Alex Epstein on How to Improve Your World


Alex Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Named “most original thinker of 2014” by The McLaughlin Group, Epstein advocates the use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas—and he does so not merely on practical grounds, but also on moral grounds. With his unique, pro-human approach to the subject, Epstein is changing the way the world thinks about energy. I had the pleasure of chatting with him recently about how he does what he does so well, and what advice he has for others who want to achieve similar success. —Craig Biddle

Craig Biddle: Thank you so much, Alex, for taking time to chat with me about your work and your approach to improving the world. I know I speak for many when I say that I can hardly wait to hear your thoughts on how you’ve done all that you have in the past few years.

Alex Epstein: Thanks for inviting me to share my ideas and experiences with the TOS audience.

Biddle: Your success in spreading the moral case for industrial progress has been truly astonishing. From the launch of your Center for Industrial Progress (CIP), to the publication of your best-selling book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, to your eye-opening debates with various environmentalists, to your recent testimony before the U.S. Senate on the devastating effects of environmentalist policies on the lives of human beings—you’ve managed to reach more minds with your ideas than anyone would have imagined possible just a few years ago.

Not only are you reaching and changing minds about the vital importance of fossil fuels and industrial progress; you’re also inspiring like-minded people who want to spread rational ideas in other areas. The potential here is huge. If other activists were to replicate your methods toward defending genetically modified organisms (GMOs), free-market banking, free-market health care, freedom of speech, proper foreign policy, and so on, we would soon be living in a profoundly better world. So I’d like to pick your brain about what you’ve done, how you’ve been so successful, and what advice you have for others who’d like to follow suit.

Epstein: I’m glad you made the point about applying what I’ve done to other fields. Almost as important to me as impacting my field of focus, energy and industrial progress, is identifying radically better methods by which advocates of reason, individualism, and liberty can win others over to their cause. One of the purposes of my organization from the beginning was to be a prototype that could be replicated in other fields.

Biddle: Before we turn to that prototype and the details of your approach, let me ask what inspired you to get into this unique business in the first place. How did you become so passionate about industrial progress and defending those who create it? How did this all get started?

Epstein: As long as I can remember, it has been an axiom in my mind that there is nothing greater or more important than human ability. This first manifested in my life as hero worship of athletes, but by my mid-teens it extended to businessmen.

When I was eighteen, I discovered two phenomena that made industrial progress a unique passion in regard to my love of ability. The first phenomenon was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which, in a brilliant suspense novel, illustrates the fundamental nature of human ability, shows its source to be the creative mind, and glorifies its central purpose: productivity—the transformation of nature to meet human needs.

The second phenomenon was environmentalism. I already had major misgivings about environmentalism from high school, when I read P. J. O’Rourke’s informative book All the Trouble in the World, which gave convincing counterevidence to all of the doomsday scenarios of the time. But when I encountered a deluge of environmentalist propaganda in college, I started to read everything of substance that I could get my hands on—by both environmentalists and their (relatively few) opponents. Not surprising to TOS readers, many of those opponents were Ayn Rand scholars.

From that reading, I came to a fundamental realization: Environmentalism, by holding that virtue consists of not changing or transforming nature—our environment—was precisely opposed to the requirements of human survival and to its means, human ability, and therefore to everything and everyone I admired.

The revulsion I felt toward environmentalism is hard to convey in the abstract, so I’ll give an example. As a freshman at Duke, I almost got kicked out of school for my conduct toward a guest speaker. He was invited as a distinguished person who would share some important ideas, and all of a sudden he was talking about how economic growth is evil and impossible, how industrial civilization is evil, and how (I’m not making this up) China has a birth control system we should consider. I looked around the room, and my classmates were nodding and taking it in. In my mind this was a villain straight out of Atlas Shrugged—except the villains in Atlas at least have the conscience to pretend to care about humans. I couldn’t take it.

Next thing I know three things are happening: One, I’m giving a speech about how evil this guy is. Two, I’m standing up. And three, he has already left the room.

