Alex Epstein’s latest book Fossil Future: Why Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas — Not Less is a witty argument for continued industrial advancement through energy freedom. He convincingly argues that fossil fuels are and will remain the most attractive options for meeting many energy needs while avoiding some of the strongest challenges to their rampant 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, build quality, and well-being. Why, then, are they so often maligned? The book responds by summarizing two contrasting worldviews. The first is the “anti-impact framework,” under which people venerate a supposedly untouched natural world and consider actions that tarnish it immoral. The second is Epstein’s preferred “human flourishing framework”, which considers the “capacity of human beings to live long, healthy, and satisfying lives” as the standard of moral evaluation.
In Epstein’s view, our “knowledge system” – the mechanism by which scientific research reaches the general public – has been taken over by the anti-impact framework, distorting 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 fueled human flourishing to this day, but that they will continue to do so. Transportable, energy-dense, and with the benefit of generations of human creativity, oil, coal, and natural gas are cost-effective and, as Epstein argues, essential to elevating human flourishing to even higher levels.
Restrictions on fossil fuels aimed at halting climate change will eventually set humanity back, writes Epstein. 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 vigorously argues that “the unempowered world” has more to gain from fossil fuel industrialization “in full swing”. Indeed, the data demonstrate the correlation between energy use and quality of life measures such as life expectancy and average income. Readers of “Fossil Future” will have to go to great lengths to deny that promoting global energy abundance is morally necessary.
However, the book stands far from some of the lively and investigative arguments going on today between clean energy and environmental analysts. Epstein begins by praising the foreknowledge of his own book of 2022, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels [O Caso Moral dos Combustíveis Fósseis, trad. livre, sem edição no Brasil], in which he “made the highly unusual and controversial prediction that fossil fuel use would increase, not decrease”. In fact, such a prediction was far from uncommon. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA, the statistical agency of the US Department of Energy) and BP [empresa britânica que opera no setor de energia, sobretudo de petróleo e gás], two organizations that Epstein calls the “leading synthesizers” in the knowledge system, predicted that the use of fossils would grow on their own reports of 2014. According to the EIA perspectives, from 2014 to 2014, the total use of fossil fuels by United States would increase by about 80 quadrillion British thermal units in the reporting year to over
quadrillion in 2014. Consumption would increase by about 1% to 2% per year over the two-decade period of analysis.
This omission deepens as the book progresses. “We need to look at the best versions of the moral argument for eliminating fossil fuels – that is, those versions being made by today’s leading experts,” writes Epstein. “A valuable lesson I’ve 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 cost-benefits of climate policy, or the arguments of political philosophers Matt Zwolinkski and Kevin Vallier and jurist Jonathan Adler. , who note that environmental pollution can infringe on private property rights and that the later consequences of greenhouse gas emissions can as well. Each of these thinkers is reasonably in agreement with Epstein’s human flourishing framework, but they all significantly disagree with him about fossil fuels. Indeed, the most serious arguments for limiting fossil fuel use are made by thinkers who, broadly speaking, share Epstein’s commitment with human flourishing.
Instead, Epstein directs his criticisms to the same list of activists he criticized in his previous book: Al Gore, Michael E. Mann , Paul Ehrlich, Bill McKibben, Amory Lovins, John Holdren and James Hansen. These names rack up appearances on MSNBC [rede de televisão paga de notícias 24 horas sediada nos Estados Unidos], and some remain relevant in progressive circles. Epstein can therefore regard his selections as reflecting the dominant knowledge system. But they are far from the most sophisticated figures in the fields of climate economics, legislation and climate policy. While the arguments he fails to address are often made by people with lower profiles, avoiding them results in a less nuanced portrayal of the climate debate.
Readers Epstein’s earlier work made similar points. In an upbeat review of Epstein’s book of 2014, economist Bryan Caplan encouraged him to resolve the tension between his avowed individualism and the utilitarian implications of his human structure. thriving, and employing more of what economists call “marginal thinking” – that is, considering that while fossil fuels generate economic benefits, it may be that some of their marginal implementations have negative consequences for economic development and well-being. .
Caplan’s recommendations would have been natural starting points for Epstein to grapple with property rights and cost-benefit arguments. In this case, Epstein’s treatment of the property claim is superficial and verges on utilitarianism: he claims that property rights are important, but not so important as to preclude a particular conception of human flourishing. And more caustically, Epstein accuses those who think the marginal use of fossil fuels results in a net negative of resorting to a “smug but futile refrain.” If Epstein wants his prospect to win, he must engage more meaningfully with his strongest opponents. In opposition to Epstein, the choice humans face when it comes to fossil fuels is not necessarily between “full steam ahead” and “rapid elimination”.
“Fossil Future” rightly celebrates the triumphs of industrial and economic progress that coal, oil and natural gas enabled. These triumphs have so completely transformed our world that we often take them for granted. Epstein shakes us from our complacency, supports our achievements, and warns us that they are under threat. But it also presents a false dichotomy that fails to capture the menu of available options. His book may sway some readers to see environmental issues through a more pro-human lens – a necessary cultural correction – but it avoids the biggest challenges to fossil fuel expansion.
Jordan McGillis is the deputy director of policy at the Institute for Energy Research.
©2022 City Journal. Published with permission. Original in English.