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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/”environmentalists”–that is, those who explicitly place the non-human environment over the human environment.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Own the value issues. Frac’ing improves our environment. Not fracking is the real danger we face.
  3. 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.”

Some examples:

  • “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.

4 comments

1 Eddie Devere { 09.07.12 at 6:30 pm }

Alex,
Great post. I think it’s important to point of the contradictions in many environmental thinkers.
But I also think that it’s important to understand why many environmentalists hold the following philosophy of life: “the goal of human life is to balance human happiness with the well-being of other life forms on this planet.” Only by understanding why many people hold different belief systems can we hope to have civil discussions and to teach people to be more ethical.

The logic behind most environmental ethics is very a mixed-bag. It’s an earthly-focused rather than a heavenly-focused belief system, and it’s a non-human-centered belief system. It’s a modern belief system in the sense that some of its main foundations are the theory of evolution and the modern (but incorrect) belief that the physical sciences are deterministic and can provide no source of ethics or morality. The problem with the modern environmental movement is it is a walking paradox: it assumes that the scientific laws are deterministic and that there is no morality, but yet at the same time it argues we should trust the science and use the science to determine how to act. Some environmentalists get really mad (and I really really mad) if a new road kills some frogs, but will (when calmer) argue that there is no God and no absolute ethics. Luckily, Plato pointed out this logical contradiction thousands of years ago in his dialogues (i.e. that what ever is natural is good) and refuted any belief system that assumes either (a) there is no such thing as ethics or (b) ethics can be reduced to either “what is natural” or “what God does.”

The problem is that most intellectuals today assume that the laws of physics can’t differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ But this is only a historical artifact of the fact that the first few laws of physics that humans discovered are deterministic. In a world of only gravity and electromagnetism, there would be no ethics. But recent discoveries are showing that not all of the laws of physics are deterministic and that there exists self-replicating structures that can estimate future outcomes of actions, and hence can be called ‘free-agents.’
What recent physics is telling us now is that ethics is a part of the world, and that the goal of life is to grow life as a means of increasing the symmetry of the universe. Many conscious life forms can make decisions on whether or not to grow life and increase the symmetry of the universe, so ethics applies not just to humans. Ethical actions are those actions that purposely grow life. As humans, we should rightly be concerned with ourselves, our family, our friends, and our neighbors, but there’s nothing wrong with humans wanting to help grow life by planting trees or colonizing other planets with non-humans, as long as the action helps grow life (rather than just waste useful energy) and doesn’t violate the rights of conscious beings (humans, apes, dolphins, etc…).
Alex, Please keep up the hard work of pointing out the contradictions of modern no-growth environmentalists. We desperately need people like you communicating that it is moral to build power plants that help grow life.
But I think that you would be a lot more effective in communicating to a wider audience if you take your case without needing to claim that ethics are human-centered . Ethics is not human-ego-centered. The goal of life is to not to maximize personal happiness or even to maximize human happiness. Modern scientific utilitarians are walking contradictions just like modern environmentalists (many utilitarians don’t believe that science leads to ethics, but somehow pull a rabbit out of a hat and say, “well consciousness is not physical, so happiness doesn’t follow from the laws of physics, and therefore, it’s okay to make ethical statement about our mental states.”)
Ethical actions are ultimately those actions that grow life while respecting the rights of other conscious beings.

2 Cairenn Day { 09.08.12 at 7:50 pm }

Alex,

I maintain that the use of oil and gas has allowed us the luxury to be able to worry about our environmental impact on nature. When one is hungry, one does not care if that is the last ‘unicorn’ on earth. Your concern is making sure you and your children survive till tomorrow.

We have been able to feed more folks with less land, not just because of fertilizer’s and insecticides, but also because we reduced the amount of land needed for fodder crops. Areas of the East Coast now have forests where fields stood at the end of the 1800s. Using animals for transportation required a lot of food for them.
Many areas of the US have more wildlife today, than they did 50 or 75 yrs ago. In fact much of the wildlife is adapting to urban environments, even older parts of the city. I live in an area that was developed in the early 50s, when I was a child, it was a treat to see a squirrel here. Today, there are lots of squirrels, some opossums, raccoons and there has been a bob cat nearby. I have heard an owl and seen a hawk flying overhead. I seem to be too far from any creeks for coyotes, however.
Using oil and gas for fuel also reduced the demand for firewood and thus that also helped the environment.

You mentioned some ways they have contributed to health. I have some more. While oil does cause some air pollution, it is a lot less than the pollution from wood, dung or coal. The problems of indoor pollution are often forgotten today in the developed world. Removing horses and oxen as beasts of burden, reduced the insect and rodent populations in cities as well.
You mentioned hunger, but what about making a balanced diet available to many more folks? We forget that 70 years ago, oranges were an expensive treat in many areas, bananas were exotic, if you didn’t live in a seaport.

We need more realistic environmentalists, ones that understand that we are a PART of the environment, just like other animals. Some of the extreme environmentalists object to the human presence on the planet, hurt the environmental movement, more than they help it

Without the development of oil and gas, would there be any whales left today?

3 Jon Boone { 09.09.12 at 5:59 pm }

Insightful comments, Cairren. Thanks for posting them. The leisure we harvest as a function of our time saving machines fueled by high energy concentrates does indeed give rise to a more contemplative morality, not least because we have more choices about how we can live on the planet. To reinforce your thoughts about today’s quality of life, here’s a link that describes the problems endured by humanity for eons in consequence of burning biofuels, in this case wood: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-fireplace-delusion. We no longer must do what many of our ancestors had to do (although, alas, this is still the case for many around the world who live without access to fossil fueled economies.

One of the benefits of having more time to think has been to better understand the nature of risk–and how, more fitfully, to mitigate risk for our posterity. In looking back over the last 400 years of western civilization, as Rockefeller University’s Jesse Ausubel has done, what becomes clear is how the trend line points to less and less per capita use of carbon fuels. Absent the apocalypse prayed for by many ideologues today, long range energy policy will very likely embrace saving as much land and protecting as much water as possible consistent with the most informed notions of public/environmental health.

4 Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup | Watts Up With That? { 09.09.12 at 11:05 pm }

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