Alberta Politics
F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela in 1992 (Photo: World Economic Forum).

If F. W. de Klerk’s apartheid comparison to the fossil fuel economy is OK, why is David Suzuki’s slavery analogy an outrage?

Posted on June 17, 2018, 2:39 am
8 mins

A speech in Calgary last week by the last white president of South Africa in which F. W. de Klerk suggested the challenges faced by Alberta in the waning days of the petroleum industry may not be dissimilar from those facing his country in the last days of apartheid seems to have prompted barely a ripple among habitual defenders of the fossil fuel industry in Alberta’s oilpatch.

In one way, this is not so odd. After all, Mr. de Klerk was not suggesting the oil industry and the racist apartheid regime are analogous, merely that the rapid decline of any economic and political system no matter how unsustainable in the long run gives rise to the need for honesty and deep introspection to manage a successful transition.

F.W. de Klerk in 2012 (Photo: U.S. Department of State).

Perhaps he was planning to suggest such introspection and honesty is missing in Alberta’s oilpatch. I can’t tell you, because while Postmedia’s Calgary websites published a safe advancer story based on an interview in which Mr. de Klerk tipped his hand to what he planned to say, they didn’t bother to cover the actual speech to the Petroleum Club.   

Needless to say, this is not exactly best journalistic practice. But it’s what we have to work with, and the lack of hostile public reaction to Mr. de Klerk’s scene-setting the day before his speech is illuminating.

This is because the apparent lack of outrage or even raised eyebrows about Mr. de Klerk’s comparison with apartheid begs this interesting question: If such an analogy by a former South African president is easy to understand and non-controversial, why does a very similar analogy by a well-known environmentalist prompt rabid fury by Alberta’s oilpatch defenders and their political enablers?

I speak, of course, of the repeated, often nearly hysterical attacks on the University of Alberta and honorary degree recipient David Suzuki by Opposition Leader Jason Kenney and his chorus of supporters, in which they screech about how Dr. Suzuki has compared the activity of the oil industry to the slave trade in the 19th Century United States and express outrage such a suggestion could be made.

In a typical example condemning the Edmonton university for granting the honorary degree, Mr. Kenney offhandedly described Dr. Suzuki as “a man who says that Alberta’s oilsands are the moral equivalent of slavery.”

David Suzuki (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

This is not a fair description of Dr. Suzuki’s argument, of course, but then accuracy in polemics is not Mr. Kenney’s long suit. He goes on in the video to falsely imply the university will try to make up any shortfall in donations as a result of the honorary degree from public funds, co-ordinating his talking points with a similar misleading claim made by an agitator for the Astro-Turf Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Dr. Suzuki, a respected environmentalist and scientist who received the honour from the U of A on June 7, has in the past made essentially the same argument as the former South African president.

That is, that further fossil fuel development in a warming world is economically unsustainable and claims we must stick with fossil fuels or risk economic collapse are false. This, he has argued, is no different from the claims made by slave owners in the American South in the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War. The reality, now as then, is that positive change is possible and Alberta is going to face change whether it likes it or not.

Responding to an attack on him by then Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall in 2015, what Dr. Suzuki actually said was that Mr. Wall’s argument “sounds very much to me like southern states argued in the 19th century, that to eliminate slavery would destroy their economy.”

He asked: “Who would say today that the economy should have come before slavery?”

Andrew Nikiforuk (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Later, in an email to MacLean’s Magazine, Dr. Suzuki added to his remarks, saying, “Southern states argued that abolishing slavery would destroy their economy and that is like the fossil-fuel industry arguing against action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (saying it would) destroy the economy. … People caught in working for the fossil-fuel industry will have to make a transition. They are not the target of my ire.”

So while Mr. de Klerk’s analogy is apparently non-controversial and easy for the oilpatch to understand, when Dr. Suzuki says essentially the same thing it’s the cause of spittle-flecked outrage. It behooves us to think about why this might be.

Given Dr. Suzuki’s well-known views about oilsands development, I suppose a certain amount of casual misrepresentation of his arguments is inevitable, given the state of public discourse in Canada nowadays.

I have to say I find the comparisons used by Mr. de Klerk in last week’s speech, by Dr. Suzuki in MacLean’s, and the 2012 book by Alberta journalist Andrew Nikiforuk that popularized the slavery argument are a little strained, and not particularly helpful given the kind of reaction they risk prompting – at least if the speaker lacks the correct political and colonial credentials.

But if there is a useful lesson from this it is to distrust social media demagogues who make claims about their opponents without providing footnotes or links.

The F. W. in de Klerk stands for Frederik Willem, in case you wondered. Whether or not he thought apartheid was immoral, Mr. de Klerk had recognized by the early 1990s that the world was changing and, one way or another, apartheid was not sustainable. He chose the wiser path, for which he shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, who became the country’s first black head of state in 1994 after its first democratic election.

