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Are Fossil Fuels the Wave of the Future?

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books and culture

Are Fossil Fuels the Wave of the Future?

A new book vigorously defends oil, coal, and natural gas. May 25, 2022
Infrastructure and energy

Fossil Future: Why Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less, by Alex Epstein (Portfolio, 480 pp., $30)

Alex Epstein’s latest book makes a spirited case for continued industrial advancement through energy freedom. He argues convincingly that fossil fuels are and will remain the most attractive options to meet many energy needs while avoiding some of the stronger challenges to their unrestrained expansion.

Epstein deftly notes that fossil fuels have played a seminal role in human progress, powering the machines that have generated unprecedented improvements in mobility, agricultural productivity, construction quality, and well-being. Why, then, are they so often maligned? The book answers by summarizing two contrasting worldviews. First is the “anti-impact framework,” under which people venerate an allegedly pristine natural world and consider actions that sully it to be immoral. Second is Epstein’s preferred “human flourishing framework,” which takes “human beings’ ability to live long, healthy, fulfilling lives” as the standard of moral evaluation.

As Epstein sees it, our “knowledge system”—the mechanism through which scientific research reaches the general public—has been taken over by the anti-impact framework, distorting the public understanding of fossil fuels, climate change, and the environment more broadly. For Epstein, this corrupted knowledge system obscures the world-historical achievement of industrialization that fossil fuels made possible. It also exaggerates the negative consequences, or “side effects,” of emissions. Epstein hopes to break the spell of the anti-impact framework and persuade readers not only that fossil fuels have bolstered human flourishing to date but also that they will continue doing so. Portable, energy-dense, and benefiting from generations of human creativity, oil, coal, and natural gas are cost-effective and, Epstein argues, essential to elevating human flourishing higher still.

Restrictions on fossil fuels intended to arrest climate change will ultimately set humanity back, Epstein writes. The knowledge system tends to portray developing countries as desperate victims of climate change, as extreme weather and rising sea levels threaten their habitability. But Epstein argues forcefully that “the unempowered world” has the most to gain from “full-steam-ahead” fossil-fuel industrialization. Indeed, data demonstrate the correlation between energy use and such quality-of-life measurements as life expectancies and average incomes. Fossil Future readers will struggle to deny that promoting global energy abundance is morally necessary.

However, the book stands aloof from some lively, probing arguments underway today among sober-minded energy and environmental analysts. Epstein begins by praising the prescience of his own 2014 book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, in which he “made the highly unusual and controversial prediction that fossil fuel use would grow, not shrink.” In fact, such a prediction was far from unusual. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and BP, two organizations that Epstein calls “leading synthesizers” in the knowledge system, predicted that fossil-fuel use would grow in their own 2014 reports. According to EIA’s 2014 outlook to 2040, the United States’ total use of fossil fuels would increase from around 80 quadrillion British thermal units in the reference year to more than 85 quadrillion in 2040. Similarly, the 2014 BP outlook to 2035 projected that global oil, coal, and natural-gas consumption would each rise by around 1 percent to 2 percent annually in its two-decade analysis period.

This omission deepens as the book progresses. “We need to look at the best versions of the moral case for eliminating fossil fuels—that is, those versions being made by today’s leading experts,” Epstein writes. “One valuable lesson I have learned from philosophy is that when I’m considering an argument, I want to familiarize myself with the best version of that argument.” One might therefore expect Epstein to consider the arguments of economists William Nordhaus, Richard Tol, and Edwin Dolan, who seek to align the costs and benefits of climate policy, or the arguments made by political philosophers Matt Zwolinkski and Kevin Vallier and legal scholar Jonathan Adler, who note that environmental pollution can infringe on private property rights, and that the downstream effects from greenhouse-gas emissions might, too. Each of these thinkers reasonably conforms to Epstein’s human flourishing framework, yet all disagree with him significantly about fossil fuels. Indeed, the most serious arguments for limiting fossil-fuel use are made by thinkers who, broadly speaking, share Epstein’s commitment to human flourishing.

Instead, Epstein trains his fire on the same roster of activists he criticized in his earlier book: Al Gore, Michael E. Mann, Paul Ehrlich, Bill McKibben, Amory Lovins, John Holdren, and James Hansen. These individuals have racked up plenty of MSNBC spots, and some remain relevant in progressive circles. Epstein may therefore consider his selections reflective of the mainstream knowledge system. But they are far from the most sophisticated figures in the climate-economics, legal, and climate-policy fields. Though the arguments he neglects to confront are usually made by people with lower profiles, his avoidance of them results in a less nuanced portrait of the climate debate.

Earlier Epstein readers have made similar points. In an otherwise-upbeat review of Epstein’s 2014 book, economist Bryan Caplan encouraged Epstein to resolve the tension between his professed individualism and the utilitarian implications of his human flourishing framework, and employ more of what economists call “marginal thinking”—to consider that even while fossil fuels generate economic benefits, it may be the case that some marginal deployments of them could have bad consequences for economic development and well-being.

Caplan’s recommendations would have been natural points of departure for Epstein to grapple with the property-rights and cost-and-benefit arguments. In the event, Epstein’s treatment of the property claim is cursory and verges on utilitarianism: he contends that property rights are important, but not so important that they should impede a particular conception of human flourishing. And more caustically, Epstein accuses those who think that marginal fossil-fuel use is a net negative of resorting to a “smug but inane refrain.” If Epstein wants his perspective to win, he must engage more meaningfully with his strongest opponents. Contra Epstein, the choice human beings face when it comes to fossil fuels is not necessarily between “full steam ahead” and “rapid elimination.”

Fossil Future celebrates, with justification, the triumphs of industrial and economic progress that coal, oil, and natural gas have enabled. These triumphs have so thoroughly transformed our world that we often take them for granted. Epstein shakes us from our complacency, holds up all that we have gained, and warns us that it is under threat. But he also sets forth a false dichotomy that fails to capture the menu of available options. His book may influence some readers to view environmental questions through a more pro-human lens—a needed cultural correction—but it steers clear of the strongest challenges to fossil-fuel expansion.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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