"What the climate justice movement is demanding is the ultimate abolition of fossil fuels," writes MSNBC's Chris Hayes in a lengthy new call for action against global warming. To drive home the point, Hayes' piece, published in The Nation, is titled "The New Abolitionism," and its message is that a way must be found to "convince or coerce" the world's energy companies and energy-producing nations to give up the multi-trillion dollar business of powering the planet. Once the fossil fuels regime has been destroyed, it will be replaced with — well, that is the subject for another article.
Comparing anti-fossil fuels activism to abolitionism gave Hayes some pause. "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," Hayes writes. "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."
Hayes, a former Nation writer who remains an editor-at-large at the publication, compares the Southern economy based on slavery — worth trillions in today's dollars to the slaveholders — to the economy based on carbon fuels. Energy companies and energy-producing nations have ever-increasing stores of recoverable oil and gas that are almost unimaginably valuable in today's economy. And with today's rate of exploration and technological advances, those reserves are increasing by the minute. But burning all that fuel, Hayes argues, citing various influential environmental writers, would destroy the planet. The oil and gas must stay in the ground if human civilization is to survive.
"It's a bit tricky to put an exact price tag on how much money all that unexcavated carbon would be worth, but one financial analyst puts the price at somewhere in the ballpark of $20 trillion," Hayes writes. "So in order to preserve a roughly habitable planet, we somehow need to convince or coerce the world’s most profitable corporations and the nations that partner with them to walk away from $20 trillion of wealth."
Note the phrase: "convince or coerce." If persuasion were to fail, coercion — presumably by the federal government or some very, very powerful entity — could be pretty rough. Certainly by writing that the "climate justice movement" should be known as the "new abolitionism," Hayes makes an uneasy comparison to a 19th century conflict over slavery that was settled only by a huge and costly war — a real war, not a metaphorical one. Is that how environmentalists plan to save the planet from warming?
"The last time in American history that some powerful set of interests relinquished its claim on $10 trillion of wealth was in 1865 — and then only after four years and more than 600,000 lives lost in the bloodiest, most horrific war we’ve ever fought," Hayes writes.
On one hand, Hayes argues that the two causes — abolitionism and global warming activism — are not the same. "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," he writes. But on the other hand, Hayes is trying to associate the warming crusade with the radicalism of pre-Civil War abolitionism. And, just like in the 1860s, there is "no way around conflict" and "no available solution that makes everyone happy." From the article:
The parallel I want to highlight is between the opponents of slavery and the opponents of fossil fuels. Because the abolitionists were ultimately successful, it’s all too easy to lose sight of just how radical their demand was at the time: that some of the wealthiest people in the country would have to give up their wealth. That liquidation of private wealth 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. It is an audacious demand, and those making it should be clear-eyed about just what they’re asking. They should also recognize that, like the abolitionists of yore, their task may be as much instigation and disruption as it is persuasion. There is no way around conflict with this much money on the line, no available solution that makes everyone happy. No use trying to persuade people otherwise.
Hayes' article is not a detailed blueprint for the replacement of fossil fuels with alternative energy. It has policy recommendations of a sort; for example, the oil and gas companies must stop exploring for more oil and gas, because if they continue, they'll just find more. In addition, ways to transport oil and gas, like the Keystone XL pipeline must be stopped in the hopes of keeping more oil and gas in the ground, where it will not contribute to warming the earth.
But more than anything else, the Hayes article appears to be an attempt to lay down a marker, to push for preliminary action — like establishing a cap-and-trade system to put a price on carbon emissions — but also to threaten more radical solutions in the future, in the hope of instilling fear in the energy industry and the countries that depend on it. The message to the carbon industry seems to be: You are surrounded. Give up. Don't make us shoot.
"In the same way that the abolition movement cast a shadow over the cotton boom, so does the movement to put a price on carbon spook the fossil fuel companies, which even at their moment of peak triumph wonder if a radical change is looming around the corner," Hayes writes. And that is just the beginning. From the article's conclusion: "As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, 'Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.' What the climate justice movement is demanding is the ultimate abolition of fossil fuels. And our fates all depend on whether they succeed."