Book Review: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

Published January 12, 2015

In his new book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein makes one of the most compelling arguments for the moral value of fossil fuels and the need to increase their use that we have ever read. Although virtually everyone battling the anthropogenic global warming delusion takes a defensive position with regard to the world’s use of coal, natural gas, and oil, our so-called fossil fuels, Epstein recognizes that, as in sports, the best defense is a good offense.

Written in a conversational style that is easy to read and understand, this book can serve as a layman’s guide, refuting the absurd claims that man controls the climate, while explaining why the current abundance of oil and gas due to hydraulic fracturing will leave all efforts to impose wind and solar energy in our rear-view mirrors.

For Epstein, human life, well-being, and flourishing are the standard of value public policy should maximize. He calls this position ethical humanism, a theory that goes back to the ancient Greeks, if not before, and was virtually unchallenged as a basis for judging right and wrong until recently. He examines fossil fuels strictly in relation to their ability to enhance or constrain human well-being.

Unfortunately, many prominent environmental writers have rejected humanism, instead embracing a bio-centric philosophy that views human changes to the environment as intrinsically bad and takes minimizing human impacts on the environment as the prime moral goal. As such, bio-centrism is a prescription for human poverty, disease, starvation, and premature death—in other words, an endorsement of the world as experienced by all but the wealthiest individuals for the vast majority of human history.

Epstein explains in philosophical terms how the public has been duped by the likes of Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, Amory Lovins, and Bill McKibben for decades. Their real agenda has never been to save the world but instead to promote an idyllic view of nature untrammeled by humans. They have fooled the public into fearing fossil fuels, by focusing only on the risks of fossil fuel usage to mankind and nature, while ignoring all the benefits. Epstein makes short shrift of the fear-mongering that focuses on catastrophic depletion of our fossil fuels rather than on the human ingenuity that always finds replacements for all our resources before they run out.

Fossil Fuels Power Progress and Well-being

Fossil fuel use has dramatically increased human life expectancy and reduced infant mortality in the developed world. Thanks to fossil fuels, “millions of individuals in industrializing countries have gotten their first light bulb, their first refrigerator, their first decent paying job, their first year with clean drinking water or a full stomach,” Epstein writes. Ultimately, the moral case for fossil fuels is not about fossil fuels; it is the moral case for using cheap, plentiful, reliable energy to amplify our abilities to make the world a better place for human beings.

The development and use of fossil fuels has benefitted the poor far more than the rich, making available to the person of average means, food, goods, and services that even the rulers of old could hardly dream of. Fossil fuels grant freedom and free up time.

Epstein builds on Milton Friedman’s explanations in his Free to Choose TV series where he explains that the rich do not benefit so much as others do from advances in energy, as they have always had servants to fetch, entertain, make clothes and the like. The achievement of inexpensive energy, Friedman remarks, “has made available to the masses conveniences and amenities that were previously the exclusive prerogative of the rich and powerful.”

Problems with Other Energy Sources

The book also briefly but effectively skewers all standard forms of renewable energy, including wind, solar, and biofuels (but not hydropower), explaining they are useful for niche applications but utterly unable to supplement fossil fuels in the electric grid or for transportation.

And yet our political leaders propose massive restrictions on fossil fuels with the promise that these inferior technologies will replace them. This reflects either an ignorance of (perhaps willful) or indifference to the need for efficient, cheap, reliable energy for 1.3 billion people without electricity and more than 3 billion who do not have adequate electricity. For everyone “to have as much access to energy as the average American, the world’s energy production would have to quadruple,” Epstein writes.

Seeing the Big Picture

Epstein’s assumption that human welfare and flourishing are the primary moral standard leads to a couple of important conclusions. One, we should look at the big picture when determining the value of using fossil fuels. That means we must examine not just the costs or potential harms to humans from fossil fuel use but also all the virtues and benefits it provides and the harms that would occur if fossil fuels are abandoned as a source of energy. If one has an open mind, it is apparent fossil fuels provide unique and tremendous benefits to humankind, unmatched by any other fuel source at current prices with current technology, benefits far outweighing the harmful by-products resulting from their use, even if one believes their use contributes to global warming.

Second, Epstein writes:

Climate is no longer a major cause of deaths, thanks in large part to fossil fuels.… Not only are we ignoring the big picture by making the fight against climate danger the fixation of our culture, we are ‘fighting’ climate change by opposing the weapon that has made it dozens of times less dangerous.

The popular climate discussion has the issue backward. It looks at man as a destructive force for climate livability, one who makes the climate dangerous because we use fossil fuels.

In fact, the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability.

Restricting or ending fossil fuel use, not climate change, is the real recipe for disaster, Epstein argues. It would set human civilization back centuries, ringing a true death knell for present and future generations.

Epstein sums up much of his moral argument in his final chapter, “Winning the Future,” with this excellent statement: “We don’t want to save the planet from human beings; we want to improve the planet for human beings. We need to say this loudly and proudly. We need to say that human life is our one and only standard of value. And we need to say that the transformation of our environment, the essence of our survival, is a supreme virtue. We need to recognize that to the extent we deny either, we are willing to harm real, flesh and blood human beings for some antihuman dogma.”

This is a great book for all your open-minded friends willing to spend a few hours expanding their understanding beyond the myopic delusion purveyed by the contemporary mainstream media.