Morals and Fossil Fuels

Review: Alex Epstein, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Penguin Publishing, November 2014; 248 pages; ISBN-10: 1591847443, ISBN-13: 978-1591847441, $20.89 on Amazon.
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 I have ever read.
Epstein is an ethical humanist; for him, the well-being of human life is the standard of value public policy should maximize. This ethical theory goes back to the ancient Greeks and went virtually unchallenged as a basis for judging right and wrong throughout human history, at least until recently.
Unfortunately, many prominent environmental writers have rejected humanism, instead embracing a biocentric philosophy that views human changes to the environment as morally wrong and unnatural. For those biocentrists, minimizing human impacts on the environment is the primary moral goal. As such, biocentrism 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 points out the development and use of fossil fuels have benefitted the poor far more than the rich, making available to the person of average means, food, goods, and services which even the rulers of old could hardly dream of.
Chapter by chapter, through clear and concise analysis, Epstein demonstrates why fossil fuels are the greatest energy technology of all time; why renewable energy sources like wind and solar power are in no position to replace them; why concerns about global warming are overstated and largely misplaced; how fossil fuel use actually improves environmental quality; and why, with more than 1.3 billion people in the world today without access to electricity and the labor and life-saving bounty it makes available, it would be immoral to artificially restrict growth in the use of fossil fuels to prevent climate change.
Assuming human welfare is one’s primary moral standard, a number of important takeaways from this book arise. I’ll list three:
  • One should look at the big picture when determining the value of using fossil fuels – not just the costs or potential harms to humans. If one has an open mind, it is apparent fossil fuels provide important benefits to humankind, unmatched by any other fuel source at current prices with current technology. The benefits of fossil fuels far outweigh the harmful by-products resulting from their use, even if one believes they contribute to global warming.
  • “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 backwards. 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.”
  • Even if human-caused CO2 emissions do pose a significant threat of dangerous climate change, the way to deal with climate danger is to develop technologies that allow humans to adapt to, mitigate, or prevent climate harms.
Restricting or ending fossil fuel use is a recipe for disaster. It would set human civilization back centuries – a true death knell for present and future generations. The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels makes this point as well or better than any other book I recall reading. The book is easily readable by anyone who has passed high school freshman English, and I encourage all those interested in learning about the threats of global warming and the relative benefits and harms of fossil fuel use to read it with an open mind. It will give you much to think about.

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