Addiction to Oil and Addiction to Slavery: A Fair Comparison?
The first shots of the American Civil War were fired 150 years ago. In his new book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, historian Adam Goodheart looks at the earliest days of the Civil War, when the country was preparing itself for a fierce battle. Goodheart argues on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross that the Civil War “was really about slavery in almost every significant way.”
What does this have to do with hybrid and electric cars?
Professor Goodheart explains to Terry Gross that he makes the century-and-a-half struggle over slavery come to life for his college students today by comparing it to Americans’ current struggle with oil addiction.
“Many of us recognize that in burning fossil fuels, we’re doing something terrible for the planet, and terrible for future generations. And yet in order to give this up, it would mean unraveling so much of the fabric of our daily lives—sacrificing so much, becoming radical eccentrics riding bicycles everywhere, that we continue somewhat guiltily to participate in the system.”
Much like we are addicted to cheap oil today, he said Americans “were simply addicted to slavery and couldn’t give it up.”
In 1861, the future of the south and north alike was interwoven with the economics of cotton, textile production and slave labor. There seemed to be no way out, and yet America found the courage to abolish slavery—even though we are still living with its legacy.
Of course, Goodheart is not equating one-to-one the horrific and unparalleled human toll of slavery on its victims with the effects of tailpipe emissions, high gas prices, and oil wars. That’s not an appropriate comparison. Instead, he’s overlapping cheap cotton and cheap oil—and the anguish of a country trying to somehow pull itself out of morally reprehensible practice upon which its economy depends.
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