13 Comments to: If F. W. de Klerk’s apartheid comparison to the fossil fuel economy is OK, why is David Suzuki’s slavery analogy an outrage?

  1. Bob Raynard

    June 17th, 2018

    I agree that the analogy is not helpful, given the misinformed reaction it will inevitably produce. People hear ‘oil industry is like slavery’ and form their reaction before even hearing the rest of the argument.

    I do think, however, that the analogy, as intended, is reasonably accurate. In both cases people’s livelihoods were/will be significantly changed by a change in society’s outlook, as opposed to a change which has resulted from technological advancements.

    We don’t seem to despair the fate of people who lose their livelihoods as a result of technological advances. I am thinking of blacksmiths when cars came onto the scene, or more recently travel agents who have become redundant as a result of the internet. Likewise if/when self driving cars come onto the scene, collisions are supposed to decrease significantly, but we don’t seem too worried about the effect that will have on body shops.

    Social changes that have occurred in the recent past are smoking cessation and impaired driving enforcement. There can be no doubt that the decline in smoking has been devastating to tobacco farmers and cigarette manufacturers. We don’t really think about them very much out here, but I assume those in the industry felt just as attacked as our oil and gas workers do now. Likewise the hospitality industry must have taken a hit when people quit staggering out of bars to drive home.

    There, I just introduced 2 other analogies, and I am sure the oil industry apologists won’t appreciate being compared to tobacco farmers or people who rely on drunk drivers to make a living either.

    In all of the mentioned social cases, good, hard working people depend on an industry that has fallen out of society’s favour, for good reason. Maintaining people’s livelihoods was not enough reason to retain slavery, continue smoking, or ignore impaired driving. Likewise it is not enough reason to let the climate change.

    • Lars

      June 17th, 2018

      In the case of the tobacco industry, at least, the years-long backing and filling and suppression of scientific research on the effects of their product are very similar to what we have seen with the oil industry and climate change over the last decade and a half, or more. Indeed, the oil industry adopted the tactics of the tobacco industry and many of the architects of the tobacco strategy were hired to this end.

  2. Geoffrey Pounder

    June 17th, 2018

    You can always count on “Alberta’s oilpatch defenders” to misrepresent Suzuki’s arguments. Here’s another one:
    “Suzuki advocated jailing those who didn’t agree with his climate viewpoint.”

    Oilpatch defenders refer to the following 2016 quotation:
    “I really believe that people like the former prime minister of Canada should be thrown in jail for wilful blindness.”
    Referring to Harper and then-Alberta premier Ed Stelmach in 2008, Suzuki said, “It is an intergenerational crime that in the face of the work of scientists over the last 20 years, they keep dithering as they are.”

    Of course, Suzuki was talking about holding govts and politicians accountable for failing to protect the public interest. He did not (as far as I know) propose jailing legions of climate of climate change deniers. (Lack of space?)
    The basis of Suzuki’s rhetoric is not freedom of speech or thought, but the long-standing failure of leaders like Harper (and now Trudeau) to take requisite action on climate and wilful obstructionism on the global stage. Gross irresponsibility and denialism verging on criminal negligence.

    Now it is a good question: Inasmuch as climate change deniers are impeding action to reduce climate change impacts and costs, should they be held liable for those costs?
    Unfortunately, future generations have no way to hold the present generation accountable.

    In a parallel vein, scientists for Shell and Exxon warned about global warming due to fossil fuel combustion decades ago. The companies acted upon this information when planning and designing at-risk infrastructure, while downplaying the dangers and deceiving the public in the decades that followed.
    After decades of funding denial campaigns, Exxon now finds itself in court, just like tobacco companies who denied the link to cancer.
    The issue is fraud and public endangerment, not free speech.

  3. Ken Larsen

    June 17th, 2018

    The “Energy of Slaves” is based on an analogy which actually emphasises the importance of the fossil fuel sector – but hey, the UCP leader was part of an administration that destroyed the research libraries in every Federal Agricultural Research station in Canada so it is no surprise he may not have read the book.

    Some ten years ago almost 80% of Alberta’s electricity came from coal. Now that share is down to around 40% which is an almost revolutionary change in a very short time. The lowest tender for wind electric in the world came into Alberta a few months ago – so change is happening and the world is not about to end anytime soon.

    Certainly it is possible to maintain our current level of comfort with lower fossil fuel use, but not if we keep our collective heads in the sand as the UCP and many others wish. Speaking of heads in the sand, can anyone explain to me how expanding the Anthony Hendy and Calgary ring road freeways are moving us away from fossil fuel dependence? How many street-car lines could those have built?

