MSNBC host Chris Hayes is getting an alarming amount of attention for his latest effort in The Nation, a stemwinder arguing that the abolition of fossil fuels is like the abolition of slavery.
The argument may sound forced, but Hayes has a logical premise that goes something like this: Socrates does not wear sandals; a potato kugel does not wear sandals; therefore Socrates is a potato kugel. It’s also tricked out with quasi-erudition and broad claims such as this one: “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.” (Busy old fool, unruly Sun!)
Hayes, who serves as an editor-at-large for The Nation, manages to make 4,600 words feel even longer, with overflowing adjectives (“obvious,” “ungodly,” “brute, bloody”); lethal compound modifiers (“heart-stopping,” “full-throated”); cascades of adverbs (“immensely,” “basically,” “unfathomably” “probably,” “literally,” and even “downright”). There’s a to-be-sure paragraph guaranteeing the reader that Hayes is not making a “moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices” — followed by another 3,600 words comparing the enslavement of Africans and African Americans with the burning of carbon. (Hayes is coy as to what devices are in fact powered by these exotic carbon energy sources — about which more in a moment.)
So how does it make sense to compare the use of hydrocarbons with the enslavement of people? Turns out it’s the One Percent again, still clinging jealously to their privileges:
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 . . .
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.
That’s more or less all there is to Hayes’s case.
The virtuous cadre of fossil-fuel “abolitionists” will have to compel these fat cats to give up their wealth. And like John Brown and Julia Ward Howe before them, they can take heart despite the immensity of the task, because the toll of human suffering is right before their . . . because the horrors of the vile institution are clear to . . . because the conscience recoils at the sight of . . . Well, it’s kind of hard to say what the actual societal gain of eliminating fossil fuels would be, because fossil fuels are the main reason modern society exists at all.
As simply as possible: It took 2 million years or so of human history for the population of Planet Earth to reach 1 billion, early in the 19th century. A few years prior to that landmark, the continuous-rotation steam engine was invented. And by the strangest coincidence, that population number went on to increase seven-fold in only 200 years.
A perceptive person might conclude that internal combustion and the use of fossil fuels had something to do with that progress, at least by providing a range of options beyond freezing, starving, dying in infancy, or any of the other indignities that constitute most of human experience in a state of nature. A person in an expansive mood might even say exploitation of fossil fuels is a miracle, enabling transnational markets for food, widespread travel and education, heavier-than-air flight, full-time employment for left-wing commentators, and even the abolition of slavery. (Observe how deftly Hayes avoids putting two and two together in that sentence above about how slaves were energy before fossil fuels.)
Does Hayes think that population growth happened in a technological vacuum? Does he wonder where the chemicals came from to make the frames of his hipster spectacles?
Maybe he believes we’re poised to leave the age of fossil fuels behind and enter an age of clean alternative fuels. Unfortunately, the International Energy Agency disagrees. Here’s the IEA’s 2011 global energy mix:
That 1 percent contains all geothermal plants, Solyndras, windmills, and other forms of “clean energy.” Even if you throw in nuclear power, biofuels, and hydro, you’re looking at a total of only 18.4 percent of the energy mix that doesn’t come from fossil fuels. To “abolish” the exploitation of organic chemistry would be to condemn billions of people to their deaths.
Which is why I think Hayes’s modest proposal is useful as more than just an example of how global-warming alarmism becomes more melodramatic as evidence for anthropogenic global warming becomes less compelling.
There are many more moderate suggestions than Hayes’s on the carbon-cap continuum. But his goofy idea makes clear that all of these involve some diminution in human life: less health, less longevity, fewer opportunities to pursue happiness. At some level that translates into fewer people — a consummation many warmists might devoutly wish, though few would admit that. (As green panics go, overpopulation is long over; global warming is merely on its way out.)
Hayes is right to equate the battle against fossil fuels with one of history’s greatest moral struggles. He’s just wrong to think he’s on the side of humanity.