After the event, on our class message group, we had furious debates—as in everyone versus me—and the general view of my opponents was that it didn’t matter whether he was wrong; my behavior was inappropriate. And my basic point was: This guy’s ideas are literally out to kill you; don’t you get it?

So I had that basic understanding of what was wrong with environmentalism very early, and I would write about it occasionally in the years that followed. But my passion about the subject really began to burn in 2007, while I was researching the history of John D. Rockefeller, for what would become my TOS article, “Vindicating Capitalism: The Real History of the Standard Oil Company.”

In doing that research, I came to see that Rockefeller and Standard Oil had profoundly changed the world for the better by providing something that enabled every other industry to excel like never before: cheap, plentiful illumination. And I realized that this kind of person and this kind of industry are so important to everything else in life—so important to every other productive endeavor—that they must be liberated from any ties that bind them. I also began to see that the way practically everyone thinks about energy (and industrial progress) is wrong—and, in many cases, patently irrational and anti-human. We are taught to ignore or minimize the benefits of every practical sources of energy and to exaggerate or even fabricate negatives. The driving force behind that approach is not the environmentalist leaders’ concerns about positives and negatives for humans. They have no such concerns. They just use those as a rationalization for anti-change, anti-human policies.

With energy, I saw the kind of opportunity that most motivates me to write and speak: there is a significant issue (the future of energy) that everyone is thinking about incorrectly, and I think I can bring clarity to it. Since 2007, that’s what I’ve been working on with energy and industrial progress.

Biddle: Nice to know how this all got started. Now, to the methods of your success. Clearly, to do what you do, you need to have a deep understanding of reality-based philosophy, substantial specialized knowledge of the industries you address and defend, and excellent communication skills. So, in these areas—or in additional areas, as the case may be—what do you see as the main ingredients of your success?

Epstein: I think you summarized some of the key domains well. I’ll elaborate on the ones you mentioned, but first I’ll add selling and business to the aptitudes I’ve worked to develop.

Selling, in the broadest sense of the term, is persuading someone to trade. And selling ideas involves not only showing the potential trading party that your ideas are valuable enough for them to spend money on, but also that the ideas are valuable enough for them to devote time to. In marketing ideas, we are always asking people for their time—time to consume, to digest, and to act on our ideas.

So it’s crucial to understand the fundamentals of selling. Above all, it’s crucial to know your audience’s context, including their most powerful motivations to action. If you’re going to ask people for their money and their time, you had better know what they value enough to trade for them.

Take the example of selling businessmen on pro-capitalist ideas. Throughout the history of capitalism, many pro-capitalist intellectuals understandably have concluded that businessmen won’t support capitalism because they appear to prefer seeking short-term government favors and calling on government to throttle their competitors with regulations or taxes.

Gaining an understanding of the principles and art of selling helped me challenge this assumption. Like any proper trader, I sell only in accordance with absolute moral guidelines. I sell ideas that are true, such as that businesses are properly motivated by profits—and I sell prescriptions that are just, such as that government should be forbidden to initiate force against producers. I don’t sell falsehoods or injustices.

Within that framework, I ask myself with respect to any idea I might market: Is this idea actually a value to the businessman—and why? Toward answering that, I need to ask: How does he experience that idea or value?

What I found is that businessmen genuinely want help in dealing with the coercive threats they face, and many do not want government saddling their competitors with regulations or taxes. Many businessmen want to operate in an environment of freedom. But no one was helping them to understand the fundamental causes of the coercive policies that bind them. No one was helping them to see themselves and their products as morally good. And no one was helping them to win the hearts and minds of the public.

This is where I excel. I help businesses to see their own value and to communicate it to the world. I help them understand how to fight for freedom from government coercion. And the art of selling is integral to my success.

I add business to the list you mentioned because an early, indispensable decision I made was to make CIP a “for-profit think tank,” which is something that basically didn’t exist. The premise behind the decision was that influential intellectuals can make money on the free market (e.g., Paul Krugman, though I oppose him completely), so if we demanded profitability we would incentivize ourselves to figure out how to present ideas in a way that really worked. The way in which this affects my day-to-day work is incredible, because I always want measurable results, and I constantly seek greater levels of efficiency and innovation. Again, this is all within the framework of: I’m in this to persuade people of the truth.

