Three Philosophical Questions About Energy (Interview)
[Editor Note: This interview of Alex Epstein was conducted by Jordan McGillis, a graduate student at Seton Hall University. Mr. Epstein, a philosopher, has expanded the energy debate in recent years by adding a moral and interpretive dimension to classical energy-policy debates.]
1. It’s been objectively demonstrated that practices such as frac’ing produce abundant, affordable, and reliable energy, and yet, they are virulently resisted by much of the public. Why, despite the evidence of frac’ing’s value, is it, along with other productive practices, so loathed? Are there some underlying political or philosophical ideas at work here?
I think it’s important to make a distinction between the opposition of environmentalist leaders and the opposition of those duped by their claims. The vast majority of Americans would certainly embrace hydraulic fracturing if they understood what it did, how it works, and what the (remarkably small) risks are vs. the risks of not hydraulically fracturing.
Consider: this is a technology that literally cures hunger–through natural-gas-produced fertilizers, through oil-powered agricultural machinery. It cures disease–through insecticides synthesized from oil and gas, and through pharmaceuticals, also synthesized through oil and gas. And it “cures” unemployment, both from the productive opportunities it generates within the field of energy production, and the lower energy costs it bequeaths on every other American industry.
The alleged risk is groundwater contamination, which has nothing to do with frac’ing, which occurs thousands of feet of impermeable rock below the water table. It’s just a standard, relatively minor and eminently manageable risk. Unlike the risk of not frac’ing, which guarantees unnecessary suffering and death.
When I frame the issue in this way, I have yet to meet a person who objects to frac’ing outside of committed anti-industrialists/”
The problem with the public’s view of hydraulic fracturing, as with every other practical form of energy, is that its advocates don’t know how to advocate it as a moral ideal, they allow the other side to own the value issues (such as a healthy environment), and they allow the other side to frame the moral choice we face (for example, choosing between safety or “dangerous” frac’ing). If you look at who wins debates, there are at least three things that winners do:
- Offer a compelling ideal. America should aspire to energy growth, to be a society where more energy means more productivity, more enjoyment of life, more environmental improvement, more innovation, more progress. Frac’ing is the greatest energy innovation of the last 25 years, and can accelerate our energy growth like nothing else.
- Own the value issues. Frac’ing improves our environment. Not fracking is the real danger we face.
- Present a clear choice between right and wrong. We are at a crossroads: we face the choice between embracing energy progress through one of the greatest technological achievements of our time, or caving to fear-mongering and embracing energy stagnation.
Based on our experience at the Center for Industrial Progress (CIP), if this approach of taking the moral high ground were applied throughout industry, politics, and the think-tank world, the anti-industrialists would lose their moral authority and be exposed as the technophobes they are.
2. A popular buzz term these days is “energy security.” Is there some particular threat against our ability to produce the energy we need to support our lives? If so, what is this threat?
“Energy security” is what philosopher Ayn Rand called an “intellectual package-deal”–it blends together two dissimilar concepts in a way that creates confusion.
One aspect of “energy security” is the security of our energy supply from foreign enemies. This threat, incidentally, is significant wherever your energy is produced and whatever kind it is. Because energy is fundamental, it is a natural target, whether that means cutting off an oil trade route or slashing key cables of the proposed national “smart grid.” This category of “energy security” is important, and should be dealt with by a confident, self-interested foreign policy.
The other form of “energy security” is a woozy idea that our supplies will be insecure unless X percent of energy is produced domestically. This is a dubious idea, mostly applied to oil, by people who don’t have a very good understanding of how globally integrated the economy is–and what benefits that confers on us in terms of energy reliability. And reliability is really the issue. Talk of “energy independence” ignores the fact that any attempt at an energy subsistence farm means a) more expensive energy, by definition (if all domestic energy was cheaper, you wouldn’t have to coerce people into using it) and b) dependence on a single government’s rationality or lack thereof.
From my perspective as a consumer, it’s crucial to be part of a network wherein if the US government suppresses energy policy-wise or there’s just an unforeseen disaster, we can potentially trade with any energy producer in the world. True reliability lies in being free to pursue as many options as possible, not putting all of one’s eggs in a nationalist government basket.
Of course, I advocate removing all barriers to domestic production of energy, and that would naturally lead to much greater amounts of domestic production.
3. In the face of the massive environmentalism propaganda machine, what are some key concepts that need to be upheld or attacked to convince people of the critical link between energy and life here on Earth?
There are a lot of key concepts to be aware of, but before going into specifics it’s important to stress the importance of using concepts with extreme precision and caution. The precision of your concepts is the precision of your thinking, and people who try to get across bad ideas know that the easiest place to start is by using woozy terms that lump in their bad idea with something good. Again, this is the idea of the “intellectual package-deal.”
- “The environment.” No one at CIP says “the environment,” we only speak of “our environment,” “the human environment,” or “the non-human environment.” To speak of “the environment” is to talk about an environment without being clear on whose environment you’re talking about. For “environmentalists,” this is great, because they can perpetually switch between the human environment (say, pollution) and the non-human environment (say, Kangaroo rats). Thus conceptual deception enables them to convince people that sacrificing housing developments to Kangaroo Rats is somehow protecting them from pollution.
- “Renewable energy.” See my article in MasterResource. This is not a scientific or economic classification, it is a (Green) religious classification that worships the (non-existent) infinite.
- “Pollutant.” No material is inherently polluting, independent of quantity and context. And CO2 is very far from that. There is “pollution,” but that requires specific demonstration of health hazards perpetrated against specific individuals.
- As a good term, I like (big surprise) “industrial progress.” That’s the improvement of our environment through industry and technology.
- In general, “environmental improvement” is a useful concept. It’s accurate, it’s idealistic, and it reframes the issue away from the false alternative of “low environmental impact” vs. “high environmental impact.”
This is a huge issue, which we are addressing comprehensively in our upcoming online resource, The Industrial Encyclopedia. That gives an issue-by-issue breakdown of the most important energy/environment issues, framed in a way that we believe will most clearly enable readers to see the relationship between a given issue and human life. It does not talk about “the environment” (except in the fallacies section) because that is on obstacle to individuals understanding the relationship between energy and life.
Ultimately, the advocates of freedom need to be on the premise that we need better methods of making people understand, embrace, and ultimately demand freedom. In our experience at CIP, it’s amazing how quickly people will embrace freedom if you give them the right concepts, the right examples and stories, the right context to file things in, the right ideal.