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Opinion: Slavery, Carbon, Economics and the Ties that Bind Us

3p Contributor | Thursday December 17th, 2009 | 10 Comments

road-to-copenhagen

slaveryBy Lee Barken, IT practice leader at Haskell & White, LLP

With the gathering of more than 130 world leaders in Copenhagen this week, the issue of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is taking center stage.  GHG has become the burden that no one country can unilaterally cure, but every person on the planet has a vested interest in addressing.

Cap and trade, along with other policy measures, have stirred a great deal of controversy–as they should.  Decisions to significantly alter the fabric of commerce and daily life should not be taken lightly.  Rigorous debate is essential and should be welcomed.

However, even the most ardent climate skeptic acknowledges that finite resources such as oil and other fossil fuels won’t last forever.  As such, the debate seems to be evolving into a question of when and not if.  In other words, is this a problem that needs to be tackled in the next five years?  Or, do we have 100 years to figure it out?

Bold Action

The lengthy negotiating sessions in Copenhagen demonstrate that the task of reducing carbon emissions is easier said than done.  Two things are certain: It won’t be cheap and it won’t be easy.

Beyond the politics and rhetoric of “saving the planet,” a larger question is emerging.  How do we take something that is free and start charging for it?  This debate is really about putting a price on carbon emissions and ending the free ride of pollution.

Carbon Emancipation

This wouldn’t be the first time that the world has done something to take a “free” resource and associate a price with it.  In the United States, this happened when we ended slavery.  At one point in our country’s history, paying slaves for their labor was considered a radical idea.  However, in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and declared that “all persons held as slaves are, and henceforth shall be free.”

The decision to free slaves was a monumental step forward for human rights.  In addition, it changed the underlying economic dynamics.  The emancipation proclamation associated a price with something that used to be free.

Of course, this move did not come without resistance or conflict.  Opponents to freeing the slaves were even more confrontational then the current group of climate skeptics.  In fact, it led to a civil war.  Thankfully, the climate debate has more peaceful participants.

Economic Disruptions

Without question, freeing slaves caused an economic shockwave.  The inevitable financial burdens may have even led to the closure of some plantations.  However, the economic adjustment eventually normalized under a new model where all people were paid for their labor and the practice of slavery ended.

Can you imagine having to pay for your own pollution?  I know…it will be hard.  I’m sure it was also hard for the slave owners to clean their own houses and do their own laundry, at first.  However, ending slavery was the right thing to do.  Sure, it may have taken some getting used to for the slave owners and it will take some getting used to for us carbon emitters.

The good news is that over time, not only will we adapt to these changes, but we can expect them to create a fertile environment for innovation.  In the post slavery era, new incentives were created because the true cost of labor became properly allocated.  New products and technologies were invented that made us less dependent on back breaking manual labor.  Many of these inventions came in the form of agriculture automation and household tools, both of which made life more efficient and convenient.

To put it another way, if the marginal cost of labor is zero, then there is no incentive to be efficient or use it wisely.  Natural resources are no different.

Are Climate Skeptics Modern Day Slave Owners?

Nearly 150 years ago, slave owners believed that they could abuse human beings and cloaked themselves in a variety of arguments to justify their actions.  Some even misquoted the bible to support their racist views.  Other took a blind eye and said “That’s just the way it is.”  It could also be suggested that some found it difficult to acknowledge the fundamental inequities of slavery because they feared the financial consequences to their plantations and businesses.

Today, climate skeptics believe that we can continue to abuse our planet without regard to the consequences.  Not surprisingly, this view is particularly popular among those individuals and corporations that have the most to lose in a world where the true cost is allocated to carbon emissions.

In this regard, it’s important not to label climate skeptics as evil or ignorant.  Rather, we should acknowledge that climate change legislation will involve some short term sacrifice for everybody.  However, in the long run, the effects of cap and trade will be normalized in much the same way that our labor markets now function just fine without slavery.

