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The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels
Alex Epstein
read on January 1, 2016

Epstein starts off on the right foot. He kicks things off by defining his normative morality as being humanitarian – putting human “well being” above all else. He contrasts this with a needlessly disparaging caricature of his opposition as defining their morality as putting the environment above human needs, and that their normative “good” as a state of nature unchanged by humans. Later in the book he refers to these positions as humanist vs anti-humanist. It is disappointing, because so many good conversations could be had here. I’ve often wondered myself where I sit on this spectrum. For instance, environmentalists often decry invasive species as bad – but why? I understand they can change the local ecology dramatically, and it’s especially questionable when it’s a direct result of human interaction that causes it – but why is it necessarily bad? Is it only dangerous in that small ecological changes can cause unexpected and disproportionately larger changes over time? Is it bad only in the sense that it may disrupt human health or prosperity in the long term? Is it immoral for human activity to reduce the number of wolves, even if it increases the number of elk? Is it immoral to kill plants cause human suffering or inconvenience? Even if there’s no risk of extinction, is it immoral to needlessly chop down a tree? To kill a bear? Is morality only concerned with the suffering we inflict on other conscious creatures? Is any loss of genetic diversity immoral?

I don’t know exactly where I stand on many of those questions, and I don’t think Epstein does either. Epstein continuously pushes the idea that industrial progress (fueled by fossil fuels) has been unambiguously good because life expectancy and average income are up. He gives examples where there are hospitals in Africa that can't keep people healthy/alive because of intermittent power reliability, and says that cheaper energy would solve that. the problem is, he completely ignores the socioeconomic factors here. Is the problem that we don't have enough energy in the world today, or is the problem that we're not distributing it fairly?

Ever since reading the Traffic book, I've been more aware of processes that continuously exist on the margin. In that book the examples were that traffic never actually decreases when roads are expanded, just more people start to drive. Or similarly, as cars get safer road deaths don't actually decrease, people just feel justified driving faster. Back to energy, I wonder what Epstein sees as an ideal long term state of the world? If we can imagine that human beings invent some kind of perfectly free, perfectly clean, perfectly portable energy, what would actually happen? He seems to think this would be unambiguously good, but I have my doubts. Certainly a lot of good would come from it, but you're kidding yourself if you think that in that scenario everyone on Earth would somehow have access to an equal proportion. In this extreme scenario, it's clear to me that people would just keep having babies until the next limiting factor is met, be it in physical space, or sanitation, or water, etc. If we had infinite energy population would skyrocket until those living on the margin could just barely survive. In absolute terms, the amount of human suffering would go through the roof, and we'd completely destroy the Earth in the process. Is that morally good? Epstein says yes. And that says nothing about the current, actually-happening, world conditions caused by fossil fuels. For instance, look at the political regimes propped up by oil reserves. Is it moral to economically support dictators and theocrats? Epstein never considers it.

This was a horrible book. Almost everything in it is as wrong as it can be, and it's not even satisfying or consistent within its own terms. However, it did make me spend some time thinking about what the right questions, and the right answers are for myself. Most disappointingly though, is I don't think it helped me at all in terms of understanding how to argue with someone that believes this. Epstein isn't a retarded, or even uneducated person. He knows what externalities are. I'm sure he's aware of behavioral economics. I mean, it's trivially easy to disprove classical assumption-based econ as a reflection of real markets and market participants. So I'm left feeling as though I just read a religious text, entirely faith based. Is there a rational argument, or dataset, that could possibly get Epstein to consider another policy? I don't think so.

Author Bio:

Alex Epstein has an undergrad degree in Philosophy. Since then, he's worked at the Ayn Rand institute doing who-knows-what, reading dated anti-Soviet propaganda I guess. Since then, despite having zero qualifications, education, or experience in the topic, he's started a pro-fossil fuel "think tank".