When Burning is No Longer Moral: A Call For Fossil Fuel Abolition


(Image source: Here)

Science has provided more than enough evidence to show that burning fossil fuels is an increasingly dangerous activity. Recent reports reveal that we are 565 gigatons of fossil fuel carbon away from crossing the dangerous climate tipping point of 2 degrees warming. Burning all current, proven, fossil fuels would result in dramatically more carbon entering the atmosphere. Five times the number needed to keep the very worst climate impacts in check: 2,795 gigatons.

But the oil, gas and coal companies keep seeking ways to expand that, already dangerously over-sized, base of fossil fuels resources. They tap expensive and dirty energy like the tar sands. They break the ground via fracking to bring more high-carbon oil and gas to the surface. They attempt to make economical the exploitation of billions of tons of methane hydrates. Pushing endlessly to exploit more, more, more.

As this mad effort to continue burning fossil fuels indefinitely into the future expands, a political war is waged to suppress any alternative energy source. Republican political lackeys to the oil, gas, and coal giants, at every turn, attempt to limit, reduce, or deny the development of non-carbon or low carbon energy. They fight to keep companies from paying the costs for externalizing the damage caused by fossil fuel extraction and the resulting carbon emission. They fight any limit to carbon exploitation — be it a carbon tax or a cap and trade policy.

Perhaps worst of all, is the ongoing effort by oil, gas and coal companies to deny that carbon emission causes any harm whatsoever. Efforts that have included attacks on scientists who have raised the warning of an increasingly dangerous climate change. The mad logic behind these attacks is simple. The fossil fuel companies obviously care nothing for humanity’s future. Instead, they care only for their immediate profits.

An Insane, Amoral Path Toward Harm

Cigarettes and tobacco killed my grandfather. Will fossil fuel burning and resulting climate change kill my grandchildren?

Exploiting all current fossil fuel reserves is enough to raise world temperatures 6 degrees Celsius or more by the end of this century. Amplifying feedbacks from the environment will push that temperature increase to 12 degrees Celsius by 2300. There is a high likelihood that a 6 degree Celsius temperature increase will do in my grandchildren. And 12 degrees Celsius removes the possibility of a habitable world.

2,795 gigatons of carbon locked in current reserves, while enough to push Earth out of the habitable zone, isn’t all the potential carbon locked in unconventional reserves of fossil fuel around the world. In fact, as much as 10,000 gigatons of carbon reside in unproven, but possible reserves. Even worse, at the current rate of burning we pass the ‘safe’ 565 gigaton threshold sometime around 2028. Unfortunately, carbon emissions aren’t level. They are increasing.

All these factors — the huge and increasing rate of burning, the amount of carbon currently on the books of the world’s fossil companies, the comparatively small amount we can still burn to maintain reasonable hope for a safe climate, and the massive volume of potential fuels that could be exploited — represent a terrible crisis. Yet every policy, every media effort, every campaign by the fossil fuel giants pushes us ever more rapidly into trouble.

They have us on an unconscionable, amoral path toward certain and ever-increasing harm.

Exploitation, Slavery, And Profit-driven Monstrosities

A blogger recently described a conversation he had with an oil executive. In this conversation, the oil executive claimed that if we didn’t have oil we would instead have slavery.

It’s worth taking a few moments to let this concept sink in. It’s also worth considering what it reveals about the person from which it came.

Slavery is, perhaps, the greatest injustice humankind has ever inflicted upon itself. It takes many forms from serfdom to outright trading of human beings for profit. Many of the most advanced civilizations have existed and boasted strong economies without the exploitation of human beings as slaves. And the notion that slavery doesn’t exist today because of oil, gas and coal is equally asinine. Human rights groups have increasingly warned of a growing trade in human beings since the 1990s. And we have also witnessed a ‘soft’ form of slavery in the exploitation of very low wage workers forced to live in shanty towns by mega-corporations around the globe.