The three areas you mentioned were “deep understanding of reality-based philosophy, substantial specialized knowledge of the industries you address and defend, and excellent communication skills.” These certainly are essential to what I do. How do I develop them? That’s hard to answer because it’s hard to communicate how hard I’ve worked to gain the knowledge and skills I’ve developed over the years.

But this might help. There’s a mind-set behind all of my development, implicit for the past fifteen years and explicit for the past five, that I think will help people understand how I operate. I call it “the pie of ability” (a play on “the pyramid of ability”).

For any goal you have—to take my kind of example, let’s say you want to become the thought leader of a major field even though you hold very unconventional ideas—ask this question: “What are ten crucial aptitudes or knowledge bases I need in this field?”

Here are ten plausible ones, in no particular order:

  1. Writing
  2. Speaking
  3. Debating
  4. One-on-one discussions
  5. Sales
  6. Business
  7. Philosophy
  8. Your field’s specialized knowledge
  9. The nature of cultural change
  10. Sustained productivity

Think of these as parts of a ten-piece pie.

For each of those ten pieces, ask yourself: What does great look like in this area?

Do not start with what is possible to you or what you think is possible to you. Start with what is the greatest possible to the most skilled person in this area.

Let’s take speaking. Growing up, I admired many Objectivist speakers, and there are many excellent ones. But the pie of ability tells me to look beyond my philosophical allies, beyond intellectuals—to look for the absolute best speakers in the world.

In broadening my view to speakers as such, I came to see that some of the most talented people in this area are comedians who can, among other things, captivate an audience on a minute-by-minute basis. By observing some of the best comedians and focusing on how they communicate, I was able to substantially increase my understanding of what greatness looks like in the speaking (and, more broadly, communication) piece of the pie.

For a concrete instance of this, I recently saw Jay Leno do live comedy. I had heard he was amazing when doing his best standup material (not the just-made fare on The Tonight Show), so when a friend of mine was opening for him in a venue in LA, I was excited for the chance to see Leno. And he was a phenomenally compelling speaker.

While watching his routine, I made mental notes (and right after that, written notes) about everything he did uniquely well that might apply to me—as well as notes about any mistakes he made that I could learn from.

One positive I picked up from him is that he does no intro. No “happy to be here,” no “thank you for having me.” He just starts his comedy rocket ship, and you’re in it with him before you know it. I reflected on my own presentations and observed that I would often start slow with different kinds of formalities. After Leno, I changed all my business presentations. Now when I begin a presentation, I go from complete silence to looking directly at the audience and asking a question that they’ve never heard before. For instance, when speaking to businessmen about their communication, I might start with “On a scale of -5 to 5, how good is your company at winning hearts and minds?” This has made a huge difference.

One negative I observed in Leno’s performance is something I noticed in part because Jerry Seinfeld had warned of this in an interview I saw. Seinfeld said that you have to get off the stage before the audience tires of you; otherwise their whole experience changes. (This is why he ended his TV show when it was number one.) Leno definitely went too long. As he neared an hour, I felt myself wondering when it would end, whereas for the first forty-five minutes I hoped it wouldn’t end.

Why would a master make that mistake? My guess is that he, like many of us, loves the experience of delivering his material and wants to keep going because he’s enjoying himself. So the lesson I drew is: Be aware of when I might be self-indulgent. Since then I’ve gotten a lot better at keeping my presentations tight, limiting the number of “good points” that I make.

So that’s an indication of how I think with respect to one piece of the pie.

To zoom out, imagine you know your pie of ability, you have the highest standards in every area, you know where to look for help. If you’re serious about your goal, you will inevitably be motivated to improve in the areas you need to. When I talk about hard work, this is a crucial part of it. It’s not just about pushing yourself; it’s also—and more so—about being pulled by the knowledge and standards relevant to your goals. This works for philosophy—look at those who you think have the best understanding and see how your understanding stacks up. It works for domain-specific knowledge as well. It works for everything.

