“That liquidation of private wealth [the abolition of slavery] is the only precedent for what today’s climate justice movement is rightly demanding: that trillions of dollars of fossil fuel stay in the ground.” (emphasis added) ~ Chris Hayes, Earth Day, 2014.
I cannot recommend strongly enough Chris Hayes’ recent essay in The Nation: “The New Abolitionism.” Hayes has read Bill McKibben’s equally essential Rolling Stone essay, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” has found it to be “haunting” (as I have), has mulled over McKibben’s argument for almost two years, and has now produced his own tour de force on this most critical and difficult of problems facing humanity.
In our corporate-owned mainstream media environment, which has been scandalously hesitant to inform Americans about the grave implications of the climate crisis, Hayes has been a refreshing exception. Now, with this long-form essay in The Nation, he becomes the first nationally prominent news-media personality (of whom I’m aware) to state – very publicly and very unambiguously – that the energy companies simply must be dispossessed of the trillions of dollars in fossil fuel reserves they currently own – just as the slave-owners had their “property” taken away from them. Something in the range of 80% of those reserves simply must remain in the ground.
That demand is every bit as extraordinary and unthinkable as it sounds. The great value of Hayes’ piece is that he persuasively helps us to start thinking the unthinkable.
Although we don’t usually think of the Civil War in such terms, the end of slavery amounted to the liquidation of the private fortunes of some of the wealthiest people in 19th Century America – to the tune of trillions of dollars (in today’s money). It turned an entrenched economic order on its head by outlawing the nation’s addiction to, and dependency upon, an immoral energy source. It cost over 600,000 lives and the razing of great Southern cities, to boot. Only a great moral cause could justify such a momentous upheaval in American society, right?
Is addressing the climate crisis a great moral cause equivalent to abolishing slavery? I think it is. The McKibben piece, that so haunted me and Chris Hayes, talks of “global catastrophe,” “the peril that human civilization is in,” and “a planet straight out of science fiction.” Hayes himself writes that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground “if we are to avert a global cataclysm.” (emphasis added).
What would this cataclysm look like? The chair of the International Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) said last month that the impacts of climate change will be “severe, pervasive, and irreversible.” According to the IPCC’s most recent report, summarized nicely by Mother Jones, those impacts include increased species extinction, reduced crop yields (with related famines and global unrest), increased heat waves, wildfires & droughts, increased climate refugees (with related violence), increased coastal flooding and erosion, and massive “adaptation” costs – to name a few. This misery will be suffered mostly by poor countries that did least to contribute to the problem.
Please note that the IPCC is an unavoidably political body whose reports actually tend to stick to the less alarming claims. Other prominent scientists and writers have sounded far greater alarms. For example, Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond said the following, just the other day, in an interview with the “Inquiring Minds” podcast:
“Either by the year 2050 we've succeeded in developing a sustainable economy, in which case we can then ask your question about 100 years from now, because there will be 100 years from now; or by 2050 we've failed to develop a sustainable economy, which means that there will no longer be first world living conditions, and there either won't be humans 100 years from now, or those humans 100 years from now will have lifestyles similar of those of Cro-Magnons 40,000 years ago, because we've already stripped away the surface copper and the surface iron. If we knock ourselves out of the first world, we're not going to be able to rebuild a first world.”
I don’t think Chris Hayes sees the situation in quite such dire terms – i.e., the near extinction of the human race in 100 years. (For the record, I don’t either!) But Hayes does apparently believe the situation is quite dire, indeed. As do I. He seems to agree that humanity faces decades (or centuries?) of climate-related famine, war, death, and extreme misery. If this is all true, mustn’t we start thinking of fossil fuels as an immoral energy source – comparable to human slavery? I think we must.
And this is the one part of Hayes’ essay that really sticks in my craw. He goes out of his way, in two extended caveats, to disclaim any moral comparisons between owning slaves and, um, knowingly devastating the environment our grandchildren will be doomed to inhabit. I would say the latter is at least as bad as slavery, wouldn’t you? And slavery was, of course, an utter moral abomination.
Here is the first of Hayes’ annoying caveats:
“It is almost always foolish to compare a modern political issue to slavery, because there’s nothing in American history that is slavery’s proper analogue. So before anyone misunderstands my point, let me be clear and state the obvious: there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices. Humans are humans; molecules are molecules. The comparison I’m making is a comparison between the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel.”
And the second:
“Let me pause here once again to be clear about what the point of this extended historical comparison is and is not. Comparisons to slavery are generally considered rhetorically out of bounds, and for good reason. We are walking on treacherous terrain. The point here is not to associate modern fossil fuel companies with the moral bankruptcy of the slaveholders of yore, or the politicians who defended slavery with those who defend fossil fuels today.”
I am trying to imagine the cognitive dissonance Hayes must be experiencing. Climate change risks a “global cataclysm,” one that will almost certainly result in massive famine, death and misery. But the energy source responsible for all of this future misery cannot be compared, on moral terms, to slavery. Even when we now know what our gluttonous consumption will cause. According to Hayes, “there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison” (emphasis mine)!
This represents a breath-taking failure of the imagination – focusing on the short-term and immediately visible consequences of filling your tank (seems harmless enough, eh?) and evading the baked-in and truly “terrifying” longer-term consequences. To be honest, I don’t think Hayes believes his own bullshit. He is too smart. Rather, I think he is afraid to offend those who see American slavery as “the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the universe.”TM On MSNBC, and in the pages of The Nation, one simply cannot be found to have even hinted that some other civilizational evil is as bad (or God forbid, worse!) than slavery. (Did I mention that slavery is an utter moral abomination?)
Hayes more or less admits these constraints of political correctness:
“Comparisons to slavery are generally considered rhetorically out of bounds, and for good reason. We are walking on treacherous terrain.”
Rhetorically out of bounds? We are talking about possible “global cataclysm” and you are worried about being rhetorically out of bounds?
For all that, Hayes is truly one of the good guys in this debate. I am always mildly surprised that GE-owned MSNBC lets him say as much as he does on this subject. Please read his otherwise superb and essential essay.
And then begin thinking and planning for what you are going to do, personally, to burn less fossil fuel, support alternatives, and fight those who seek to maintain the status quo out of sheer greed. (I am looking at you, Koch brothers.)
Some suggestions, perhaps a bit snooty and presumptuous: Get a bike or walk as much as possible – it’s good for you. Buy local when you can. Consume less – you don’t need half the crap you waste your money on. Turn off the god-damned TV – it is nothing but endless exhortations to consume. Instead, read or converse with friends and family. Or play an instrument. Or just listen to one.
Oppose climate denialism. It is the intellectual equivalent of Young Earth Creationism.
And apologize to your children. Often.