Sunday, April 26, 2015

Epstein’s Energy Book: Is the Moral Case Necessary?

Yesterday I quoted from an answer to the Quora question “What do people think about Alex Epstein's new book "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” written by Josh Velson. I want to revisit Velson’s answer, because he seems largely to get Epstein’s main point. Nevertheless, Velson said:

I would not bother with it.

The book is, at its core, basically equivalent to the moral case for increased human energy usage as a method increasing human well-being and decreasing human misery.  The fossil fuel aspect is treated upon at length, and is the focus of the book, but frankly it's ancillary to what I consider to be the only substantive point of the whole piece.  

But here's the thing: anybody practically involved with energy infrastructure knows that there is a moral case for increasing energy use among the population of the poor and economically disadvantaged - and that the only possible way to do that, at least in the short term, is to continue using the infrastructure and fuels that we sustain ourselves upon now.  

Velson’s claim that the moral case is known to “anybody practically involved with energy infrastructure” seems very unlikely, given the fossil fuel industry’s weak, apologetic response to the anti-fossil attack crowd. But it’s undeniable that the moral case for energy is virtually unheard of in the broader culture. Fortunately, Mark Coldren demolished Velson’s assertion that the moral case is in any way obvious, rendering Epstein’s book unnecessary:

My primary reaction is to your qualifier "anybody practically involved with energy infrastructure" to "knows that there is a moral case for increasing energy use among the population of the poor and economically disadvantaged."

My impression growing up in the US educational system and interacting with US culture is that most people don't know there is a moral case for increasing energy use - carbon-based or otherwise. That's why Hans Rosling's TED talk is significant. It's not a very popular idea.

Don't you think it's worth having a clearly communicated popular-market book expounding the virtues of energy-dense civilization? That's what Alex's goal was, and with a publisher behind him he's written this new book with more time and resources than much of his past work, and I've been led to believe the citations are excellent. [Rosling’s talk,  The magic washing machine, extols energy growth in a simple yet powerful presentation. Worth watching.]

Velson, I think, gets Epstein’s main point. But he side-steps Coldren’s question when he answered:

I do own the eBook.  The problem is that in order to "expound the virtues of an energy-dense civilization" Epstein tries to advance the thesis that fossil fuels are the only option, and in order to do so implies that the environment does not have intrinsic value, that renewables are not worthwhile (citing much dubious research, for example on bat and bird deaths) and that climate change should be evaluated using metrics that understate its severity, among many others.  The first point is debatable - like Epstein, I hew to a more anthropocentric viewpoint rather than a naturalistic one - but the others go too far.  In acknowledging that energy is essential for alleviating human misery Epstein overstates his case for fossil fuels.

It’s not true that Epstein holds that “fossil fuels are the only option.” Fossils are the best option for most of our energy needs in the context of today’s technology. But Epstein doesn’t discount the possibility—actually, the near certainty—that some new energy technology, even some advanced form of direct solar energy, can and will eventually supplant fossils. Epstein makes this clear on page 34 (hardcover edition):

“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.”

It is certainly true that Epstein rejects the intrinsic value theory of nature. Intrinsicism is the fallacy that value can exist absent a valuer. The intrinsic value theory of nature implies that anything man does is destructive and thus immoral if it affects the natural world; which means, virtually anything man does is immoral. Intrinsicism is the essence of environmentalism and goes to the heart of Epstein’s case for fossil fuels; pristine, unaltered nature as the standard of value vs. human life as the standard of value—anti-life vs. pro-life.


Where do you hear prominent people openly extolling the virtues of “cheap, plentiful, reliable energy,” and calling for increasing our usage of energy? More likely you’ll hear incessant calls for government-mandated energy conservation, government-enforced switching to unreliable forms of energy, efforts to stop fossil fuel projects, and other forms of energy privation. How often do you hear the kinds of words energetically uttered by Hans Rosling in the above mentioned talk: “Thank you Industrialization; thank you steel mill; thank you power station; and thank you chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books!”

Related Reading:

Epstein to Coal Industry: Claim the "Environmental High Road"

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