The Ties Between Racial Injustice and Environmental Ethics

As part of the Colorado College English Department’s Visiting Writer Series, James S. Finley, assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University at San Antonio, discussed his upcoming book project on Feb. 28 with CC students and the Colorado Springs community. His argument focused on abolition, race, and the role of ecology in these topics. 

With racial tensions and environmental worries at the forefront of current political discussion, Finley traces these issues back to the 19th century to gain a clearer understanding of the intersectionality at hand. His upcoming book,  “Free Soil Abolition: Slavery, Race, and Ecology in Antebellum America,” looks at the environmental ethics incorporated into the campaigns of many anti-slavery, free-soil, and abolitionist groups.

Photo by Joe Keat

The main argument supported by these groups was the ecologically unsustainable aspects of the slave-holding South. Vast swaths of land dedicated to the monoculture of cash crops across southern America were not only inefficient but depleted the nutrients within the soil to almost nothing. Many free-soilers in this era argued that white farmers would actually benefit the most by tearing down this system and advancing agricultural procedures. 

Finley’s thesis focused on three critical situations, the first being the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. During this time, one-fifth of the Irish population starved to death. Along with the country-wide monoculture of potatoes, the situation was worsened by British colonialism, which oppressed citizens and restricted diversification. Finley emphasized how the plantation systems of Ireland “is no analogy” to that of America’s slave-owning powers but shared the “unhealthy and unnatural” characteristics. “Such a control over production necessitates a control over people,” Finley said.

The second point emphasized by Finley was the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. He explained how “the crisis reflected the slaveholders’ appetite for more territory.” This was not simply a desire for more land, but a bid to save the failing ecosystems and barren agriculture lands of the South. To maintain the system, more arable land was needed to support the current bounty of crops. 

The last anecdote Finley brought up was the free-soil principle that resulted from England’s Somerset v Stewart case of 1772. In the Somerset case, a slave that was brought from the states to England sued for his freedom by stating that since he was in free territory, he was free. The case was upheld, and England officially became free soil. While the Northern states were “free,” Finley commented how people like, “Frederick Douglass rejected the tendency by white free-soilers as seeing the North as free soil.” It was only when the threats of kidnapping, misidentify, and injustice were fully evaporated that the soil could be considered free.

Finley’s upcoming book emphasizes how “pollution is both material and ideological.” The environmental crisis cannot progress without social justice, and vice versa. By looking at the potato famine, the Mexican-American War, and the free-soil principle, Finley displayed the “human and ecological costs of profit-making.” The intersection of environmental collapse and racial injustice is a concept that affected Antebellum America and is still critically relevant in modern day America.  

Josie Kritter

Josie Kritter

Josie, class of 2019, is a political science major from Culpeper, Va. She writes for the news and opinion sections of The Catalyst. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and scuba diving (which is unfortunately almost impossible in Colorado).
Josie Kritter

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