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Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet

[Editor's Note: For the next several days, Master Resource will publish a series of posts with excerpts from Alex Epstein's book, Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet.]

“Humans have the untapped potential to radically improve life on earth by using technology, not to “save” the planet but to improve it for human purposes.”

The basic question underlying our energy policy debates is this: Should we be free to generate more and more energy using fossil fuels? Or should we restrict and progressively outlaw fossil fuels as “dirty energy”?

I believe that if we look at the big picture, the facts are clear. If we want a healthy, livable environment, then we must be free to use fossil fuels. Why? Because for the foreseeable future, fossil fuels provide the key to a great environment: abundant, affordable, reliable energy.

We’re taught in school that the key to a great environment is to minimize our “impact” on it. We think of our environment as something that starts out healthy and that we humans mess up. Not so. Nature does not give us a healthy environment to live in; until the fossil-fueled industrial revolution of the last two centuries, human beings lived in an environment that was low on useful resources and high on danger. [1]

Today’s industrialized environment is the cleanest, healthiest in history. If you want to see what “dirty” looks like, go to a country that is still living in “natural,” pre-industrial times. Try choking on the natural smoke of a natural open fire burning natural wood or animal dung—the kind of air pollution that has been almost eliminated by modern, centralized power plants. Try getting your water from a local brook that is naturally infested with the natural germs of all the local animals—the once-perennial threat that modern, fossil-fuel-powered water purification systems eliminate. Try coping with the dramatic temperature and weather swings that occur in nearly any climate—a threat that fossil-fuel powered air-conditioning, heating, and construction have made extremely rare.

We live in an environment where the air we breathe and the water we drink and the food we eat will not make us sick, and where we can cope with the often hostile climate of nature. That is a huge achievement—an achievement that lives or dies with the mass-production of energy. We can live this way only by getting high-powered machines to do the vast majority of our physical work for us. [2]

Energy is what we need to build sturdy homes, to produce huge amounts of fresh food, to generate heat and air-conditioning, to irrigate deserts, to dry malaria-infested swamps, to build hospitals, to manufacture pharmaceuticals. And those of us who enjoy exploring the rest of nature should never forget that oil is what enables us to explore to our heart’s content, which pre-industrial people didn’t have the time, wealth, energy, or technology to do.

The more affordable, reliable energy we can produce, the better world we can build. In order for everyone in the world to have as much energy as the average German, we would need to produce twice as much energy. [3]

1.3 billion people in the world lack electricity: that means no light at night, no refrigeration, no factories, no water purification. [4]

And all of us could do more with more energy to travel and with lower electric and heating bills.

So it is very upsetting to me to see the fossil fuel industry, by far the best producer of energy, attacked as a “dirty” industry to be eliminated. That is a policy of mass destruction. And unfortunately, it’s not an innocent mistake; the “environmentalist” leaders who hate fossil fuels also hate nuclear power and hydroelectric power, the only other two sources that have provided any significant affordable, reliable power.

The vicious attack on practical energy is rationalized by a phony enthusiasm for solar and wind. [5]

Don’t fall for it. If solar or wind were good alternatives, they wouldn’t need political advocates; they’d win out on the market. But solar and wind have been the biggest energy failure of the last century.

By trying to rely on unreliable, low-concentration streams of energy, they have produced unreliable, expensive power—which is why after decades of subsidies they produce less than half a percent of the world’s energy, and all of it needs to be backed up by fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydro. [6]

Some rich countries have tried to score moral points by paying exorbitant sums to buy and back up unreliable energy sources, and even they can’t afford it. Industry runs on energy, and expensive energy means industrial decline. Germany’s industrial electricity prices have doubled (and it would be more without the dozen new coal plants they are building) and “green” Spain has a youth unemployment rate of 50%. [7][8][9]

If “environmentalists” claimed that we must be forced to replace the steel girders in skyscrapers with wood girders, we would know that the result would be collapse. The same goes for replacing the best energy with the worst energy—the result would be the collapse of an entire civilization.

Are fossil fuels dirty? Fossil fuels have fueled the unprecedented industrial progress that doubled the human life expectancy and produced the cleanest, healthiest human environment in history. [10]

That, unlike Al Gore’s hysteria about 20-foot sea level rises, is a fact. It’s also a fact that even though we hear so much hysteria about the one degree Celsius of climate change that has occurred since the Little Ice Age (half of it before major CO2 emissions) so far, heat-related deaths keep going down and overall climate-related death rates have gone down 98% since we started using extremely large amounts of fossil fuels. [11]

With technology powered by affordable, reliable energy, human beings can adapt to just about whatever happens in just about any climate. Without practical energy, no matter what the climate is, we’re in trouble.