To people who want to excel in whatever they do, I advise: Make your own pie of ability and make it work for you.

Biddle: That pie analogy is quite useful. I can see how it would help to mentally manage an otherwise overwhelming number of elements that add up to ability and success. Beautiful idea.

I’d like to zoom back in, if we may, and look at the audience portion of the communication piece of the pie. When you’re preparing a lecture, drafting an essay, writing a book, or strategizing for a Senate hearing, how do you go about assessing the audience and tailoring your presentation to their interests, needs, and context?

Epstein: I am a big believer in developing and refining processes that will almost inevitably generate the right results. With presentations, I ask myself a series of questions designed to generate a detailed understanding of where the audience is and where I want them to be—including how I want them to feel and how I want them to act after my presentation. This again is a realm where knowledge of and skills in sales are helpful. The best salespeople are masters at understanding their audience’s context on every conceivable level. They need this mastery because they are trying to induce action, including the action of pulling out one’s wallet, which can be hard to persuade people to do.

Here are some questions I like to answer before undertaking just about any form of communication. And when I don’t ask and answer them, I often regret it. These are oriented to writing, but they could be modified for any form of communication:

  • What is the purpose of this writing?
  • What is the subject of this writing?
  • What is the theme of this writing?
  • What is the contrasting position you are arguing against?
  • Who is the audience you are writing to? And, with respect to audience:
    • What do they know about your subject and theme?
    • What don’t they know?
    • What have they heard that’s wrong?
    • What do they think they know?
    • What are their legitimate values you can appeal to?

Given the above, what are the essential points that you might need to make, first, to prove your theme; and, second, to overcome their misconceptions?

Effectively answering and gaining clarity on any one of these questions can require pages of thinking on paper. And doing this thinking in advance of trying to write an article (or give a speech) makes all the difference. If you’re clear on each of these issues, your writing is almost guaranteed to be powerful and persuasive. If not, not.

Biddle: Apart from fossil fuels, what areas of industry and business do you think are most in need of the kind of approach and defense you offer?

Epstein: I’d say every area in which producers are maligned or hampered on the basis of an improper standard of morality.

The essence of what I do is to reframe issues in accordance with a proper moral standard—namely, the requirements of human life. This includes making clear to audiences why that’s the proper moral standard and why the opposing moral standard is anti-life. The identification of and appeal to a proper moral standard is needed in every industry, but how this standard manifests in and governs a given area or industry depends on the context.

In the realm of industrial progress, which I deal with, it manifests as human life versus non-human nature. And a key issue corresponding to this is the alternative of people mastering nature versus submitting to it.

In other industry or business contexts, the competing standards might be merit versus equality or the individual versus the collective. In the issue of ethics most broadly, assuming humanism is established, the alternatives are self-interest versus self-sacrifice.

As you might imagine, I have a clearer idea of how to reframe issues in my own field. But I think the principle applies to every field: You must make clear what your standard of value is and why it’s the correct one, and you must make clear what the opposing standard is and why it is anti-life.

Biddle: What plans, if any, do you or others at CIP have for addressing additional areas of industry or business?

Epstein: We will definitely hit all of the transformative fields under attack by environmentalism: mining, agriculture (including GMO), synthetics, aquaculture, etcetera.

As individuals in other fields want to apply our method, I’m certainly eager to help them. And some of our materials already can. For example, the course “How to Talk to Anyone About Energy,” at energychampion.net, gives a method for reframing any discussion in pretty much any field.

Biddle: Where do you see CIP in ten years, in terms of size and scope of operations?

Epstein: I don’t think much in terms of size of operations so much as size of impact combined with the operations enabling me to do work I enjoy a lot, which in my case is content innovation and strategy.

We’re trying to create, educate, and empower a humanist movement. My guess is that the best way to do this will involve CIP remaining relatively small (a dozen people or less) but setting up a lot of automated systems and decentralized networks of people who advocate and innovate on their own using our unique methods and content.

