Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Europe Diary: Nantes, the abolition of slavery and climate change



On Sunday I visited the Memorial to the abolition of slavery in Nantes and was deeply moved. It is located on the bank of the Loire River, opposite the Palais de Justice that stands on the Ile de Nantes. The city of Nantes has looked into the darkness of it's past in abuse of human rights and sought to document and reflect on that history. There are lessons here in the anti-slavery campaign for the climate change movement.


At one time the area of the memorial would have been full of sailing ships at the quays along the river Loire embarking on the slave trade. The port of Nantes was central to this trade in France where many of the slave ships were based. The slave trade generated wealth for Nantes over many years, before it was put to an end.

The city of Nantes has recognised this dark side of it's history with a memorial along the river Loire which attempts to document the human misery of slavery and the denial of human rights and the campaign to abolish slavery. (see Abolition Chronology)

The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery - Nantes was completed in 2013 with press information stating:


The Memorial of the abolition of slavery is willing to mark in a solemn and lasting way the relation between the City of Nantes and its past as first slave port in France but above all the memorial carries a threefold message. Tribute to all those who fought against slavery, it also invites to meditate on these crimes and calls for continuing today the fight against all forms of human exploitation in the world.

The Memorial goes beyond the history of Nantes: it carries a universal message of solidarity and fraternity calling out to future generations.

Its purpose is not to explain history but to act as a reminder and a warning, to serve as a point of reference in building a collective awareness which refuses any form of enslavement and asserting the richness of human diversity.

Some 1714 slave trade expeditions originated from Nantes, 43 per cent of French expeditions, and between 5 and 6 per cent of Europe's Atlantic slave trade.

The memorial website details that the slave trade was initially abolished by the French revolution in 1794, but was reinstated by Napoleon in 1802.

Nantes was not at the forefront of the abolition movement, but abandoned the slave trade in 1830, while other French ports like Le Havre continued up to 1847.

Slavery was finally abolished in France and its colonies during the time of Victor Schœœlcher and the Second Republic on 27 April 1848.



The moral argument against slavery was paramount to the abolition campaign. Once one state, or city, stopped participating on the slave trade it gave impetus for other states to follow using the same moral arguments. But it also took numerous public meetings, protests, revolts, and direct action. It did not come without pain and change.

Remember the Underground railroad in the US that assisted tens of thousands of slaves to escape bondage in the south. The bloody civil war in the United States formerly ended slavery there at the cost of 600,000 lives. Although slavery ended, many black Americans continued to endure in poverty, meagre wages and discrimination, to spark the civil rights campaigns in the 1960s.

Slavery was eventually abolished under Article 4 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."



The politics changed and slavery was overtly brought to an end. But slavery still exists in many forms, particularly in less developed parts of the world. As the memorial indicates, vigilance and continued efforts to enforce basic human rights are constantly required.

So what has this got to do with climate change?


Today human rights for health and a safe environment are directly under threat by the impacts of climate change caused by carbon pollution.

I am not the first person to highlight the analogy between climate action and the campaign for the abolition of slavery. Andrew Winston in his 2013 Guardian article (The climate change abolitionists), and Christopher Hayes in his 2014 The Nation article (The New Abolitionism), also make the same analogy in far more detail.

The world is facing a different moral imperative today: the need to rapidly phase out greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change.

We have had definitive scientific statements for 35 years on the need to reduce emissions, to become energy sustainable societies, but our societies have largely failed to heed the call of science.

The basic science on the impact of increasing carbon dioxide emissions on the greenhouse effect goes back well over a century.

We are emotive and passive creatures that go with the flow and participate in a system that rewards short term economics and greed, business as usual.

Hence the need to call on a change in social values and moral authority to provide the imperative for action. To change the system, not the climate.

People in the climate movement have been doing this for some time, but still failing to make headway against the entrenched system of market capitalism and corporations unduly influencing politics.

Social licence for carbon pollution withdrawn


This year moral arguments have stepped up a notch to become more prominent with Pope Francis releasing an encyclical, Laudato Si, on the environment and climate change calling for transformational change in our society. Muslim scholars have similarly met and drafted an Islamic declaration on climate change.

And in the short space of two years a divestment movement motivated by 350.org has grown and achieved a remarkable amount of success in persuading individuals, businesses, pension funds and public organisations to divest from fossil fuel interests. The divestment movement is growing fast. But it is not the divestment of funds that is important per se, but it signals a change in the public social licence for carbon intense business and activities to continue.

The divestment movement has already had an impact with the stigmatisation of investment in fossil fuel projects as major Banks, a major source of funds and loan guarantees for new fossil fuel projects, slowly take heed of the change in social acceptance and refuse to lend to new carbon intense projects.

Shareholders are increasingly asking questions at Company AGMs about business plans and carbon risk management. While a few businesses have truly moved to adopt more sustainable business models, many just show us a greener image, a veneer of sustainability, token projects dreamed up by marketing departments, while continuing with business as usual.

The mining and fossil fuel energy companies are still a powerful lobby group who continue to fund politicians and political parties to ensure they receive business advantages. This is why we need system change to become more democratic and transparent.

It took the United States slavery abolition campaign 40 years to achieve a constitutional amendment on slavery. We haven't got the luxury of 40 years with climate change. The last 25 years have been spent in United Nations yearly forums tinkering at the edges while greenhouse gas emissions continue to escalate.

We need to listen to the words of Naomi Klein and call for not only climate policy action but system change to occurr. We need to have the largest mobilization of people calling to change the economic and social system driving climate change.

Whether capitalism can be transformed into a more regulated, democratic and sustainable economic system subservient to society is up for debate. But as Klein points out: with climate change, everything changes.

Until one day, like with the abolition of slavery, we will look back and think changing the system to benefit us all, reducing greenhouse gases for environmental and health benefits, should have been self-evident.

Urban sustainability and Nantes


So today Nantes is a modern city with about 600,000 people in the greater urban area. It is France's 6th largest city. It has developed a reputation as a progressive city and received the European green city of the year in 2013. The current mayor is Johanna Rolland, from the French Socialist Party.

The city set about becoming more sustainable in the 1980s with the revitalisation of public transport and the tram system. This was followed by sensitive urban renewal projects, and more recently, by the addition of major cycling infrastructure and network.



Nantes closed it's original tram network in 1958. Problems with traffic congestion resulted in proposals to build a riverside freeway. This caused a public outcry and alternatives were canvassed including reinstalling a new tram network. This was subsequently built starting with a first line in 1985, and with it's popularity, subsequent expansions to the tram network.

Nantes also has many parks around the city and a thriving public engagement with the creative arts to give the city a vibrancy and life and a high tourism profile. From the Jardin de Plantes, a botanical gardens with playful topiary and other sculptures, to Les Machines de L'Ile with fantastic mechanical creatures, including a 12 metre tall mechanical elephant on former waterside location on Ile de Nantes.

In 2007 the city adopted a Climate Plan which encouraged energy transition and reduction in city generated greenhouse gases. The plan is an essential part of the action taken by Nantes Métropole, with an objective to halve CO2 emissions per capita by 2030. Already it has achieved a reduction in CO2 emissions to 4.77 tonnes per capita. Read more at City of Nantes website.


Bicloo rental bikes lined up outside the Architecture School on Ile de Nantes

Maybe one day there will be a memorial tracing why it took us so long to get started in reigning in carbon emissions when our climate, sea level and whole way of life was threatened.

The French regional city of Nantes shows us one positive path to dealing with a darker moment in human history, and in building urban sustainability and tackling greenhouse gas emissions and climate change for a peaceful future.