It is rare to find anybody writing about ethics (as distinct from politics) from a serious point of view these days, and rarer still to find book as clearly written and persuasive as The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
This excellent book succeeds on every level by addressing a wide range of issues in a clear, factual, and reasoned manner. It should be required reading by anyone interested in the science and morality of using fossil fuels and alternative energy resources, whatever their ideological perspective on this issue.
Epstein is the founder of the Center for Industrial Progress. At the crux of Epstein’s argument is his observation that the natural environment is far from being conducive to human life. Humans don’t fare well in the natural environment.
As a result, we spend an inordinate amount of time improving our environment by engineering solutions that enable us to be physically comfortable, protected, and safe. At this time, fossil fuels are the most effective fuel to drive the engines of industrial productivity that keeps us alive and allows the seven billion individuals on our planet to thrive. Fossil fuels are abundant, easily transportable, inexpensive, efficient, and can be made readily available day or night under any environmental condition.
Epstein shows that currently there aren’t any viable alternatives that meet these conditions, and that to knowingly restrict or limit fossil fuels is to engage in behavior that is harmful and destructive to human life and productive human civilization. Thus, by the standard of human life, the past, present, and future use of fossil fuels is a moral imperative. For this reason, fossil fuel manufacturers should be applauded, says Epstein, because of the immense benefit they bring to improving our natural environment and making possible our unprecedented standard of living and life expectancy.
The mistake made by the enemies of continued fossil fuel usage, says Epstein, is that they only focus on the ways fossil fuels harm our environment, while ignoring the use of fossil fuels to significantly improve our environment, for example as energy sources for water purification plants and sanitation systems that protect us from natural disease and animal waste.
Epstein concedes that alternative energy sources themselves have merit when used appropriately. From an ethical perspective, the merit of the use of alternative energy sources is determined in a rational and factual way based on the benefits they provide and costs incurred relative to other alternatives.
In presenting his case, Epstein identifies some very powerful truths. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book.
“[T]he power of fossil fueled machines [allow us] to build a durable civilization that is highly resilient to extreme heat, extreme cold, floods, storms, and so on.” (25)
“Ultimately, the moral case for fossil fuels is not about fossil fuels; it’s the moral case for using cheap, plentiful, reliable energy to amplify our abilities to make the world a better place – a better place for human beings.” (34)
“[I]t’s a mistake to assume that because the sun is free…solar powered energy can or will be cheap. Whether that’s true or not depends on all the materials, manpower, and machines involved in the entire process of harnessing the sun’s power.” (46)
“I stress ‘cheap, plentiful, and reliable’ because anything less than that isn’t useful….” (78)
“More fossil fuel energy, more ability to pursue happiness.” (85)
“[I]f we’re on a human standard of value, we need to have an impact on our environment. Transforming our environment is how we survive. Every animal survives in a way that affects its environment; we just do it on a greater scale with far greater ability.” (85)
“[T]he natural environment is not naturally a healthy, safe place; that’s why human beings historically had a life expectancy of thirty. Absent human action, our natural environment threatens us with organisms eager to kill us and natural forces, including natural climate dangers, that can easily overwhelm us.” (86)
“[W]hen we think about how fossil fuel use impacts climate livability, we are not asking: Are we taking a stable, safe climate and making it dangerous? But: Are we making our volatile, dangerous climate safer or more dangerous?” (96)
“If a climate prediction model can’t predict climate, it is not a valid model – and predictions made on the basis of such a model are not scientific.” (104)
“We don’t take a safe environment and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous environment and make it far safer.” (151)
“We don’t want ‘to save the planet’ from human beings; we want to improve the planet for human beings.” (201)
There’s lots of great content between these quotes, and many other highlights, so you’ll want to read the book.
In my estimation, by the end of the book, Epstein has convincingly achieved what he set out to do: make the moral case for the virtue of fossil fuels and the corporate entities that make them easily available, thereby establishing the basis for his overall conclusion that, “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.”
Why Business & Civic Leaders Should Read This Book
While Epstein focuses on presenting a moral case for fossil fuels, he is also making a broader moral case for industrial society and the inherent benefits entrepreneurs and business leaders bring to the physical and spiritual wellbeing of all people.
In addressing fossil fuel use as an ethical issue, Epstein shines light on right and wrong, and reminds the reader that the proper context for all moral issues is human life. Ethics, after all, is the human method of discovering and validating pro-human principles of action. He asks and answers, “But what exactly do we mean by right and wrong, good and bad? What is our standard of value? By what standard or method are we saying something is good or bad, great or catastrophic, right or wrong, moral or immoral?” (30)
He also asks an important question which all business leaders should be asking of themselves and their colleagues: What happens when human life is rejected as the standard of value? What standard of value is human life replaced with? What are the ensuing consequences? Non-human standards of value will always lead to actions that are harmful to human wellbeing and flourishing. Anti-life premises result in anti-life conclusions.
Leaders have a responsibility to understand and consider moral arguments so as not be shamed into believing that their use of fossil fuel energy to improve the lives of customers and constituents is somehow immoral and deserving of unearned guilt. The less expensive it is to feed energy to the machines used by industry to serve customers, the greater is the ability of the dedicated and creative minds of business and industry to create moral, economic, and social value for the well-being of current and future generations of consumers.
In fact, when human life is recognized as the standard of human value, those who attempt to argue from a non-human standard, such as maintaining a pristine earth by adopting mankind’s nonimpact on nature as the standard of value, are demonstrating an “irrational moral prejudice.” A prejudice in favour of non-human moral standards is pervasive in our culture today, not only with regards to fossil fuels, but also with regards to so many of the positive aspects of industrial progress and the advancement of human well-being.
It is incumbent upon our CEOs, politicians, and civic leaders to proudly embrace a humanistic ethics as a basis for creating a better world, and to not sit in passive silence when the ethical basis for the values they hold dearly and work every day to fulfill come under attack. It is a tactical error and sign of cowardice when our most competent, trusted, and respected leaders remain silent on such important issues. In failing to voice their disapproval and remaining silent on such important issues, they are much more likely to be seen by the vast majority of those seeking their leadership as being guilty of moral breaches as charged. When that happens, employees and citizens will conclude that the unjust criticisms and accusations being leveled are valid, thereby undermining their own confidence in the propriety of their perceived leaders. The victims should not knowingly sanction moral impropriety.
As long as industry accepts that the activities it engages in are immoral, and thinks that the best public relations strategy is to keep apologizing as long as, and until, it can no longer get away with it, critics of business and industry will always appear to have the moral high ground. The facts, however, tell a different story. With very few exceptions and usually of their own making, entrepreneurs and business leaders who lead in the creation of new wealth and the improvement of human wellbeing occupy the moral high ground. And once they know it, they can stop apologizing and lead with confidence and moral certainty that it is they who are doing humanitarian work, because they accept human life as the standard of moral value. Leaders require moral authority to lead. Moral authority, like leadership itself, must be earned through action.
The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels is available from amazon.
Alex Epstein can be seen in this 2015 episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin.
© 2017, Barry L. Linetsky, All Rights Reserved