Slavery isn’t something that strengthens economies. Conversely, it weakens them. In the 1860s US, the North boasted a highly developed economic system primarily devoid of slave labor. Meanwhile, the south was mostly a poorly developed slave-labor based agrarian economy designed to support the affluence of a tiny number of land-owner elite. The North won the war, largely due to its highly developed economy. The south lost, not because of battlefield failures, but because of an inability to match the North’s superior logistics, innovation, and industry. And though northern industry may have been fueled, in part, by coal, current forms of alternative energy are far more powerful and efficient than US coal and wood burning in the 1860s.

The notion that slavery would be necessary in the absence of oil, gas, and coal is one that comes from a mind that elevates the concept of exploitation and denies the notion of sustainability. In both slavery and fossil fuel use exploitation is a critical component. Extracting fossil fuels exploits the Earth’s resources. Burning fossil fuel externalizes damage by exploiting the Earth’s atmosphere and, in doing so, exploits the prospects of future generations. And slavery is a simple and extreme form of exploiting human beings. But exploitation isn’t necessary for prosperity or economic development. Instead, it can often ruin both.

What exploitation does do very well is maximize profits while relying less on effort or innovation. And this is where the hard truth comes in. Exploitation all too often serves to fuel the advancement and acquisition requirements of greedy, narcissistic individuals who lack the capacity to see beyond the confines their own tiny orbits or to gain much sense of the harm they may be causing.

Finally, oil, gas, and coal executives too often pretend that the energy sources they supply are the only viable forms available. In 2013, a time of expanding access to renewable forms of energy, this notion is as wretched and antiquated as the 19th century assertion that slavery was necessary for American prosperity.

Alternatives, Equality Necessary For Human Advancement

If the world can run on 100 dollar per barrel oil, then the world can certainly run on far less expensive sources of wind, solar and biofuels. Contrary to what some doomers say, these new sources could very well result in greater economic development and prosperity than the fossil sources of energy that tend to cause so much costly external harm. Further, the diffuse nature of these energy sources leads to more equal economic structures. Profits concentrate less and tend to be more spread out. In such cases, history shows that prosperity tends to spring up in a virtuous self-sustaining cycle.

This truth has already born out in many of the most advanced corporations and economies around the globe. Apple runs on 75% renewable energy. Ironically, Apple also often competes with oil companies for highest profits. But Apple’s methods of profit generation — innovation and diligence — contrasts with the oil company model of exploitation and political manipulation. One company represents a promising future, the others a catastrophe. Germany powers itself on 25% renewable energy. Denmark has reached over 30%. California, the largest economy in the United States, generates 33% of its electricity from renewables. Even China seems to understand the stakes. After years of suffering from water scarcity due to coal pollution, in 2012 China produced more new energy capacity from wind than it did from fossil fuels.

This ongoing and growing trend is not slavery, it is an opportunity for liberation.

The Time For Abolition is Now

With renewable energy achieving economic viability at the same time fossil fuels threaten to wreck the climate, now is the time for a strong movement to abolish the use of fossil fuels and to hasten transition to sustainable energy. The small carbon budget remaining to us is cause for urgency and the continued expansion of dangerous fossil fuel use is reason enough to act now.

In the 18th and 19th centuries brave abolitionists stood against those still supporting slavery. They paved the way to freedom and dignity for millions and they set in place the conditions for which a nation would be liberated from its own terrible legacy. In this day, we need a new form of abolitionist. One brave enough to stand against the might of the fossil fuel giants and to fight for a future in which the hope of a livable world remains. A world that husbands the prosperity of future generations rather than sacrificing them on the alter of fossil fuel company profits.

The time for abolition of these dirty, dangerous and depleting fuels is now.



Leave a comment


  1. Rob, this is a remarkably observant and prescient post!


    • In no way to detract from Chris Hayes’ work, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I’m glad to see that others are lifting their voices to what I see is a much needed cause.


  1. Renewable Energy and The Fierce Urgency of Now: A Second Call For Fossil Fuel Abolition | robertscribbler

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