The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, by Alex Epstein (Portfolio, 256 pp., $27.95)
The seventeenth-century philosopher Sir Francis Bacon argued that the human mind had been squandered on superstition: metaphysical speculation, theological disputation, and violent political delusions. Bacon’s greatest American disciple, Benjamin Franklin, agreed. It would be better, both believed, to focus on the conquest of man’s common enemy: nature. Bacon and Franklin were right, but they misjudged superstition’s staying power. Fast-forward to a conversation I had with the late Arne Naess, the Norwegian father of “deep ecology” and guru of the European Green movement. With a straight face, Naess told me that the eradication of smallpox was a technological crime against nature. For Naess’s deep ecology, the smallpox virus “deserved” and needed our protection, despite having maimed, tortured, and killed millions of people.
In his sprightly recent book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein takes on Naess’s American progeny—people such as Bill McKibben and David M. Graber—who have become influential opinion-makers on the environment, fossil fuels, and technology. Epstein asks us to imagine someone transported to the present from a virtually fossil fuels-free England in 1712, when the Newcomen steam engine was invented. What would that person think of our world, where 87 percent of all energy is produced from fossil fuels? In short, he’d be amazed to find clean drinking water, sanitation, enviable and improving air quality, long life, freedom from much disease, material prosperity, mobility, and leisure.
Epstein makes a compelling “big picture” case that the interaction of technology and fossil fuels provides everything we take for granted today. He also reminds us of earlier hysterical predictions of doom concerning fossil-fuel use. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, environmentalists such as Paul Ehrlich predicted mass starvation by the year 2000 because “world food production could not keep up with the galloping growth of population.” Flat wrong: the world’s population doubled, and the average person today is far better fed than when the starvation apocalypse was announced. That’s because the other apocalypse proclaimed back then—the depletion of oil and natural gas by 1992 and 1993, respectively—also proved wrong. Since 1980, worldwide usage of fossil fuels increased massively, yet both oil and natural gas supplies have more than doubled, and we have enough coal to last 3,000 years.
Epstein explains what the environmental doomsayers could not or would not see: first, that “fossil fuel energy is the fuel of food”; and second, that the human mind is as powerful as Franklin and Bacon said it was. Humans discovered more fossil fuels, and technology used those fuels to industrialize food production. Moreover, fossil fuels enabled Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution in food science, which, unlike the political movement of that name, actually did something to improve world nutrition and relieve the suffering of millions. Ehrlich was also wrong about fossil-fuel pollution in the developed world. In the U.S., though the use of fossil fuels climbed steadily since 1970, emissions of pollutants decreased dramatically—thanks to technology.
Predictions of starvation, depletion, and pollution didn’t pan out. What about global warming? Epstein’s warming discussion should be required reading. He acknowledges the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide, which can be demonstrated in a laboratory. But the effect is not linear; if it was, every new molecule of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere would add a unit of heat equivalent to the one preceding it. Rather, the greenhouse effect is decelerating and logarithmic, which means that every additional molecule of carbon dioxide is less potent than the preceding one. Many theories of rapid global warming are based on speculative models of carbon dioxide interacting in positive feedback loops with increases in atmospheric water vapor. Most climate models are based on so-called “hindcasting,” coming up with explanatory schemes that predict what has happened in the past. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, since the only alternative would be clairvoyance—but predicting the past with a computer model is not the same as accurately predicting the future.
Most climate models, says Epstein, have consistently and dramatically over-predicted mid-tropospheric global warming. We haven’t “burned up,” as McKibben predicted we would in 1989. Some suggest that the warming is occurring in the oceans; but mean sea levels around the world have been stable or declining for the last 100-plus years. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels have increased by .03 percent to .04 percent and since 1850, temperatures have risen less than one degree Celsius (an increase that has happened in many earlier time periods). And for the past 15 years—a period of record emissions—there has been little to no warming.
The warming models may prove correct in the long term, of course, so Epstein asks a reasonable question: What if it becomes clear that, in the next 100 years, the seas will rise by two feet and the globe will warm by 2 degrees Celsius, as predicted by many climate scientists? The answer is simple, though often ignored by climate alarmists: we’ll adapt. Since the Industrial Revolution, and especially in the last 30 years, the human race has become progressively better at remediating the harmful effects of storms, heat, cold, floods, and so on. It’s irresponsible, says Epstein, to trivialize the power of technology to solve the problems generated by fossil fuels. Much of that technology could consist of fossil-powered techniques to capture and recycle or sequester carbon dioxide.
Epstein exposes the profound misanthropy motivating much contemporary environmentalism. He quotes Graber: “Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet . . . human beings have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth . . . and until such time as Homo Sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.” Alexis de Tocqueville noted that democratic peoples have a tendency toward pantheism in religion: given their passion for equality, they come to think that everything is God. To radical Greens like Naess, Graber, and McKibben, everything is God, with one exception: the human being, whose “impact” spoils the “independent and mysterious” divine.
Why do hysterical warnings about sustainability and depletion persist despite the failure of the crackpot 1960s and 1970s predictions? Because the non-impact standard—conceiving of the environment as a loving but finite God—sees the environment as having a limited “carrying capacity” of gifts, such as arable land, water, and crucial minerals, in addition to fossil fuels. The more people on the planet, the closer we are to maxing out that carrying capacity, the thinking goes. Thus the urgent call, made in 2010 by White House Office of Science and Technology director John P. Holdren, to “de-develop the United States.” This notion of a finite carrying capacity discounts the powerful role of human ingenuity in finding natural resources. But the deeper problem is rooted in the divinization of the planet as something that simply is what it is.
Epstein argues brilliantly that the carrying-capacity superstition amounts to a “backward understanding of resources.” The fact is that nature by itself gives us very few directly supplied energy resources: most resources “are not taken from nature, but created from nature,” he maintains. Every raw material in nature is but a “potential resource, with unlimited potential to be to be rendered valuable by the human mind.” Right now we have enough fossil fuels and nuclear power to last us thousands of years. “The amount of raw matter and energy on this planet,” Epstein writes, “is so incomprehensibly vast that it is nonsensical to speculate about running out of it. Telling us that there is only so much matter and energy to create resources from is like telling us that there is only so much galaxy to visit for the first time. True, but irrelevant.”
Bill McKibben says that the post-Ice Age Holocene period is the only climate that humans can live in. Epstein responds that the Holocene is an abstraction that summarizes “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.” Until the Industrial Revolution, the climate was dangerous for all human beings. Since then, we have marched steadily toward “climate mastery.” Fewer people die today from the weather than at any time in history. “We don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous,” according to Epstein. “We take a dangerous climate and make it safe.”
The non-impact standard is a pervasive but irrational prejudice—irrational because it’s a neo-pagan faith that the earth is in effect an uncreated God, and a prejudice because it’s asserted dogmatically by those who profess it and taken for granted by a public unaware of being in its grip. The default position on environmental matters is “respect” for the planet. It tilts opinion to focus only on the harms of fossil fuels and technology, not their benefits. The bottom line is always the same: humans should minimize their impact on nature.
Alex Epstein’s book is a breath of fresh air in this polluted opinion climate. The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels shows why fossil fuels are good for human flourishing in general and good for the world’s poor in particular. Epstein is a true friend of the earth—an earth inhabited and made better by human beings.