Climate change is a very serious issue. It has the potential to upend human civilization. A warming planet, fueled in equal parts our carbon pollution and the greed of the oil and gas industry, could prove catastrophic if it isn't reined in soon. It is precisely because of the seriousness of the issue that advocates for climate action need to be precise, measured, and careful in their zeal to mobilize people behind this cause.
And believe me when I tell you that comparing your pet cause - no matter how serious it is - to slavery is not the way to do it. MSNBC host and The Nation contributor Chris Hayes penned an article today doing just that. His bottom line argument: getting global gas and oil conglomerates (both multinational companies and oil rich nations) to comply with curbing the use of fossil fuel is just like telling slave-owners in 1860 to give up their slaves.
Uhh, what? You read that right. Hayes argues that the amount of wealth lost by slave-owners by giving up their claim to human beings as property is comparable to the amount of wealth that will have to be given up by the oil and gas giants if the planet is to warm only within tolerable limits. Actually, Hayes argues - citing rather convincing numbers nonetheless - that it's worse for the conglomerates than the slave-owners in the South; twice as bad, to be exact. And you know what it took to pry the institution of slavery from the cold, dead southern hands!
Of course, Hayes is not an idiot. He wants it understood that he in no way, no how, is comparing the moral implications of slavery to the morality of carbon emissions. He is only comparing the "political economies" of the two.
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.
Oh, well then. That settles it.
Apparently the white privileged liberal talking heads can be as thick when talking about slavery as racist conservative white southern necks. I happened to have read the rest of Hayes' piece, and not all of it was bad, but I'll tell you this much: I was very, very tempted to stop reading right there. And you couldn't be blamed if you did the same.
The utter insensitivity and foolishness of the comment surprised me at a time when I thought nothing from the dogged Left could. You cannot separate out the "political economy" of slavery from the moral reprehension of the same. The American south (and many parts of the north) had spent decades making the moral case for slavery. In churches and in courtrooms, the religious and moral righteousness of slavery was justified with fundamental arguments of moral superiority of the white man over the negro - a fearsome concept that to this day maligns American discourse.
It was moral revulsion that lead Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and it was an equally dogged, if superbly repugnant, moral claim to owning slaves that lead the South to secede. The economy and morality of slavery was intertwined, but you can't fight wars by simply making an economic case for it (which answers the question about why George Bush had to lie to get us into Iraq).
Perhaps Hayes is too wrapped up into drawing attention to his cause - a worthy one without a doubt - to realize that by separating what he calls the "political economy" of slavery from its moral reprehension, he is making the exact same argument groups like "Sons of the Confederate Veterans" often rely on to make their white-washing case that the Civil War wasn't about slavery but an economic conflict in which the North strongarmed the South. Perhaps - and hopefully - unbeknownst to himself, Hayes is validating the racists who still claim the Civil War to be a "war of northern aggression."
When a thing like owning human beings as property is involved, you simply cannot neatly separate out its moral and economic effects. It lends to white-washing the darkest hours of American history - history we still suffer from - history that still haunts us even in the second term of the first African American president. The sheer attempt to separate the morals and economics of slavery reeks of white privilege.
And when you do it, it harms your cause. If Hayes hopes to be a spokesperson for the climate action movement - and more importantly, if he wants to move climate action forward - comparing climate change in any way, shape or form to slavery makes the real argument about gargantuan economic incentives to keep the dirty energy industry going weak. It makes people who suffer from and study the legacy of slavery rightly furious and diverts attention of others who could be drawn to the cause.
There is nothing about the argument that curbing global warming means $20 trillion worth of wealth for the oil companies left in the ground that couldn't be made without comparing it to "the political economy" of slavery. Just as fierce criticism of the private mercenary defense industry and its financial incentive to keep the country on war footing does not require nor warrant the invocation of the "military economy" of Nazi Germany, the case showing the massive financial incentive for oil men neither requires nor warrants its comparison to slavery. Ever.
Let me also add that humility is at the core of activism. Drawing parallels between abolitionists and himself as part of the climate action movement serves no other purpose than to make Hayes and anyone who makes such claims cocky, bizarre, and a little nutty. True activists draw inspiration from movements that came before them and people who taught us how to fight, but true activists don't lay claim to major historic legacies. Instead, they build their own. Because the moment you start thinking "I'm like those legends", you become a legend in your own mind and nothing more.
Please, I beg you. Chris Hayes and other privileged white liberals. Stop comparing your own causes to slavery. You don't suffer from the legacy of slavery, you know nothing about what it is like to be black or brown in America, and you are not helping your cause by finding a clever title like "the new abolitionism" to describe the climate action movement. Please. Just. Stop.