Slavery to oil

Larry Koehrsenkoehrsenl@gmail.com

Prior to the Civil War, prior to the industrial revolution, prior to climate change debate, slave labor provided much of the “energy” for the production of food, fiber, and goods throughout the south. Enslaved human beings were seen as essential to drive the economy and maintain a comfortable standard of living for everyone else.

Moreover, balance sheets of those businesses engaged in commerce were dominated by land and slaves. Economic historian Gavin Wright estimated slaves represented nearly half of the wealth of the South just prior to the Civil War. It is no wonder that abolition became the lightening rod that it was. Some 400,000 slaveholders would be required to give up a major portion of their wealth.

The end of the Civil War also signaled the rise of the fossil fuel energy economy. We have all benefited from the widespread availability and the phenomenally low cost of coal, oil and natural gas. We have replaced dependence on slave labor energy with our current dependence on fossil fuels.

Today, coal, oil and natural gas make up the wealth of many individuals, corporations, and nations. Investors, pension funds, the likes of ExxonMobil and Saudi Arabia and similar entities around the world all calculate part of their asset value in terms of the fossil fuel resources on their books.

The total value of world fuel reserves is difficult to calculate with specificity. However, estimates as high as $20 trillion are common.

We cannot consume this amount of carbon fuels and maintain a habitable planet. The Carbon Tracker, a group of economic and environmental analysts, has looked at the amount of carbon-based fuels we can burn. To keep temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius, eighty percent of known reserves must be left in the ground.

Thus the dilemma and the parallel to pre-Civil War slavery. How can the ExxonMobil’s, Saudi Arabia’s and others be persuaded to forfeit up to eighty percent of their wealth? The problem will only worsen as entities continue oil exploration to place more reserves on their books.

This is not to suggest that war is on the horizon or required to keep climate change in check. A moral imperative comparable to slavery does not yet exist in the climate change debate. However, enormous real, complex economic issues are present. Thoughtful analysis and targeted actions are required to loosen the shackles and allow us to move toward a carbon free future.