Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel


Christopher Hayes has tried to quantify how much wealth the owners of known carbon-based fuels -- oil companies, the government of Saudi Arabia, tar sands magnates in Alberta, etc. -- would have to forgo to prevent civilization-destroying global warming.

... 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. Since all of these numbers are fairly complex estimates, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that we’ve overestimated the total amount of carbon and attendant cost by a factor of 2. Let’s say that it’s just $10 trillion.

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.

Yes -- that's what it required of this nation to free the slaves who before 1865 filled an economic role very similar to that played by fossil fuels today.

The connection between slavery and fossil fuels ... is more than metaphorical. Before the widespread use of fossil fuels, slaves were one of the main sources of energy (if not the main source) for societies stretching back millennia. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, nearly all energy to power societies flowed from the natural ecological cascade of sun and food: the farmhands in the fields, the animals under saddle, the burning of wood or grinding of a mill. A life of ceaseless exertion.

Before fossil fuels, the only way out of this drudgery was by getting other human beings to do the bulk of the work that the solar regime required of its participants. This could be done by using accrued money to pay for labor, but more often than not—particularly in societies like the Roman Empire that achieved density and scale—it was achieved through slavery. Slavery opened up for the slave owners vast new vistas of possibility. The grueling mundane exertions demanded of everyone under a solar regime could be cast off, pushed down on the shoulders of the slave.

So, as an industrial civilization -- a capitalist civilization if that is not a contradiction itself -- we substituted carbon-based fuels for human beings working in bondage.

Hayes looks for hope in the truth that extracting all of this oil and coal that will kill our civilization (and a lot of us) is incredibly expensive -- consequently popular agitation that leads to divestment, delay, and making extraction more expensive has a chance of keeping much of it in the ground.

I suspect he's onto something, given a response in the New York Times from Republican/libertarian Josh Barro. Barro thinks we'll have to buy off the current owners of unextracted fossil fuel. This is rather like the sort of gradual emancipation schemes that attracted even such moderate anti-slavery leaders as Lincoln before the slave owners decided to fight instead of switch. Interestingly, Barro thinks our economic system could absorb the costs of paying off the fossil fuel magnates, even if our political system might not accommodate this.

... reducing carbon emissions doesn’t have to be an either/or choice between buyouts and expropriation of existing resources. Sometimes, one will be more politically feasible than the other, and an effective policy approach can use a blend of the two. In particular, we can take advantage of the fact that a required reduction in fossil fuel production would be partly offset by a rise in prices for those fossil fuels that do get extracted. ... Proposals that give the value of the right to emit carbon to the existing carbon emitter may be a necessary and effective strategy to buy political support for carbon limits. These approaches look like a giveaway, but it’s worth making the giveaway if that’s what brings the benefits of stable temperatures.

I don't have Barro's level of comfort with rewarding the polluters; it is not as if they've been suffering without profits all these years. But "new occasions teach new duties" in the words of James Russell Lowell's anti-slavery poem. Global warming demands global changes we can barely envision, but move into a new paradigm we must.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Krugman has revised his thinking about the economic feasibility of solar and wind power. Since he influences liberal thinking so greatly, this might turn leftist skeptics around.

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