Politics & Policy

Fossil Fuels and Morality

If you care about human flourishing, fossil fuels are demonstrably good.

“A few more decades of ungoverned fossil-fuel use and we burn up, to put it bluntly.”

  — Bill McKibben, leading environmental activist, 1989

I came across this quote, along with many others of comparable value, while reading Alex Epstein’s just-published book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. But Epstein’s book is much more than a fantastic collection of such delightfully mad environmentalist pronouncements — although that part alone is worth the purchase price. Rather, what Epstein presents is a powerful, systematic, and relentlessly logical philosophical case for the moral value of the fossil-fuel industry, and the fundamentally immoral basis of the movement that is seeking to demonize and destroy it.

In short, the book is unique, and utterly terrific.

Epstein is a clear-minded philosopher, so he begins by stating the ethical standard of his case. “This book is about morality, about right and wrong. To me, the question of what to do about fossil fuels and any other moral issue comes down to: What will promote human life? What will promote human flourishing — realizing the full potential of life? Colloquially, how do we maximize the years in our life and the life in our years?” He then proceeds rapidly through a great number of well-known data, demonstrating the powerful historical link between increased fossil-fuel use and rising living standards, increased life expectancy, decreased infant and child mortality, and so forth, as well as some surprising material showing drastic drops in climate-related misfortunes, including deaths from droughts and storms. He has a nice section dealing with the global-warming debate itself, where he cleanly separates the truthful introduction to the climate alarmists’ argument — that enriching the atmospheric CO2 content will cause the trapping of some infrared emissions from the Earth’s surface in the troposphere — from its completely unsupported and demonstrably false conclusion that this phenomenon will generate self-accelerating feedbacks with catastrophic consequences.

After showing how small are the warming effects of carbon dioxide atmospheric enrichment, Epstein then reports on its powerful beneficial impact for the biosphere. This considerable “fertilizer effect” is almost never mentioned by the alarmists, as it does not benefit their case, so we should be very grateful that Epstein takes the trouble to present the real “inconvenient truth.” To give a flavor of this argument, here is a summary of some of the data he reports from experiments with growing crops in the 700 ppm CO2 atmosphere that could result if humanity continues to increase its fossil-fuel use for another two centuries (the atmosphere today has 400 ppm of CO2, up from 300 ppm in 1900).

As Epstein comments: “What’s most striking is that these extremely positive plant effects of CO2 are scientifically uncontroversial yet practically never mentioned, even by the climate science community. This is a dereliction of duty. It is our responsibility to look at the big picture, all positives and negatives, without prejudice. If they think the plant positives are outweighed, they can give their reasons. But to ignore the fertilizer effect and to fail to include it when discussing the impact of CO2 is dishonest. It is meant to advance an agenda by not muddying it with ‘inconvenient’ facts.”These numbers come from reproducible lab experiments, but such results are not confined to the lab. In fact, we have photos taken from orbit since 1958, and they show a 15 percent increase in the rate of growth of wild plants on Earth since that time.

Epstein goes on to discuss the even more demonstrable climatic impact of fossil-fuel use, which he calls the “energy effect.” Here he makes a very important point regarding the desirability of any particular climate: “The Holocene [the current climatic age] is an abstraction; it is not a ‘climate’ anyone lived in; it is a summary of a climate system that contains an incredible variety of climates that individuals lived in. And, in practice, we can live in pretty much any of them if we are industrialized and pretty much none of them if we aren’t. The open secret of our relationship to climate is how good we are at living in different climates thanks to technology. . . . There is no climate that man is ideally adapted to, in the sense that it will guarantee him a decent quality of life. Nature does not want us to have a life expectancy of seventy-five or an infant mortality below 1 percent. Nature, the sum of all things on Earth, doesn’t care about human beings one way or another and attacks us with bacteria-filled water, excessive heat, lack of rainfall, too much rainfall, powerful storms, decay, disease carrying insects and other animals, and a large assortment of predators. . . . To put it bluntly, in our ‘natural climate,’ absent technology, human beings are as sick as dogs and drop like flies. . . . Climate livability is not just a matter of the state of the global climate system, but also of the technology (or lack thereof) that we have available to deal with any given climate.”

