Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less
By Alex Epstein
xii + 468 pp.
In his remarkable new book, Alex Epstein has changed the terms of the debate about the danger of “global warming” and the alleged need to take drastic action in response to this. One side assures us that we must “follow the science,” which, it is claimed, has proved that the rise in global temperatures caused by fossil fuels, which emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, will soon result in catastrophe unless we “green” the economy. The opponents either question the evidence that disaster impends or argue that the threat can be handled without revamping the economy.
Epstein thinks that the danger from global warming has been much exaggerated, but though he presents extensive evidence in support of this, his primary contribution lies elsewhere. He argues that modern civilization depends on fossil fuels and that far from curtailing their use, we need to spread them to the impoverished parts of the world. So great are the benefits from using the fuels that only a true “end of the world” nightmare caused by CO2 emission could require that we shift to other energy sources, and despite the alarmists’ caterwauling, this nightmare is most unlikely to occur. Moreover, Epstein holds that the benefits of fossil fuels are so obvious that only a defect in thinking could have induced people to ignore them. He is a philosopher as well as an energy economist, and he expertly identifies the false thought pattern that has led to our current confusions.
Epstein says, “Whenever we hear about what the ‘experts’ think, we need to keep in mind that most of us have no direct access to what most expert researchers in the field think. We are being told what experts think through a system of institutions and people…. Understanding how this system, which I call our ‘knowledge system,’ works and how it can go wrong is the key to being able to spot when what we’re told the ‘experts’ think is very wrong—about fossil fuels or anything else.”
On the issue of energy, Epstein argues that the system has gone very wrong, indeed, owing to the fact that its leading lights are in the grip of a philosophy that views human beings as an upsetting intrusion on the earth: through their feverish pursuit of growth, people have interfered with the “delicate balance” of nature. Having done so, people must repent and “green” the economy, though some experts opine that it would be better to get rid of us altogether. Concerning this bizarre philosophy, Epstein remarks: “Why does our knowledge system always expect extreme negative impacts from cost-efficient energy’s side-effects and always expect that we will be unable to master these impacts? Because of a false assumption that leads anyone holding it to expect that all forms of significant impact on nature will inevitably be self-destructive. I call this the ‘delicate nurturer’ assumption … [which is] that Earth, absent human impact, exists in an optimal, nurturing ‘delicate balance’ that is as stable, sufficient, and safe as we can hope to expect.”
You might be inclined to object that scientific findings deal with facts, not philosophies: if “climate scientists” predict that continued global warming will have dire consequences, must we not judge their arguments strictly as they stand, without regard to their proponents’ views about the proper place of human beings, however repellent we may find these views? Epstein responds that predictions are far different from claims about what has happened in the past, which can often, though not always, be assessed objectively. Climate predictions are for the most part highly speculative, and the antihuman ideology of the “catastrophists,” as Epstein dubs the climate alarmists, should incline us to view what they say with doubt, all the more so if they have wrongly predicted catastrophes in the past. “Such predictions [about climate] necessarily rely on highly complex science and models that are difficult for non-researchers to assess … it is both far easier and highly informative to assess our knowledge system’s, including designated experts’, track record of climate prediction” (the “designated experts” are those whom the system treats as authoritative). One of these “experts,” Michael Mann, famed for his controversial “hockey stick” graph, is weighed in the balance and found wanting: “Designated expert Michael Mann has written: ‘We probably already exceed the [planet’s] carrying capacity by a factor of eight.’” It is unlikely that someone with this opinion will be eager to suggest policies that promote human welfare, and the same holds true of the notorious Paul Ehrlich, who has many times wrongly predicted disaster but whose oracular status nevertheless remains undiminished. Why listen to such as these?
Epstein must here face an objection. If, as he says, the catastrophists see the world through the distorting lens of their antihuman ideology, isn’t Epstein vulnerable to a parallel challenge? Does his own philosophy incline him unduly to discount arguments that global warming poses a real threat? He could readily reply that his prohuman ideology is correct; that since reality does not suffer from self-contradiction, it will not lead to distortion, and that in any case, he does not have a track record of bad predictions. On this issue, readers must judge for themselves, but to help them do it, Epstein has set forth his reasoning with exemplary clarity.
If the designated experts were not blinded by partisan passion, what would they see? The answer, Epstein says, is that our civilization depends on fossil fuels. Nature untouched by man is no “delicate balance” but rather an ever-dynamic, often hostile place. To survive and flourish in it, we must specialize in what we produce and use powerful machines in doing so. Such machines immensely multiply our natural energy and enable us to master the environment to our advantage. Only the fossil fuels— viz., coal, oil, and natural gas—can be used to produce these machines a cost-efficient way. Wind and solar power are paltry by comparison. Hydroelectric and nuclear power fare rather better, but even they are no match for the fossil fuels, and furthermore, fossil fuels are often required to produce and implement the other forms of energy.
Epstein says about the fossil fuels: “Contrary to our anti-impact, anti-energy knowledge system these are not trivial benefits that are already overwhelmed by fossil fuels’ negative side-effects on the livability of our world—they are fundamental to the livability of our world. The current benefit of the world’s massive use of ultra-cost-effective fossil fuel energy is a radical increase in the productive ability of billions of people—via ultra-cost-effective fossil-fueled machine labor and the enormous amount of mental labor it frees up, along with fossil fuel materials—that makes the world unnaturally livable, i.e., conducive to human flourishing.”
It is here that the primary source of the book’s originality lies, together with the author’s cogent analysis of the conflicting opinions’ philosophical underpinnings. Other critics of the global catastrophists propose palliative measures to cope with what they deem a much lesser threat than their opponents envision; they suggest, for example, a shift to nuclear power and the limitation of such pollution as remains through “cap and trade,” a carbon tax, and the like. Epstein, by contrast, is uncompromising. Not only does he want to maintain the use of fossil fuels; he relishes the prospect of the extended use of these fuels, particularly in poor areas of the world, where people without this resource languish. “Since 1980, the percentage of humanity living on less than $2 a day has gone from 42 percent to under 10 percent today. This wondrous development is the result of increasing and expanding productivity, which is driven by the increasing and expanding use of fossil-fueled machine labor and the enormous amount of mental labor it frees up. But there is still far more progress to be had…. Expanding fossil fuel use will enable everyone, especially the world’s poorest people, to become more productive and prosperous.”
But has Epstein dismissed the perils of untoward climate changes too quickly? Don’t floods that result from a rise in temperature pose real dangers, for example? Epstein responds by again appealing to the benefits of technology, made possible by fossil fuels. Technology enables us to achieve what Epstein calls “climate mastery.” He cites in this connection a telling statistic. Despite the temperature rise that occurred in the twentieth century, deaths from climate have sharply decreased. “In reality, dangerous temperatures—which overwhelmingly come from too much cold, not too much heat—are a smaller danger than ever thanks to two forces: fossil-fueled climate mastery and modestly warming temperatures…. Before human beings had fossil-fueled machines to master dangerous climates, they were overwhelmed by natural temperature dangers, both heat and (especially) cold…. Heat-related deaths are a much bigger problem in the unempowered world today, which is yet another reason why empowerment is a moral imperative.”
One other pleasing feature of the book should be noted, and it is one I confess I especially appreciated. Often books on the climate controversy are filled with technical language, difficult for the untutored reader to understand, let alone evaluate. Epstein has taken great pains to explain what he says in clear and simple terms, and for this, and much else, his readers are in his debt. Fossil Future has the potential to do great good, if its readers have the energy to put into effect the author’s cogent policy recommendations.