I’m not working to build up a stable of intellectuals at CIP. That would be a massive undertaking. I’m more interested in building on what I’ve learned to produce the next level of content; I think it’s possible to create content that’s ten times more effective than what I can create now.

That said, I do like collaborating with smart people on content projects, as I did with The Moral Case, in particular there with Steffen Henne and Greg Salmieri. Going forward, I think we’ll bring more participants into our content creation projects, but I expect that I’ll be leading almost everything. In this realm, quality not quantity matters, but with the right level of quality and scalability, you can impact millions—and the most talented, motivated people can mostly learn on their own given the right materials.

Overall, I’m very optimistic about our capacity to make ever-greater progress because, to continue with the pie of ability, my pie is not all that full in many areas. For example, in business I am only just getting decent at the fundamental leveraging skill of a business, which is recruiting and creating a productive division of labor. Once I can combine what I can do with, say, five other world-class people with complementary skills, CIP will be shockingly better.

One thing I like about the pie approach to improvement is that it doesn’t make you content with being more successful than your peers. It keeps you focused on ideals and ways to achieve them. And it motivates you to get better and better by the highest standards.

Biddle: What advice would you offer to activists, or would-be activists, about how to get started in philosophically sound activism?

Epstein: At the risk of overgeneralizing my own experience, I’ll say: Get profoundly clear on the truth.

Nothing matters more than clarity. It’s the source of motivation, in that once you are truly clear on a given issue, you feel compelled to share your knowledge and clarity. Of course, clarity is essential to communication. But it’s also essential to understanding other people’s minds, assessing the clarity of their thinking, and determining what they need to learn or do to become clear on the matter themselves.

Craig, having known me personally for more than fifteen years, you would probably agree that I have been a fanatic about clarity the whole time.

Biddle: That would be a yes.

Epstein: This fanaticism is what underlies and drives everything I do. So I think the most fundamental, high-leverage advice I can offer is: Seek clarity.

If a person is wondering whether he’s clear on a given issue, he can take the pie approach and think about an area that he feels luminously clear about—and then use that clarity as a standard to evaluate his clarity in regard to the issue in question and any other issue. For example, a physicist friend of mine became highly proficient in economics by continually comparing his clarity on economic principles to the incredibly clarity he had on the principles of physics.

One related and useful idea for gaining clarity about one’s career—and this connects to the importance of selling as well—is what I call “the career Venn diagram.” Think of two intersecting circles. One encompasses the problems you are passionate about solving, the other the problems others passionately want solved. Every good career is at the interaction of these. It’s all too rare that people take both seriously, but you need to if you want to do work you love and have high impact doing it. On your side, you need to be true to yourself and create things you regard as beautiful. But those beautiful things must be of value to the people that you’re aiming to trade with.

I think if you embrace these mind-sets—the pie approach and the career Venn—and if you then study sales and marketing and business, and look at the landscape, then sooner or later you’ll be able to create a lot of value in your particular sphere of concern.

Biddle: How can people follow your work and get involved with or support you and CIP?

Epstein: We have something called the champions network that is a way for highly motivated and highly skilled people to get involved (you can email support@industrialprogress.net for more info). But I encourage everyone to join our email list and to spread the word about it. This list is a powerful tool for learning about important issues and for influencing influencers.

Biddle: Well, this has been a pleasure. And I suspect it will be enormously valuable to everyone who has been watching you in awe during the past few years and wondering how they might adopt some of your methods.

Thank you for sharing your ideas with our readers. And thank you for all that you do to defend human beings from anti-human beings, and to promote life-serving progress. My hat is off to you.

Epstein: Thanks for the interview. And thank you for the term anti-human beings, which I will co-opt immediately. More importantly, thank you for the support you’ve given me over the years, particularly when I was just getting started and few people believed in my potential. The nature of success is usually such that most help comes when one needs it least, so I’m always grateful to those who gave it when I needed it most.


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