“We love energy with conviction, while they hate it with confusion.”
- Alex Epstein
On Sunday, February 17th, 350.org and the Sierra Club hosted the “Forward on Climate” rally on the National Mall in Washington D.C. It was billed as the “largest climate rally in history.” Just like the anti-Keystone XL rally in 2011, protesters pushed the Obama administration to continue to block the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to U.S. refineries.
But unlike the 2011 rally, Sunday’s protesters were challenged by Alex Epstein and his Light Brigade, an “educational counter-protest” whose members wore bright yellow t-shirts and shared their sincere appreciation for life-giving energy. I am proud to say I was part of that group.
Alex et al. did a great job of explaining to an adamantly anti-oil crowd just how much better their lives are because of oil. It was interesting to watch people realize that their whole day was predicated on oil – the polyester clothes they were wearing, the ibuprofen they took that morning, the computer chips in their phones, their plastic water bottles, the synthetic rubber in their shoes, not to mention the gas in the cars they drove to get there (even an abridged list is mind-boggling).
However, one key point that unfortunately never sank in with anyone we talked to is that the climate has become dramatically safer with fossil fuel-driven industrial improvements. It seemed like no one cared about that crucial fact.
Our positive message about energy and industry stood in stark contrast to the protesters’ message of conservation, restriction, and destruction. At times it was hard to stomach – the look on my face in this video says it all – but at least some protesters were internally consistent. The point of the message on our shirts (which read “Anti-Fossil + Anti-Nuclear = Pro-Blackout”) was to show in simple terms that the rally was fundamentally anti-energy, anti-progress, and anti-human. The outgoing young man standing next to me in the video simply went right to the heart of it, declaring “I’m absolutely 100% pro-blackout, pro-population control.” I suspected Malthus’ bad theories were behind the protesters’ bad message, but this person confirmed it.
Conviction Was Ours
As the ice-cold day wore on, the Light Brigade proved to be the more energized group, countering a dull protest that even some supporters called uninspiring. We had the positive message; we had the real way forward. As Alex Epstein wrote:
For “the biggest climate rally in history,” attendance was remarkably sparse. Those of us in the Light Brigade guessed 5,000. We were heartened by the lack of real enthusiasm by the protesters. The Light Brigade, as our videos will show, had real passion–we love energy with conviction, while they hate it with confusion. “Forward on climate” was personified by the shivering, emotionally muted, and fairly sparse crowd leaving early in their oil clothing to get to their coal and gas homes.
In high spirits despite the biting cold, Eric Dennis from the Center for Industrial Progress asked protesters if they drove to the rally in vehicles that ran on pixie dust, and Alex Epstein poked fun at a the man assigned to follow him around and warn people that Alex wasn’t on board with the rally’s mission. As we saw more of the videos from Sunday, we started affectionately calling him “Waldo” because he can be spotted somewhere in almost every take.
Sadly, I didn’t capture some of the encouraging conversations I had with level-headed protesters. Some acknowledged the flaws inherent in letting the government gamble on technologies with our money (although everyone at the rally was convinced that wind and solar power could replace fossil fuels in just a few years). One even granted my point that it’s impossible to say with any certainty what technology will come out on top decades down the road. Baby steps.
I conceded some points as well, which caught folks off guard. Sensible protesters listened as I granted that there are some external costs of producing and transporting fossil fuels, such as occasional oil spills or airborne emissions of harmful substances. I only argued that, rather than focusing exclusively on the costs of producing fossil fuels and fossil-fueled electricity, we should also consider the benefits of everything made possible by fossil fuels.
As an economist, I consider it my job to point out what is not seen. In this case, what people fail to see is the huge opportunity cost of not producing energy, of not speeding industrial progress, of not unlocking the best resources and using them to improve our lives. Then again, what can you say to someone who rallies around banning the very means of existence?