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The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, by Alex Epstein

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 10, No. 1.

Alex Epstein's The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, by Alex Epstein. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2014. 256 pp. $27.95 (hardcover).

Who would argue that producing and using fossil fuels is not only not shameful, but also positively virtuous? Alex Epstein would. And he has done so eloquently and thoroughly in his book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.

Epstein aptly summarizes his book with its final sentence: “Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous—because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life” (p. 209).

The main strength of Epstein’s book is that he explicitly and clearly states the fundamental alternative at stake: Will we embrace nonimpact on nature as our moral standard, or will we embrace human life as our moral standard? If we accept the idea that the standard should be to refrain from impacting nature, or to impact it as little as possible, then we will regard fossil fuels (and industrial civilization) as evil. But if we see that the standard should be to improve human life, then we will see the production and use of fossil fuels as profoundly moral because they play a vital role in supporting, improving, and extending human life. That basic alternative frames the entire book.

In making his case, Epstein demonstrates three main factual claims: First, fossil fuels have greatly benefited mankind; second, the harms of fossil fuels have been dramatically overstated by various experts and pundits; and, third, no other fuel source has the potential to replace fossil fuels at least for the next few decades. Epstein’s Moral Case is filled with fascinating data supporting these points. A few examples:

  • Despite the relative growth of so-called renewable energy—growth driven largely by government mandates and subsidies—the world’s population now uses dramatically more oil, coal, and natural gas than it did in 1980 (p. 11).
  • The use of fossil fuels has supported dramatic increases in life spans and wealth (e.g., pp. 14, 77).
  • Proven reserves of fossil fuels have risen dramatically over the past few decades (pp. 17–18).
  • Major types of air pollution have decreased dramatically over the past few decades, even as consumption of fossil fuels has increased (p. 19).
  • Since 1900, climate-related deaths have fallen dramatically—thanks largely to people’s use of fossil fuels in relation to climate crises (pp. 24, 121–26).
  • Even in Germany, where solar and wind energy are relatively liberally used, those sources provide only a small—and highly variable—fraction of total electricity (pp. 51–52).
  • Carbon dioxide is “a greenhouse gas that exists in trace quantities in the atmosphere—just under .03 percent (270 parts per million, or ppm) before the industrial revolution, a level that we have increased to .04 percent (396 ppm)” (p. 97).
  • In recent decades, some sea levels have actually been falling (pp. 106–7).

Of course, Epstein addresses the issue of global warming, but he does not deny that global warming is real or that humans contribute to it. Rather, he shows that the predictions of catastrophic warming are based on unreliable computer models that have failed to predict actual historic warming trends (pp. 99–104).

One of the most interesting parts of Epstein’s presentation in this regard is his discussion of the “decelerating, logarithmic greenhouse effect” (pp. 98–99)—the factually supported theory that the more carbon dioxide humans emit, the less impact on warming additional units have.

Why do so many people overstate the harms of fossil fuels and largely or totally ignore their benefits? Epstein traces the root problem to the acceptance (partial or total) of the nonimpact standard of value, which leads to widespread prejudice against fossil fuels—a prejudice that has been fanned by professional environmentalists and their lackeys in the media for decades. Epstein addresses this at length, concluding (in part): “If all the predicted catastrophes—depletion, pollution, climate change—had occurred as thought leaders said they would, the world of today would be much, much worse than the world of the 1970s,” when many such predictions were made (p. 8). And yet, by almost all relevant measures, the world is better, thanks largely to the increased use of fossil fuels.

Epstein shows in great detail that our lives quite literally depend on us using fossil fuels. His Moral Case offers a template for thinking, speaking, and acting in support of the freedom to produce and use these vital fuels. Let us hope many people embrace and employ this template—and soon. With sufficiently wide readership, this book could deflate the anti-industrial movement, led by environmentalists and their followers in government, and spiritually fuel the scientists, engineers, and businessmen who produce the material fuel of civilization.

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