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Reclaiming the Moral High Ground (Epstein’s new energy primer)

“Although trained as a philosopher, [Alex] Epstein is perhaps best described as a happy intellectual warrior whose main goal is to rewrite the dominant romantic/authoritarian narrative that nowadays underlie energy and sustainability debates.”

To people who lived through them, the “good old days” were more akin to Hobbesian trying times where life was much more solitary, poorer, nastier, brutish and shorter than in our “Age of Energy.”

In a world where no good deed goes unpunished, however, hydrocarbons and the people who locate, refine and deliver them in usable forms are loudly condemned as toxic threats by activists who would rather have energy-starved masses consume little, distant, costly, intermittent, unreliable, and low-density alternative energy cupcakes.

Even more disheartening is how many energy executives have been shamed into paying lip-service (and a fair amount of “sustainability” and “green partnership” consulting fees) to their most virulent detractors.

Enter Alex Epstein, the young dynamo behind the Center for Industrial Progress (CIP)  and regular contributor to this blog. (Disclaimer: Alex is a virtual friend, meaning we have only met through Skype.)

Although trained as a philosopher, Epstein is perhaps best described as a happy intellectual warrior whose main goal is to rewrite the dominant romantic/authoritarian narrative that nowadays underlie energy and sustainability debates. He recently summarized his main insights and achievements in a short free e-book “Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet.”

Epstein’s main message is that environmentalists have “put forward the myth that a better environment means ‘saving’ the planet from human industry,” whereas in fact humans who have been lucky enough to join the international division of labor and benefit from ever greater energy use have increasingly insulated themselves from bad weather, diseases and food shortages.

In other words, the story told by long-term trends runs directly counter to the dominant green narrative. Reducing our carbon footprint, it turns out, is a one way road to greater misery and environmental devastation. Until something better comes along, increasing our carbon footprint is the only proven way to help billions of individuals live longer, happier, healthier, safer, more comfortable, more meaningful, and more opportunity-filled life.

With facts on their side, Epstein argues, hydrocarbon producers and supporters should eschew apologies (“Beyond Petroleum” and “bridge fuel” anyone?). Rather, industrialists should make a moral case through “aspirational advocacy,” which he defines as connecting educational efforts with target audiences’ deepest values and aspirations (from human progress to environmental remediation).

Epstein then tells his readers how he walked his talk by debating carbon fuel opponent Bill McKibben, who, while professing to love humanity in general, is obviously not too concerned about the actual fate of individuals in his alternative energy universe (a video of the debate is available here).

And as one can always expect some “runaway climate change scenario” challenge to the actual improvements delivered by hydrocarbons, a critical appendix on the subject by physicist Eric Dennis was added to the book.

While I am in obvious agreement with Epstein’s message and an admirer of his grassroots work, I believe that his book would benefit from a more explicit challenge to the crass Malthusianism that is at the root of the belief system of many of my green, but sincere, academic colleagues. Alex can obviously deliver this message with aplomb, and I hope he will consider devoting a short chapter to the topic in the next edition.

Until then, however, the book is free, so please circulate it far and wide!

6 comments

1 Kaavya Ramesh { 07.08.13 at 9:35 am }

“Reducing our carbon footprint, it turns out, is a one way road to greater misery and environmental devastation.”

I’m curious as to why you believe that reducing our carbon footprint causes environmental devastation. I understand that “greater misery” part, since it seems that you are talking about human welfare in modern society. What do you mean by “causes environmental degradation,” though? Would you mind providing an example?

Good post! I’ll be sure to watch the video.

2 pdesrochers { 07.08.13 at 9:52 am }

The main environmental problem is that without hydrocarbons agricultural yields will go down drastically, resulting in massive deforestation and erosion problems (as was the case in the bad old days…). I discuss the issue in more details (with references) in my book The Locavore’s Dilemma http://www.amazon.com/Locavores-Dilemma-Praise-000-mile-Diet/dp/1586489402

3 Nick de Cusa { 07.08.13 at 9:58 am }

Could we have a copy of the graph used by Alex in the debate, “climate related deaths vs CO2″?

4 pdesrochers { 07.08.13 at 10:03 am }

I should let Alex answer, but much of his data on the topic came from the work of Indur Goklany. See, among others, http://reason.org/files/deaths_from_extreme_weather_1900_2010.pdf

5 A Great Debate: McKibben vs Epstein | The Austrian { 07.08.13 at 10:34 am }

[...] Bill McKibben and energy expert Alex Epstein. Very good points made on both sides! Thanks to MasterResource for sharing it. Take Our Poll Share this:TwitterFacebookGoogle +1Like this:Like [...]

6 tfisher { 07.08.13 at 10:46 pm }

If you prefer to hold a paper copy in your hands (like me), you can pick up the paperback here: http://amzn.com/0989344800.

I’ll be spamming my friends and family with it. Alex makes lots of absolutely indispensable points.

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