Kevin Bales

Professor of Contemporary Slavery and Research Director of the Rights Lab, University of Nottingham

March 14, 2023 — 4:10 PM
Alumni House, Toll Room — UC Berkeley Campus

Add to Google Calendar 03/14/2023 4:10 PM 03/14/2023 6:00 PM America/Los_Angeles Slavery in the Economy of the Anthropocene

Featured Lecture – Tuesday, March 14, 2023 4:10 p.m. Panel Discussion – Wednesday, March 15, 2023 4:10 p.m.   Register now Please register for this lecture, which is in person at the Toll Room, Alumni House on the UC Berkeley … Continued

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Featured Lecture – Tuesday, March 14, 2023 4:10 p.m.

Panel Discussion – Wednesday, March 15, 2023 4:10 p.m.

 

Register now

Please register for this lecture, which is in person at the Toll Room, Alumni House on the UC Berkeley campus. A recording of the lecture will be made available following the event.

About this Lecture

Many of the vast changes in our world brought about by the onset of the Anthropocene rest within the global economy. Slavery is a paradoxical driver of these detrimental changes. The paradox rests on the fact that within the global economy slavery is both economically trivial, almost insignificant, and yet critical and crucial in its impact. Recall that there are conservatively estimated to be some 40 million slaves in the world today. The UN estimates their efforts generate about $150 billion each year into the global economy. If slavery were a country of 40 million inhabitants with a GDP of $150 billion per annum, it would be a small, poor, country with the population of the Ukraine, and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Arkansas. Yet how can the small, poor “country” of slavery have an immense and negative global impact on our environment? How can such a scattered and suppressed population of enslaved people be, as we know now, be a key driver of the environmental changes that in turn create the conditions of the Anthropocene?

There are three clear answers to those questions. The first is that slavery as a criminal economic activity permeates the entire global economy across production and consumption, and not just within the criminal economy. The second answer is that this pervasive presence of slavery in the global economy is bolstered by several countries, China is the best example, that practice state-sponsored slavery in order to both suppress people and groups deemed dangerous to the government, and at the same time boost international exports produced with extremely low labour cost. Myanmar also uses forced labor to supplement its economy, and North Korea, though exporting little, props up its economy on the backs of 120,000 prison laborers. The third answer is that non-state actors, especially armed groups, enslave local populations in conflict zones and across contested geographies. They do so to meet both tactical and strategic aims. Local populations are enslaved by warring factions to produce raw materials such as cassiterite, tungsten, tantalum, cobalt, and gold – all crucial inputs to electronics and a raft of other uses. Enslaved people also become the raw material to be used and sold. Our recent research analysed documents captured in the aftermath of the ISIS invasion and genocide of the Yazidi people in Northern Iraq. Those documents showed income from the sale of enslaved women and girls in public and regional online auctions generating $2 million per day, managed by an official with the title of “Minister of Spoils”.  

Slavery permeates contemporary armed conflict. We recently analyzed all conflicts that occurred globally between 1989 and 2016. This was 171 wars, played out over 1,113 “conflict years”. Just at 90% of these conflicts showed the presence of conflict-based slavery – from child soldiers to forced labourers, to the extensive sexual exploitation (often commercial sexual exploitation) of women and girls. In Africa, South Asia, and South America, those enslaved by armed groups were found in illegal mines and in protected forests generating outputs that flowed into the global economy – and their forced work was primarily environmentally destructive of nature. 

While the global economy was growing rapidly over the past 100 years, a second key factor of the Anthropocene was dramatically altering the nature of the economics of slavery in ways never before seen. This key factor was the remarkable and unprecedented growth in the human population. Just recently, the population of Earth exceeded 8 billion. One hundred years ago, after many thousands of years of population growth, it had not reached 2 billion. So, our situation, as a species, has taken 5,000 years to reach 2 billion and 100 years to quadruple that number. We are clearly in a biologically and geologically new situation driven by humans, hence the move to recognise and name our current epoch the ‘Anthropocene’. This population explosion has had an dramatic impact on the economics of slavery. It is a new moment in human economic history.

When we examine the cost of slaves in the past we find that slaves, for virtually all of human history, have been expensive. The cost of military excursions to capture slaves were not trivial. The costs of transporting captured slaves from Africa to North and South America were not trivial. When we examine the relative costs of other commodities in the past, we find that an “average” slave in the American South in 1840 cost the same as buying four to six oxen (think tractors) – about $40,000 dollars in today’s money. Wherever we look in history at the prices of goods or livestock we found the same pattern – that slaves were relatively expensive. An exception was when Roman military conquests would flood the slave markets and temporarily drive down the price. Roman records describe how inexpensive Slavic slaves were on the Roman market- so much so that “slav” (“slave”) replaced the Latin word ‘servus’ into the present day. Today slaves are cheap, and often free for the taking. While the acquisition cost of an enslaved person in the United States might range up to $5000, many more people are enslaved in the developing world at prices from $50 to a few hundred dollars, and in many cases no money changes hands. The acquisition cost is simply the effort of approaching, luring, or capturing a person through trickery and violence. 