Ethics and Ethos

In looking back, it’s clear that taking a stand for human liberty was the right thing to do.  We are proud of our history and the actions taken by our leaders nearly 150 year ago.  Hopefully we can say the same thing about today’s leaders when future generations look back at what we did in Copenhagen and successive climate summits.

Will they think we were barbaric in the way we treated our environment, in much the same way our modern society views the barbaric treatment of slaves?  How would you have reacted to a slave owner if they claimed that they could not “afford” to free the slaves and pay people a fair wage for their labor?

While the climate debate rages on, let’s consider not only the environmental conditions we leave for our future generations, but also the moral compass we leave as our legacy.  Freedom isn’t free.  Neither is carbon.  Ending free carbon emissions, like ending slavery is a legacy that we can all be proud of.

Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP is the IT practice leader at Haskell & White, LLP and serves on the board of directors of CleanTECH San Diego and the U.S. Green Building Council – San Diego chapter. Lee writes and speaks on the topics of carbon accounting, green building, IT audit compliance, enterprise security and wireless LAN technology. He is currently in Copenhagen attending the COP-15 conference. You can reach him at 858-350-4215 or lbarken@hwcpa.com.


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  • nickaster

    Definitely a controversial position. I think it's a bit dramatic because it's hard to compare a direct human atrocity to something as abstract as climate change. But still – if you extrapolated this out to the ignorance of environmental costs in general and how those costs are not built into our economic models, then you've got a decent analogy – ie, we're taking something for granted that really isn't “free”.

    • http://twitter.com/earth_warming Tom

      I think that invoking “slavery” is not a good idea. Too much of this rhetoric only serves to divide on the issue – much like using the term “Hitler Youth” for protestors in the first week of COP. I’m not at all sure this is a useful analogy.

      On the other hand – in regard to Nick’s comment – to whom is climate change an “abstract” issue? Not to the inhabitants of places like Tuvalu – and many other poor and vulnerable places now feeling climate change as a day-to-day reality. It is not “abstract” at all.

  • facebook-584444004

    I disagree with Nick that the perspective is dramatic — climate change IS a direct human atrocity — it's simply one that has more impact in the future than it does today. Further, its impacts will be felt most immediately and directly in the developing world. That may seem 'abstract' to someone sitting in their comfy home in San Francisco, but it isn't abstract at all to the citizens of the Maldives, for example – all of whom will eventually either have to become refugees or perish. That seems pretty much like a human atrocity to me. In this case it is far bigger and will affect many more people than slavery ever did.

  • MonkeyMuffins

    I don't know which planet Lee Barken lives on, but on my planet–Earth, in the Milky Way Galaxy–the rich countries abuse the poor countries, and the biosphere-in-general, and the uber-rich in the rich countries are increasingly eviscerating the “formerly middle class”.

    In fact, our “not-negotiable”, anomalous, unsustainable-by-definition way-of-life is literally impossible without abusing the poor and exploiting the biosphere (you can't have infinite growth on a finite planet and this Earth is finite; I'm sure Lee Barken's planet is miraculously infinite).

    As Elizabeth Kolbert has observed:

    “The cost that consumer society imposes on the planet’s fifteen or so million non-human species goes way beyond either meat or eggs. Bananas, bluejeans, soy lattes, the paper used to print this magazine, the computer screen you may be reading it on—death and destruction are embedded in them all. It is hard to think at all rigorously about our impact on other organisms without being sickened.”
    - Flesh of Your Flesh: Should You Eat Meat? (NewYorker.com, 11/9/2009)

    And just today, 12/17/2009, Dennis Kucinich stated the obvious about the not-so-United States:

    “The class warfare is over — we lost,”
    “I want to make that announcement today. Working people lost. The middle class lost.”
    “The separation between the finance economy and the real economy is real. This is not some fake idea. You can’t call that class warfare. That’s a fact.”
    - Kucinich: ‘Class war is over, working people lost’ (RawStory.com, 12/17/2009)

    Also, the “peaceful participants” on Lee Barken's planet sound positively delightful!

