Books: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

In the vein of Red Buttons’ “Never Got A Dinner” schtick on The Dean Martin Roasts, this book could easily have been called Fossil Fuels Never Got a Dinner. [Buttons named all the famous people who never were honored with a roast with great one-liners like “George Washington, who said to his father, ‘If I never tell a lie, how am I gonna become President?’ never got a dinner!”]

Seriously, the book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein could easily been called The Moral Case for Human Flourishing. Morality is good. Fossil fuels are a pejorative. Where do the two meet? And can you write a whole book about it?

Back to the case Epstein lays out in this book, the heart of morality is looking at a standard of value that benefits and doesn’t harm people. The standard of value addressed in this book is human flourishing. He then sets out a persuasive case of how he believes the use of fossil fuels has benefitted mankind.

Epstein urges the reader to think big picture. Bad decisions are made when you “ignore benefits and exaggerate risks.” This is where he comes up with his standard of value which is what affects human life and compares it to the non-human nature.

He identifies all of the major knocks against fossil fuels but more importantly how that debate is framed by using standards of value. If an unchanged physical environment is your standard of value, you will not come to the same moral conclusions as Epstein. Human flourishing means realizing the full potential of human life. “Colloquially, how do we maximize the years in our life and the life in our years,” he writes.

It’s not that fossil fuels themselves are moral. They are energy dense and therefore burning them creates a cheap, reliable source of energy that is needed to transform environments and humans. “Fossil fuels,” he said “don’t take a naturally clean environment and make it dirty, they take a naturally dirty environment and make it clean.” If solar power could effectively do that, he would advocate their moral case, though he points out that they have negative side effects that are seldom part of the debate.

The starting part is mastery of the environment, using human ingenuity and energy to make the world a better place for humans to thrive. The climate has no naturally perfect state and is inherently changing, he says. Therefore, we need to rid ourselves of the prejudice that claims that human impacts are bad.

There are graphs and statistics; there are discussions of climate model;: scientists are able to compare model predictions with reality and chart all predictions with the real world.

Philosophy of Energy

Epstein going against the flow at a protest

Epstein begins the book with the story of a hospital in Gambia where a Western medical professional witnessed two infants dying in childbirth: one because there wasn’t the energy to power the ultrasound machine to diagnose the child suffocating in utero and schedule a C-section, and the other 3.5 pound full-term baby dying because unreliable energy couldn’t power the incubator.

Energy is the capacity to do work and is essential for human to thrive. Humans measure energy in calories and have a limited capacity to produce and store power in a way that allows them to feed themselves, clean their water and environment, build sturdy housing, and create transportation.  Epstein states that without machines we don’t have nearly the energy to survive and flourish.

He wants you to realize that any time energy is produced from any source, we are engaging in risk. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar do not just have upsides. He delves into positives and negatives of the many forms widely discussed in current climate debates.

Resource Creation

Of interest to me was the topic of resource creation. He introduces the idea that human ingenuity can increase the amount of resources available by developing the technology to extract material economically.

He explains that oil is not naturally a resource and was considered a nuisance until the 1850s. Fifty to sixty percent of crude oil was refined to make kerosene but the rest was dumped as waste. Later in the century, through ingenuity, those remaining hydrocarbons became valuable: wax, lubricants, and asphalt were created.

In the 1900s, chemists made oil more than a fuel. “Chemists can ‘crack’ —break down—the molecules in a barrel of oil into small parts, and then reassemble them into an unbelievable variety of polymers, including modern plastics,” Epstein writes.  He notes that the oil product in your gas tank comprises a smaller amount than in the rest of your car: rubber tires, paint and waterproofing, plastic bumpers, seat stuffing, and the entire interior fabrics and synthetic materials.

Creating resources means transforming potential into actual, he writes. He doesn’t put much stock in those think living in harmony with natures guarantees that Mother Nature will nurture us.

“Resources are not taken from nature, but created from nature,” Epstein says. “What applies to coal, oil, and gas also applies to every raw material in nature—they are all potential resources with unlimited potential to be rendered valuable by the human mind.”

There are not a finite number of resources but an unlimited potential for creating new resources. The reason the caveman wasn’t swimming in resources is because many of them hadn’t been created yet. And more resources translates into more energy and the betterment of all mankind.

I saw a video of Epstein addressing employees at Google. I’d heard people debate climate change statistics but never heard anyone champion fossil fuels as an engine of human flourishing. That compelled to read this book as well as my own skepticism in how one-sided and illogical some of the environmental catastrophists claims are. They are meant to scare, not educate.

You’ll hear about human flourishing a lot in this book. Epstein does make the case to support his daring claims and inflammatory title. He wants to frame the environmental issues particularly based on progress for humanity. He wants you to think: what is your standard of value? If your big picture idea of fossil fuels does not hold human life as the standard of value, what are you willing to sacrifice?

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