Slavery may render economic benefits but comes at the cost of human decency: human cruelty.  How great that cost might be could not be judged. The fear for Britain’s soul was taken seriously, and linked to a pragmatic argument about future diplomacy.  If it was the case that slaves were human beings, and might be deserving of independence, future positive relations between different peoples of the Earth could depend on a swift end to their subjugation and mistreatment.

The most important factor in favor of abolishing the slave trade, however, was the morally degradating affect that this “cancer” of the mind was having not only on individuals, but also on the nation. It was seriously wondered where the moral and spiritual nature of the nation was going to end up, if the nation’s actions towards their fellow men continued in this way. Lorraine Martin

Imagine a Britain today in which slavery is still legal, and it is clear that the continued trade and subjugation of people would indeed foster a good deal of disharmony and disquiet from other nations.  In this sense the claim was reasonable, two hundred years ago.  But like arguments today about the catastrophe that awaits us sans action on climate changed, the threat to morality and diplomacy was often couched in sensational, melodramatic terms.  Essentially accurate, and invoked in the best of causes, the threat was nonetheless a propagandistic tool.  The most extreme depictions of a future warmed world and associated disaster can be seen similarly.

The similarities between Pro-Slavers and Climate Change Deniers, in intention, tactics, and sincerity are substantiated by further examination of the former’s rhetoric. The principle argument against the abolition of slavery was economic. The cost would be too great.  The economy would suffer, perhaps crash. Standards of living would inevitably fall. As in the case of the climate change issue two alternative catastrophes were presented. Those against slavery warned of disaster in the long-term future.  Those who insisted on retaining slavery warned of economic Armageddeon as a result of the change of policy.

Other, peripheral arguments were less salubrious still than the economic argument against ending slavery. One appalling idea put forward was that the people of Africa were slaves by their nature: they had enslaved one another long before Europeans became involved in the trade.  Some challenged openly the idea that slaves were human beings, entitled to the same rights, possessed of the same faculties and capacity for suffering or free will.  Others, conceding the essential humanity of slaves, asserted that European and in particular British slavery was a civilising force that could only improve the lot of savages:

those in favor of keeping slavery believed that Africans were savages, heathens, who were in need of a master to teach them the ways of Christianity. These savages were unfit for freedom, as they were irrational and unschooled in true morality.

These arguments would never sway the increasing number of British citizens opposed to slavery at home or abroad.  But they did not have to: the point – their function – was as something to point to to say ‘Look, there are two sides to this debate.’  The pro-slavers did not need to actually win people over. As long as there was content to fill speeches in Parliament and in public and pieces in newspapers,  discussion – talk – about whether ending slavery was right could be prolonged indefinitely.

Most chilling is the realisation that over time the pro-slavery movement adapted to new moral norms, moving away from outrage at the very idea that slaves are properly human beings and might be freed.  It became instead an entirely cynical exercise in denying the inevitably total abolition of slavery.  The pro-slavery lobby   ‘used delaying tactics, for example, suggesting the need for further time or investigation, before consideration of the issue by the House, or supporting compromise solutions.’  To demonstrate their humane credentials, the pro-slavers drew up policies for easing the awful conditions under which slaves in the West Indies lived and worked. They argued for less radical action: not ending slavery altogether but improving it (echoes of ‘Direct Action’.)  The ‘amelioration programme’ proposed in 1823 would modernise slavery, recognising new understanding of humane treatment of those in servitude.

It was argued that in a period of economic depression especially, no-one in their right mind would even consider allowing the government to pay the compensation to the owners which was always called for in any argument for abolition.

Home Secretary Henry Dundas, a stalwart of the pro-slavery lobby, proposed a gradual abolition, a tapered reduction in the numbers of slaves. The intent was at this point purely delay: the extraction of profit from free labour for a few more years.

The arguments and activities of slavery abolitionists arose from commitment to a cause and to the future.  In retrospect the Pro-Slavery lobby appears obfuscating, obstreperous, and insincere. Its arguments were shrill and  constructed to serve a purpose – to profit from delay.  There seems to be little need to tease out in more detail the parallels between pro-slavery and climate change denial: they are self-evident.  It’s almost as though it’s somehow the same people, two centuries later, minus the handlebar moustaches, monocles and petticoats.  Or at least it’s their ideological descendents.


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