Fossil fuels are not “dirty energy.” Fossil fuels are a health necessity to the human environment. What about the waste? We are incredibly spoiled and ungrateful if we call that “dirty.” Every human and non-human activity creates waste products—certainly building monstrous solar and wind arrays out of hazardous materials does—but technology allows us to minimize dangerous waste. [12][13]

The “dirty energy” objection is a dirty trick. Since everything creates some kind of waste byproduct, you can just oppose it by calling it “dirty.” If you study the mining and the materials that go into solar panels and windmills, and the incredible amount of coal and oil that goes into manufacturing and transporting and assembling their parts, you can call them “dirty,” too. [14][15][16]

The “dirty” objection is just a convenient trick for people who really don’t like any kind of industrial development—people who think that there’s something unnatural and wrong about the modern, industrial way of life. Don’t fall for it. Our nature as humans is to use our intelligence to build a better environment for ourselves. We should embrace fossil fuels, and embrace them with pride in the face of those who would destroy them. Remember this: No energy is dirtier than no energy.
Postscript by Alex Epstein: For those not yet familiar with my organization, the Center for Industrial Progress (CIP), our mission is to bring about a new industrial revolution by fundamentally changing the way people think about energy.

We believe that humans have the untapped potential to radically improve life on earth by using technology not to “save” the planet, but to improve it for human purposes.

But to do that will require massive quantities of cheap, abundant, reliable energy from the best sources available, and the political freedom to produce and use that energy.

We believe the idea that fossil fuels improve the planet is capable of transforming the energy debate, and that every individual on earth has the potential for a longer, happier, healthier, safer, more comfortable, more meaningful, and more opportunity-filled life.

In disseminating this idea, we are especially focused on the energy industry, which has an enormous potential to influence the debate positively–if only it would use it. Thus, we have worked with dozens of energy companies and trade groups on how to take the moral high ground against anti-energy environmentalists.

We hope to see a strong, proud energy industry that is intellectually and morally empowered to defend itself. I hope you will support that goal by sharing our work with anyone it would help.


[1] Indur M. Goklany, “Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity From Nature and Nature From Humanity,” CATO Policy Analysis No. 715 (Washington D.C.: CATO Institute, December 20, 2012), 1; 7, accessed February 15, 2013.

[2] Goklany, “Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity From Nature and Nature From Humanity,” 6, 8, 13, 14, 25.

[3] BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2012.

[4] World Energy Outlook 2012, Chapter 18, accessed February 16, 2013.

[5] Alex Epstein, “Four Dirty Secrets About Clean Energy,” Fox News, June 3, 2011, accessed February 16, 2013.

[6] Anthony Watts, “Saturday Silliness—Josh’s Wind Energy Fact Sheet—Global Wind Power ‘to the Nearest Whole Number,” Watts Up With That?, 2007, accessed February 16, 2013.

[7] Stefan Nicola and Tino Andresen, “Merkel’s Green Shift Forces Germany to Burn More Coal,” Bloomberg, accessed February 17, 2013.

[8] Federal Statistical Office of Germany, “Gross Electricity Production in Germany 2010 – 2012,” accessed February 15, 2013.

[9] Ami Sedghi and John Burn-Murdoch, “Unemployment in Europe: get the figures for every country,” The Guardian, accessed February 16, 2013.

[10] Goklany, “Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity From Nature and Nature From Humanity,” 7.

[11] Ibid., 20.

[12] Caroline, “Panel Plant Pollution,” Things Worse Than Nuclear Power Blog, accessed February 16, 2013.

[13] Caroline, “The Real Waste Problem, Solar Edition,” Things Worse Than Nuclear Power Blog, accessed February 16, 2013.

[14] http://www.nrel.gov/pv/thinfilm.html>“Polycrystalline Thin-Film Materials and Devices R&D,” National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2011, accessed February 16, 2013.

[15] Simon Parry and Ed Douglas, “In China, the true cost of Britain’s clean, green wind power experiment: Pollution on a disastrous scale,” Daily Mail, January 26, 2011, accessed February 16, 2013.

[16] Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, (New York: PublicAffairs, 2012) 5, 14.