Crucially, in the 20th century, the links between slavery, conflict, environmental destruction, economics, and consumption, began to both strengthen and evolve. The availability of people who might be enslaved dramatically increased in line with population growth, generating the parallel collapse in the acquisition cost of slaves. The increase in the number of small scale conflicts led to a sharp uptick of the use of slaves in war.

What is just now coming to light, and is critical to the understanding of both slavery and the Anthropocene, is the very large and negative environmental impact of this very small number of slaves worldwide. The 40 million in slavery worldwide have a vast and negative environmental impact. Slave-based activities (brick making, deforestation, etc.) are estimated to generate 2.54 billion tonnes of CO2 per annum – this is greater than the individual emissions of all the world’s nations except China and the USA. Globally, slaves are forced to do work that is highly destructive to the environment. This work feeds directly into global consumption in foodstuffs, in minerals – both precious and for electronics – construction materials, clothing, and foodstuffs. Most of this work is unregulated leading to extensive poisoning of watersheds, the clear-cutting of forests, and enormous and unregulated emissions of carcinogenic gases as well as CO2. Political corruption supports this slave-based environmental destruction and its human damage. We are clearly in a biologically and geologically new situation, hence the push to rename our current epoch the ‘Anthropocene’. So my last points will be conjectures – what are the possible futures for slavery, for our environment, for our economies, and for us?

About Kevin Bales

Kevin Bales, CMG, FRSA is Professor of Contemporary Slavery and Research Director of the Rights Lab, University of Nottingham. He co-founded the American NGO Free the Slaves. His 1999 book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy has been published in twelve languages. Desmond Tutu called it “a well researched, scholarly and deeply disturbing expose of modern slavery.” The film based on Disposable People, which he co-wrote, won the Peabody Award and two Emmys. The Association of British Universities named his work one of “100 World-Changing Discoveries.” In 2007 he published Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves, (Grawemeyer Award). In 2009, with Ron Soodalter, he published The Slave Next Door: Modern Slavery in the United States. In 2016 his research institute was awarded the Queens Anniversary Prize, and he published Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World. Check out his TEDTalk.

Distinguished panelists

Arlie R. Hochschild
Professor Emerita
UC Berkeley Department of Sociology

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s most recent book,  Strangers in Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right,  was  a finalist for the National Book Award and New York Times best seller. Other books include The Second Shift: working parents and the revolution at home, The Managed Heart: the commercialization of human feeling, and So How’s the Family, a collection of essays.     Four of her books have been named as a New York Times  “Notable Non-fiction Book of the Year,”  a play and musical have been based on two, and her work  appears in  17 languages. She is currently working on a book on Appalachia.

Enrique Lopezlira, Ph.D.
Director, Low-Wage Work Program
UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education

Enrique Lopezlira is the director of the Low-Wage Work program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center. He is a labor economist, directing and conducting research on how policies affect working families, with a particular focus on how these policies impact racial and gender equity.

He previously served as senior policy advisor for economic and employment policy at UnidosUS, one of the largest Latinx civil rights organizations in the nation. He also served as deputy director for policy and research at Western Progress, a think tank advancing progressive policies and change in the eight states of the Rocky Mountain West. He has advised various government agencies and has testified at the state and federal levels. He is often asked for his economic insights and analysis by English and Spanish media; he has appeared on CNN, CNN en Español, and Univision, and has been covered in Al Jazeera, Politico, and the Washington Post.

Dr. Lopezlira holds a doctorate in economics from Howard University. He also holds a master’s degree in international management from the Thunderbird School of Global Management, and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from Arizona State University.

Eric Stover
Adjunct Professor of Law
Faculty Director, Human Rights Center 

Eric Stover is Co-Faculty Director of the Human Rights Center and Adjunct Professor of Law and Public Health at UC Berkeley. During the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, he served on several medico-legal investigations as an “Expert on Mission” to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. In the early 1990s, Stover conducted the first research on the social and medical consequences of land mines in Cambodia and other post-war countries. His research helped launch the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, which received the Nobel Prize in 1997. More recently, he has conducted several studies on human trafficking in California

His most recent books include Silent Witness:  Forensic DNA Analysis in Criminal Investigations and Humanitarian Disasters (edited with Henry Erlich and Tom White) and Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pursuit of War Criminals from Nuremberg to the War on Terror (written with Alexa Koenig and Victor Peskin).  He has co-produced several PBS documentaries, including “Tulsa:  The Fire and the Forgotten” and “Dead Reckoning:  War, Crimes, and Justice from WWII to the War on Terror.”