Saturday, April 25, 2015

In his Book ‘The Moral Case,’ Is Epstein Attacking a Straw Man?

Joseph Boyle posted this reply to my Quora review (see yesterday's post) of Alex Epstein’s book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels:

Seriously? Every climate change warning I've seen is about terrible consequences for people, while solar is well below $1/watt and the anti-wind cranks (who actually ARE pushing a mythical idea of unspoiled nature) are well skewered by Mike Barnard.

Read Josh Velson's answer to this question. Nobody is advocating the strawman this book harps on.

In his answer, Velson writes:

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 [which is true].  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.  

It’s transparently directed against a straw-man version of an environmentalist that opposes all practical forms of energy provision (this resembles, for example, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, hardly majority organizations).

Here is my rebuttal:

“Every climate change warning” has been wrong to date, and Epstein looks at the track record.  There is no evidence to date for catastrophic climate change; only perpetually failed predictions of catastrophe. I read Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” in 1968, when I was 19. I was horrified. Mass starvation within 10 years! Guess what? No catastrophe. Yet, he’s still around. Same for the steady parade of catastrophe predictions since. No catastrophe. Just a better life for billions.

“Nobody is advocating the strawman this book harps on.”

It’s true most people are not anti-industrial. But bad ideas must be exposed and countered before they can take hold and metastasize. And bad ideas can and have taken hold before. Marx’s “scientific socialism” led to 20th Century Communism. The science of eugenics helped set the stage for Nazi Germany. Likewise, the logical consequences of the environmentalist ideological agenda will be devastating for people, if and when it passes into implementation.

I hope you’re right that Epstein is attacking a straw man. But consider this. There is no evidence that solar and wind can ever be more than an intermittent supplemental energy source. Yet intellectual and political leaders the world over want to cut carbon emissions by 80% in a few decades. If and when unforeseen breakthroughs allow “alternatives” to supplant fossils as a primary energy workhorse, they will without any help from government or any concerted effort to legally strangle fossil fuel development and usage. To force such a drastic cut in carbon energy beforehand would be cruel beyond words. Yet, that is what many leaders advocate, based only on unsubstantiated hope for “alternatives” to come along just in time. The Sierra Club and Greenpeace may “hardly [be] majority organizations,” but their ideas about pristine nature being the ideal, and fossil fuels being bad, have become mainstream. My own observations bear this out. In NJ, 3 new pipelines have been proposed. Opposition is fierce and one-sided, with not even passing acknowledgement by these activists or anyone else about the enormous life-serving energy benefits these pipelines can deliver. Plenty of letters against. But aside from mine, almost no one is openly supporting the pipelines. A straw man? I think not. We ignore bad ideas at our peril.


I don’t know who Boyle is referring to when he attacks “anti-wind cranks.” No one I’ve read or heard is against wind energy. Many, including myself, are against government taxpayer subsidies for wind energy (I’m against all corporate subsidies). But being against wind subsidies is not the same as being anti-wind. It seems Boyle has his own straw man. Or perhaps Boyle is referring to anti-wind environmentalists, who do push the idea of “unspoiled nature; in which case he proves my point. (Boyle says this perspective is “well skewered by Mike Barnard.” But Barnard doesn’t “skewer” anything but his own credibility. I’ll address Barnard’s comments, which is little more than an ad hominem rant, in a later post.)

Related Reading:


Marc Rauch said...

I recently published a rebuttal to Alex Epstein's book titled "The Immorality of Arguing That There's a Moral Case for Fossil Fuels." At the same time it also rebuts a book by Kathleen Hartnett White of a similar title and proposition.

It is preposterous to claim that there is anything moral about fossil fuels, and to claim that we owe any debt of gratitude to gasoline/diesel/coal for enhancing our lives. If a debt of gratitude is owed, it is owed to the inventions that utilize various fuels...regardless of what those fuels are. The inventions were all created without consideration to any specific fossil fuel. Internal combustion engines, for example, were created before the invention of either gasoline or diesel petroleum fuel. The steam engine was not created because coal was available.

The fact is that fossil fuels have been the cause of wars, disease, and ecological and environmental disasters. Every significant war in the past 104 years has been caused by petroleum oil. Tens of millions of people; no, make that hundreds of millions of people have been killed in these wars. To the war dead-toll we have to add the people who have died as a result of the illnesses caused by the use of petroleum oil fuels. Then there's the life-long injuries and disabilities suffered by untold millions more. There's nothing moral about any of this.

Previous attempts to rebuke Mr. Epstein and Ms. White, such as the one written by Jody Freeman, have failed because the writers have as little understanding of history, fuels, energy, and real solutions as Epstein and White do.

You can read my complete rebuttal at

Marc J. Rauch
Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher

Michael A. LaFerrara said...


Thanks. I read your piece.

Right off the bat, I can confidently reject the idea that oil causes wars. True, wars have been fought over control of oil reserves. But that’s only because governments have attempted to seize economic control. In all instances of “wars over oil”—or anything else, for that matter—the problem is not oil or some other commodity, but statism. The solution is individual rights-protecting, constitutionally limited republican government and its economic corollary, free market capitalism. You don’t see conflict between the relatively free market nations of the world, which protect free global commerce, including in oil. Within the United States, you don’t see conflict between oil producing and non-oil producing states.

Even if the use of fossil fuels could be shown to cause more human and environmental harm than good, it does not follow that petroleum oil, any more than any other economic factor, can in and of itself cause wars. As long as the rights of individuals to produce and trade wherever they reside is not seriously restricted by political boundaries, how exactly could a war over oil begin? If people could gain access to oil energy by peaceful means (trade), why on Earth would they pick up arms?