    PS: I had a lovely chat with Dr. Suzuki at the Chancellor’s reception the evening before he was awarded his honorary degree. I can report there were no horns on his head and I never detected even a whiff of sulphur.

    • Farmer Brian

      June 18th, 2018

      Ken it is monday June 18, 1:10 pm. I took a quick look at the AESO electricity supply and demand report. At that moment we were consuming 9331 MW of electricity. 11 MW were coming from wind or .1%, natural gas and coal combined were producing 8588 MW of electricity or 92% of demand. While we have reduced our production of electricity from coal, it has been replaced by natural gas, still a much maligned fossil fuel. Also remember we have 1440 MW of wind capacity only producing 11 MW, less than 1% of capacity. If wind is such a wonderful cheap and dependable source of electricity why the almost non existent production? Maybe there wasn’t any wind lol. My personal opinion is that if we could create an affordable way to scrub the C02 out of the exhaust from the natural gas or coal and create an usable and sellable product and market this technology to the world Canada and the world would be much farther ahead. I realize carbon sequestration exists but up to this point it has not been very affordable or practical. Enjoy your day

      • Ken Larsen

        June 20th, 2018

        Good morning Brian: “Total Net Generation” is the number you need to look at. For those interested, the live link is here:

        Coal is now consistently around 40% which is truly revolutionary when you understand how far and fast things have changed in the last dozen years or so years. Natural gas is pretty much the balance depending on time of day. But it is a little more complex than that. Alberta uses a bid type system to allow access to the grid. So the gas turbines, many of which are effectively using waste heat from other gas burning processes (many of the “simple cycle” and all the “cogeneration” facilities) can under bid wind etc because their fuel is essentially free as are the fuel sources in the “other” category, like bio-mass from forestry operations. Add in the wind from the Montana tie line and the hydro imported from BC and local wind projects cannot always under-bid the other sources.

        At two hundred plus feet at the top of a wind tower, the wind is always blowing so the potential is always there and newer turbines, like the ones who just successfully bid to bring power in at just over 4 cents will become bigger contributors to the grid. Don’t get me started on how the non-coal generators have to help carry the lard of a stupidly over-built grid system (Thanks PCs!).

        BTW, there is nothing wrong with natural gas as a bridging fuel. NG is much maligned because of fracking. However, before you invest in scrubbing tech to make products from coal and NG exhaust, you might want to consider the laws of physics which limit the efficiency of heat engines.

  4. Sam Gunsch

    June 17th, 2018

    Slavery references or the divestment arguments alarm the industry and their cheerleaders because they know that moral or ethical arguments have been shown to trump all the economic/pragmatic/rational defences of sticking with fossil fuels. And obviously, it’s why they invented the ‘ethical oil’ framing.

    Some useful writing on this:

    EXCERPT: Winston writes:

    So what are we “abolishing”? Climate abolitionists are not fighting to eliminate growth. Eradicating slavery did not rid the world of cotton or tobacco, and moving away from carbon will not mean abandoning human and economic development — in fact, it will help ensure it. What we want to abolish is our outmoded, broken economic and energy systems that threaten our survival, in part because they put no value on human and ecosystem inputs and impacts. We’re seeking a new way of powering our world that will save vast sums of money (variable costs of near zero), avoid the significant health impacts of burning dirty fossil fuels, and conserve our planet’s ability to support not only our entire $70tn economy, but our very existence.

  5. Sam Gunsch

    June 17th, 2018

    Also, David Robert’s explanation of the USA RW reaction to the Pope’s critique on climate, and divestment is relevant to understanding the intensity of the reaction to Suzuki.

    EXCERPT: ‘as Heartland clearly recognizes, the Pope’s statement carries unique significance for the simple reason that he has unquestioned moral authority for millions of people. He threatens to situate the fight against climate change as a deeply moral issue, a matter of God’s work on earth. Once it is so situated, it will slowly and inexorably drag culture and politics along in its wake.

    The right, which is entirely comfortable deploying moral arguments, understands this better than the mainstream, center-left environmental establishment. Large swaths of the center-left establishment (especially among the foundations that fund things) are besotted with dreams of technocracy and bipartisan civility — so much so that in 2009 Matt Yglesias pleaded with greens to “put the plodding moralism back in.”

    Especially among young greens, that technocratic attitude is on the wane, especially in the wake of the 2010 cap-and-trade defeat, a decisive failure for the top-down, technocratic approach. Nowadays, activists are trying to put the plodding moralism back in, particularly through the fossil fuel divestment movement, which calls on institutions to cease all investments in the fossil fuel sector.