And “having that technology is useless unless we have the energy to run it,” Epstein adds. This last point is no mere philosophical abstraction, as any poor pensioner struggling to stay warm this winter — in the face of the gas and electricity prices artificially rigged up (to quadruple American levels) by the European Union’s pampered elites for the purpose of reducing carbon consumption by the masses — will certainly understand.

Epstein continues: “We know that the way to make climate livable is not to try to refrain from affecting it but to use cheap energy to technologically master it. Thus if the underdeveloped world is having trouble dealing with climate, it is not because of our 0.01 percent change in the atmosphere, it’s because they haven’t followed the examples of China, India, and others who have increased fossil fuel use by hundreds of percent. And the goal should be to help them do so — especially because the benefits of fossil fuels go far beyond climate: cheap, plentiful, reliable energy gives human beings the power to improve every aspect of life, including productivity, food, clothing, and shelter. You can’t be a humanitarian and condemn the energy humanity needs. . . . To oppose fossil fuels is ultimately to oppose the underdeveloped world.”

Epstein then discusses the extraordinary improvements in the environment — notably in air and water quality — made possible by fossil fuels. “We don’t take a safe environment and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous environment and make it far safer,” he summarizes. He then takes up the fracking controversy, laying bare not only the specific fallacies in the anti-fracking propaganda movie Gasland but the systematic methods of lying employed — a discourse that makes this section of the book a real treat. These include the abuse–use fallacy, the false-attribution fallacy, the no-threshold fallacy, and the “artificial is evil” fallacy.

The last item on this list returns Epstein to his central theme, which is the contrast between humanistic and antihumanistic ethics. “It is perverse to be against the man-made as bad per se. To be against the man-made as such is to have a bias against the mind-made, which is to be against the human mind, whose very purpose is to figure out how to transform our environment to meet our needs.” He continues: “Fossil fuel development is the greatest benefactor our environment has ever known. This needs to be mentioned in our environmental discussions, and so-called environmental groups need to be taken to task for omitting it. The only way fossil fuels are a net minus for ‘the environment’ is if by ‘the environment’ you mean our surroundings not from our perspective, but from a nonhuman perspective. From the perspective of organisms . . . we need to kill or use to survive, such as the parasite, the malarial mosquito, the dangerous animal, or the trees we need to clear to build a road, we are a negative for the environment. . . . The general opposition to development as anti-environment reflects a view that equates environment with wilderness, . . . i.e. a nonhuman view of environment, which leads to an environment that is harmful to human beings because it does not sufficiently protect against natural threats or produce the resources necessary to overcome natural poverty.”

Epstein deals in a profound manner with the issue of “sustainability,” explaining the fundamental concept that “resources” do not exist in and of themselves but are the result of human technological innovation. “Resources are not taken from nature, but created from nature,” he says. “What applies to the raw materials of coal, oil, and gas, also applies to every raw material in nature. They are all potential resources, with unlimited potential to be rendered valuable by the human minds. . . . There is no inherent limit to energy resources — we just need human ingenuity to be free to discover ways to turn unusable energy into usable energy. This opens up a thrilling possibility: the endless potential for improving life through ever growing energy resources, helping create ever growing resources of every kind. This is the principle that explains the strong correlation between fossil fuel use and pretty much anything good: human ingenuity transforming potential resources into actual resources — including the most fundamental resource, energy.

“Growth is not unsustainable. With freedom, including the freedom to produce energy, it is practically inevitable.”

In this light, what are the ethical implications of our decision to use, or forbear to use, energy? Epstein poses this question by focusing on its implications for a child of today. “What choices will we make that define the world that he lives in? Will it be a world with more opportunities and fewer hardships or more hardships and fewer opportunities? Will it be a world of progress — a world where he has more exciting career options, less chance of getting sick, more financial security, less chance of going to war, more opportunities to see the world, less suffering, and a cleaner, safer environment? Or will it be a world gone backward, where some or all of these factors get worse? . . . Think about your generation. From the perspective of previous generations, you are the future generation. . . . What actions of theirs — and generations before them — benefited us most?

“If we look at history, an incredibly disproportionate percentage of valuable ideas have come in the last several centuries, coinciding with fossil-fuel civilization. Why? Because such productive civilization buys us time to think and discover, and then use that knowledge to become more productive, and buy more time to think and discover. We should be grateful to past generations for producing and consuming fossil fuels, rather than restricting them and trying to subsist on something inferior. . . . The more resources that have been created in the past, the more prosperous societies have been, the more resources they leave for us to start with.”