    On my planet, Earth, the rich participants are anything but peaceful:

    “Yesterday, a massive, peaceful protest of 100,000 people – the largest demonstration for climate justice in world history – was met with a heavy-handed response by the Danish police. Thousands of riot police swarmed the march route, blocked off streets surrounding large groups of protestors, and arrested almost 1,000 people. Arrestees were cuffed and forced to sit in rows for hours, as the temperatures dipped below freezing; numerous people urinated on themselves after being denied use of toilets.”
    - Crackdown in Copenhagen (ItsGettingHotInHere.org, 12/13/2009)

    Perhaps George Monbiot has said it best (about the people of Earth, not Lee Barken's planet):

    “Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits. The vicious battles we have seen so far between greens and climate change deniers, road safety campaigners and speed freaks, real grassroots groups and corporate-sponsored astroturfers are just the beginning. This war will become much uglier as people kick against the limits that decency demands.”
    - This is About Us (Monbiot.com, 12/14/2009)

    I'm glad Lee Barken's planet is peacefully evolving toward a hopeful future of change.

    Here on Earth, however, things are getting worse by the day with no hope of change in sight.

    Copenhagen is Nopenhagen.

  • SonjaEbron

    I'm personally disgusted. This analogy strikes me as hugely offensive to the memory and descendants of slaves. It is exactly the reason we can't get anywhere in Copenhagen. To equate GHG emitters to slaveowners, or to equate climate to slaves, requires a reformed slaveowner mentality. “I used to do bad things, but I'm all better now. No one should do those bad things ever again.” Meanwhile, the victims of those bad things continue to suffer in vain.

  • GGG

    they let Lee out of the group home to go to Copenhagen ?

  • Ben

    As both Cherokee and Black my world view is we continue to enslave creation even to this day- Migrants as “captive” workers we turn a blind eye to as we enjoy cheap meat and other goods, homes cooled to 70 degrees in Summer, but 75 in winter without regard to where the resources come from or human/environmental costs. The country of Denmark, the city of Ann Arbor, a few of the stars in this night, decided to “sacrifice” and more smartly consumed, conserve and constantly tax themselves to improve their energy use. In restricting themselves sensibly they found liberation and a more resilient economy and quality of life. Those who fear [whether subconscious or conscious] not having unlimited access to cheaper/free resources to feed their wants have far less life than they know while believing they have the best life possible. The climate change debate and difficulty with it presents a challenge to let go of our greed that dishonors and corrupts both the earth – we who value (worship) convenience over a more honest relationship to life.

  • davidoh

    This article advocates a contradiction in logic. It decries human slavery (rightly so) but insists we become enslaved to a theory about AGW. The only way an economy of any kind can maintain itself is through expansion. That which doesn't grow, dies. To achieve the lowering level of sustanance that is required to actually LESSEN carbon emissions would require that human use of resources be severely restricted leading to massive unemployment and a return to horse and buggy days (maybe even biblical days). This will never happen.

  • DW

    Lee Barken misses a critical point in his analogy – slavery has never ended on planet Earth, not even in the U.S., where it is illegal. Even immediately after “Emancipation”, slavery continued through sharecropping and use of prison labor when inmates were arrested on trumped-up charges and then forced to work for someone who would pay certain fees that were charged them for their incarceration. Typically it's not called slavery now – people use the term human trafficking more commonly. There are untold multitudes of people in the U.S. right now who are held as slaves and forced into the sex, agriculture, domestic servitude, and construction industries. If we follow the pattern of slavery in the carbon arena the outlook for the planet doesn't look good.

  • DW

    Lee Barken misses a critical point in his analogy – slavery has never ended on planet Earth, not even in the U.S., where it is illegal. Even immediately after “Emancipation”, slavery continued through sharecropping and use of prison labor when inmates were arrested on trumped-up charges and then forced to work for someone who would pay certain fees that were charged them for their incarceration. Typically it's not called slavery now – people use the term human trafficking more commonly. There are untold multitudes of people in the U.S. right now who are held as slaves and forced into the sex, agriculture, domestic servitude, and construction industries. If we follow the pattern of slavery in the carbon arena the outlook for the planet doesn't look good.