    Nobody thinks the divestment movement can hurt fossil fuel companies in any direct financial way, but that’s not what it seeks to do. Rather, it seeks to put mainstream institutions on record defining climate mitigation as a moral imperative, to create social consensus that inaction is not neutral — it is immoral.
    Public sentiment on climate is shallow — a moral campaign tries to change that’

  6. Sam Gunsch

    June 17th, 2018

    Chris Hayes agrees that the slavery and fossil fuels analogies are strained with respect to morality. But comparing the scale of the political change required to shift our political economy, the USA abolition campaign and war to end slavery is quite apt.

    ‘Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth.’

    ‘The New Abolitionism’

    EXCERPT: It is almost always foolish to compare a modern political issue to slavery, because there’s nothing in American history that is slavery’s proper analogue. So before anyone misunderstands my point, let me be clear and state the obvious: there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices. Humans are humans; molecules are molecules.

    The comparison I’m making is a comparison between the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel.

    More acutely, when you consider the math that McKibben, the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) all lay out, you must confront the fact that the climate justice movement is demanding that an existing set of political and economic interests be forced to say goodbye to trillions of dollars of wealth. It is impossible to point to any precedent other than abolition.

    The connection between slavery and fossil fuels is more than metaphorical.

  7. Sam Gunsch

    June 17th, 2018

    The key point Hayes is making is about the equivalency in the ‘radical’ political proposals of abolitionists in their time and climate action leaders, like Suzuki, in our time. It remains radical politics in AB to call for moving off of fossil fuels, just like it was for abolitionists in their time to call for ending slavery. Hence, the industry knows that it needs to demonize the highest profile climate action leaders like Suzuki, because they know most Canadians don’t see Suzuki as a radical per se. So any angle possible to discredit him is worth doing for their purposes.

    Hayes… EXCERPT: ‘Let me pause here once again to be clear about what the point of this extended historical comparison is and is not. Comparisons to slavery are generally considered rhetorically out of bounds, and for good reason. We are walking on treacherous terrain. The point here is not to associate modern fossil fuel companies with the moral bankruptcy of the slaveholders of yore, or the politicians who defended slavery with those who defend fossil fuels today.

    In fact, the parallel I want to highlight is between the opponents of slavery and the opponents of fossil fuels. Because the abolitionists were ultimately successful, it’s all too easy to lose sight of just how radical their demand was at the time: that some of the wealthiest people in the country would have to give up their wealth.

    That liquidation of private wealth is the only precedent for what today’s climate justice movement is rightly demanding: that trillions of dollars of fossil fuel stay in the ground. It is an audacious demand, and those making it should be clear-eyed about just what they’re asking. ‘

    • Sam Gunsch

      June 18th, 2018

      Climate change(global warming) is a slow-motion catastrophe for us and our descendants.
      Personal behaviors of any commentator are irrelevant to the physics and chemistry and impacts of de-stabilizing our climate.

      This is the full explanation:

      Appeal to hypocrisy

      Appeal to hypocrisy (also known as Tu quoque, Latin for, ‘you also’) is an informal logical fallacy that tries to discredit the validity of the opponent’s argument by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with its conclusion(s).

      The Appeal to Hypocrisy fallacy follows the pattern:

      Person A makes claim X.
      Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
      Conclusion: Therefore X is false.

      An example would be

      Peter: ‘Based on the arguments I have presented, it is evident that it is morally wrong to use animals for food or clothing.’

      Bill: ‘But you are wearing a leather jacket and you have a roast beef sandwich in your hand! How can you say that using animals for food and clothing is wrong?’

      This argument is a fallacy because the moral character or past actions of the opponent are generally irrelevant to the validity of the argument. It is often used as a red herring tactic and is a special case of the ad hominem fallacy, which is a category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of facts about the person presenting or supporting the claim or argument.

  8. David

    June 18th, 2018

    Why no outrage? First, I can imagine most Albertans saying “FW who”? He is not a well known Canadian, he is just another of the fly in fly out commentators on the oil sands. He doesn’t even have a record or a concert that some might boycott. I don’t know if he even bothered to go to Fort McMurray or just got as far as Calgary. Second, he was not even getting an honorary degree from a public institution, but speaking to a private club. Third, I don’t think he makes any claims of scientific rigor in his argument.

    Many have compared our treatment of aboriginal people to apartheid over the years and there is some merit to those comments. Of course a key difference being it is much easier to treat a minority badly than a majority – that is the unsustainable part. However, it would be a stretch to argue the oil sands contributes to our apartheid. Some aboriginal groups have benefited from oil sands development, some have not.

    I also think it is a weak argument to say the oil sands is unsustainable. It was and is being developed because of continuing demand for oil. This demand still exists. One thing preventing more development now is the somewhat successful effort to stop pipeline development and expansion. Therefore, the demand will be met from other sources – maybe Saudi Arabia, maybe even Venezuelan heavy oil, when that country gets its act together. Will all the pipeline protests reduce CO2 emissions much if any? – probably not.


Leave a Reply

  • (not be published)