In fact, we have effectively unlimited amounts of matter at our disposal, says Epstein. Time is what we need most: “If we want to talk about a resource, if human life is our standard, then the most important resource we should be focused on is our time. Using fossil fuels buys us time. It buys us more life. It buys us more opportunities. It buys us more resources. Fossil fuels are an amazing tool with which to create this ultimate form of wealth, this supreme resource: time to use our minds and our bodies to enjoy our lives as much as possible.

“Time, and the quality of the life we can live in that time, is already less than it should be, and threatened to become far, far less than it should be, because even though using fossil fuels is moral, our society does not know it. The voices guiding our society have convinced many of us that the energy of life is immoral and are calling for restrictions that, from the evidence we have, would be a nightmare.”

This brings Epstein to his concluding chapter, which involves a discussion of environmentalist mental pathology. “As you read this, there is a real, live, committed movement against fossil fuels that truly wants to deprive us of the energy of life. That movement is named the Green movement. . . . In place after place, the energy of life is portrayed as deadly, its producers immoral. Why? . . . Here’s my answer: The reason we come to oppose fossil fuels and not see their virtues is not primarily because of a lack of factual knowledge, but because of the presence of irrational moral prejudice in our leaders and, to a degree, in our entire culture. . . . The prejudice, which is held consistently by our environmental thought leaders and inconsistently by the culture at large, is the idea that nonimpact on nature is the standard of value.”

Thus Epstein returns the policy battle to one between two conflicting sets of philosophical premises. “The environmental thought leaders’ opposition to fossil fuels is not a mistaken attempt at pursuing human life as their standard of value. They are too smart and knowledgeable to make such a mistake. Their opposition is a consistent attempt at pursuing their actual standard of value: a pristine environment, unaltered nature. Energy is our most powerful means of transforming our environment to meet our needs. If unaltered, untransformed environment is our standard of value, then nothing could be worse than cheap, plentiful, reliable energy.”

Epstein provides substantial material to back up this insight into the environmentalist mind, but I’m not sure I agree entirely with his way of presenting it. His discussion is a bit too abstract and otherworldly, leaving out material considerations that clearly play a role in the debate. For example, the anti-fracking movement in Europe is currently being vigorously supported with funds, organization, open propaganda, and secret operations by the Kremlin. Is this happening because Vladimir Putin has chosen a flawed philosophical standard of value, or because he wants to keep the Europeans dependent on Russian natural gas so he can loot and manipulate them at will? The United States was once the world’s leading fuel producer, and could be again, if our political class were more supportive. Such a development would be of enormous benefit, not only for Americans but for nearly the entire civilized world, which would receive cheap, reliable energy supplies in consequence. Yet there would certainly be losers among those abroad whose wealth and power depends on maintaining artificial global energy scarcity. Every new well fracked, and every coal-fired or nuclear power plant that is allowed to remain open in this country, is a direct threat to their vital interests. Currently, OPEC money is flooding into our political system via hundreds of think tanks, university departments, lobbyists, PR firms, and media organizations. Is it too much to imagine that such lucre might be helping to influence the selection of thoughts embraced for promotion by our “thought leaders”?

Epstein is much too polite to bring such sordid considerations into his discourse, and perhaps, after all, pulling this particular punch could ultimately add to the strength of the book. For while the “thought leaders” may allow material rewards to guide them in their choice of thoughts, the question remains as to why the populace at large should be vulnerable to the mental poison dispensed from such quarters. In order to be misled by demagogues seeking to demonize one of its principal benefactors, a body politic must have a suitable prejudice available for exploitation. In this respect, Epstein may well have hit the nail right on its head. The key question, after all, is not why some malefactors might seek to create fuel scarcity, but why people accept irrational ideas that let them get away with it.

And so, if the battle for fuel and freedom is to be won, the ultimate requirement is for “moral clarity.” He thus concludes: “Here, in a sentence, is the moral case for fossil fuels, the single thought that can empower us to empower the world: Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous — because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.” Well said. If you are looking for a gift to send to friends in need of enlightenment this holiday season, put this book at the top of your list.

— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, and the author of Energy Victory. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was recently published by Encounter Books.


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