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The Big Problems with Chris Hayes Comparison of Slavery and Fossil Fuel Consumption

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes had a piece in the Nation Tuesday in which he compared putting an end to the use of fossil fuels to the abolition of slavery. There are a couple of big problems with Hayes’ argument which he seems to avoid mostly by not talking about them.

As Hayes frames it, ending slavery was a financial calamity for the south. Through a series of estimates he arrives at the figure $10 trillion as the present day economic value of slavery in America circa 1860. That’s how much the wealthy interests in the south would lose if slavery were to end.

Hayes then makes a companion estimate that the value of proven reserves of fossil fuels–oil, coal and gas–which we must not burn if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change is also around $10 trillion. (Actually he comes up with $20 trillion but cuts that in half for no particular reason.) Having set up this comparison, Hayes then drives toward his initial downbeat conclusion.

If I’ve done my job so far, you should, right about now, be feeling
despair. If, indeed, what we need to save the earth is to forcibly pry
trillions of dollars of wealth out of the hands of its owners, and if
the only precedent for that is the liberation of the slaves–well, then
you wouldn’t be crazy if you concluded that we’re doomed, since that
result was achieved only through the most brutal extended war in our
nation’s history.

The reader is briefly left wondering whether Hayes is about to call for a Civil War on climate deniers. However, he quickly skates away from this, offering instead some upbeat talk about divestment and White House protests.

But upon closer inspection, Hayes is really hoping for government action. He uses the Keystone XL pipeline as an example of a large capital investment which, if stopped, would make tar sands development in Canada uneconomical. But Keystone XL won’t be stopped by protesters, not directly. If it is stopped, it will be because the Obama administration chose to do so. (There is a slavery analog to cutting off the supply pipeline which Hayes overlooks.)

A couple paragraphs later Hayes is even more clear, if only in passing, that government action is the key to fossil fuel abolitionism. He writes “in certain climate and investment circles, people have begun to talk
about ‘stranded assets’–that is, the risk that either national or global
carbon-pricing regimes will make the extraction of some of the current
reserves uneconomical.” In other words, global carbon regulation would change everything.

So Hayes isn’t calling for protests as a solution. He’s calling for protests as a catalyst for decisive government intervention, i.e. blocking Keystone XL at the border now and, in the long term, an emancipation proclamation for fossil fuel reserves.

But if that’s the endgame, why should we be sanguine about avoiding a major conflict along the way. Remember, Hayes claims the abolition of slavery is the only precedent for cutting off the burning of fossil fuels. And he clearly sees some dark clouds on the horizon in light of history (see that excerpted paragraph above). So it should concern us that his explanation for why it will be different this time amounts to little more than hand-waving.

Here’s why I don’t think we need to worry about another Civil War. Hayes has a point with the financial comparison he is making, at least in the broadest sense. There certainly are two sides to this argument who seem to be in conflict. But they are not equally matched. In fact, it’s not clear the constituency for fossil fuel abolitionism is more than a tiny percentage of the population. There are at least a couple of obvious reasons for this.

First, with slavery one half of the country had far less financial motivation to continue the practice than the other. But there is no north/south divide here. In this case, the constituency for fossil fuels is everyone in America (or Europe) who buys or cooks food, drives a car or pays an energy bill to heat or cool their home. Unless you want to wind up living in teepees and riding horses like the current crop of Keystone XL protesters, you’re at least nominally in favor of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

But the bigger problem with Hayes’ argument is moral. Hayes says two times in the piece that fossil fuel consumption and slavery are not morally analogous. That’s certainly true, but Hayes fails to acknowledge that the moral argument against slavery is the one that really mattered. The abolitionists were moral (often religious) crusaders. Unless a significant number of people can be convinced that, say, fracking is morally equivalent to slavery, it’s unlikely to draw the same level of passionate opposition from most people.

No doubt there are some who would say it is morally equivalent. Hayes, in his heart of hearts, may even be one of them. But he’ll have a hard time rallying people to that viewpoint when he’s not prepared to say it out loud. 

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