A Free-Market Energy Blog

Go Industrial, Not 'Green' (Part I)

By -- September 23, 2011

[Editor note: Mr. Epstein, a new Principal at MasterResource, is Founder of the Center for Industrial Progress. Part II of this post is here.]

In the wake of two recessions following two fleeting, largely service-sector bubbles—the dot-com bubble and the housing/financial bubble—America’s intellectual and political leaders are championing the need for industrial progress.

The ubiquitous Thomas L. Friedman takes on the subject of industrial progress in his latest book, That Used to Be Us, coauthored by political scientist Michael Mandelbaum. The book begins by describing a China full of fast trains, stupendous buildings, and an aura of dynamism—and contrasting it to an America in which repairing a subway is a multi-year project. Such images resonate with readers and voters, who wonder with frustration why so much industrial innovation, production, and job-creation is happening overseas rather than in America.

In President Obama’s recent address on jobs, he angrily complained about the state of American industry:

Our highways are clogged with traffic. Our skies are the most congested in the world. It’s an outrage.

Building a world-class transportation system is part of what made us an economic superpower. And now we’re going to sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads?

Obama is right about this much; the state of American industry is an outrage. America has enormous, incalculable, untapped potential to make industrial progress—to radically increase our standard of living through far greater productivity in energy production, in manufacturing, in construction, in mining, in transportation. Unfortunately, the statist philosophy of Obama, Friedman, et al leads them to speciously attribute the problem to lack of government—despite the unprecedented expansion of government over the last 50 years. They propose still more increases in government spending and controls, as if some magic manipulation is going to spark the next industrial revolution.

At the same time, they ignore the most blatant impediment to industrial progress—an impediment caused by policies they support. This impediment is an open secret readily discoverable by asking American industrialists what is holding them back.

When I do this, I hear one theme repeated over and over: it is ruinously difficult to start new industrial projects because of our anti-industrial, “green” policies.

Consider the plight of the modern industrialist. Whether he wishes to construct a new apartment complex, open a coal mine, site a nuclear power plant, build a new factory, drill for oil, he cannot count on clear, objective laws to protect his right to develop. Instead, he must deal with open-ended environmental laws and near-omnipotent regulatory agencies that can forbid any project that is regarded as insufficiently “green.”

The industrialist is virtually guaranteed to face a labyrinth of opposition by environmental bureaucrats, controls, lawsuits, NIMBYs, and activist groups. Every step of the labyrinth costs time and money, and there is no guarantee a project will emerge alive; vital industrial projects can and have been shut down to preserve the likes of kangaroo rats and two-toed sloths.

Given this industrial climate, it is a wonder that any industrial development occurs in this country. Ask any leader of an industrial project how much opposition he faces in refining the fuel we use to drive, in fracking for the gas that heats our homes, in building the coal or nuclear plants that keep the power on, and you will marvel at the inhuman endurance our industrialists possess—an endurance we can’t, and shouldn’t have to, count on.

The “green” labyrinth goes far beyond traditional environmentalist targets such as coal and oil. The DC Metro subway system that Friedman and Mandelbaum complain about has been enmeshed in controversy for years over adding a new “Purple Line” to its system, with rabid opposition. Any proposed new road in California, the home of some of the country’s worst traffic, faces an uphill, if not impossible, battle.

Even allegedly “green” solar and wind projects frequently face environmentalist opposition. Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the biggest opponent of Cape Wind, a windmill project off the coast of Nantucket. Environmentalists were the first to object to a giant solar project in the middle of the Mojave Desert in California.

What is so remarkable about the “green” opposition to industrial projects is that Americans, who supposedly want industrial progress, are so accepting of it. Based on the “green” movement’s actions, one might expect its goals and policies to be viewed with suspicion if not derision.

Instead, the idea of “going green” has never been more popular, with practically every businessman, schoolteacher, and politician trying to prove his “green” chops, in his personal life or at the ballot box. And thus, countless industrial projects continue to be deferred and destroyed.

If we are to make industrial progress, we need to seriously question the idea of “going green,” and its role in our government.

The “Green” Ideal

What does “green” really mean? It is most commonly associated with a lack of pollution and other environmental health hazards, but this is both far too narrow and highly misleading. Consider the range of actions that fall under the banner of “green.” As industrialists experience, it is considered “green” to object to crucial industrial projects, from power plants to dams to apartment complexes, on the grounds that some plant or animal will be impacted—plants and animals that take precedence over the human animals who need or want the projects.

It is considered “green” to oppose not only fossil fuel plants (which produce 86% of the world’s energy), but hydroelectric plants and nuclear plants—which all told means 98% of the world’s energy production. It is considered “green” to turn off the heat or air-conditioning, even at the price of personal discomfort.

It is considered “green” to do less of anything industrial—from driving to flying to using a washing machine to using disposable diapers to consuming pretty much any modern product (there is now an attack on iPhones for being insufficiently “green” given the various materials that must be mined to make them).

Often the same activity will be characterized as both “green” and non-“green”—just ask the proponents and opponents of any given solar farm. The proponents will say that the installation is “green” because it doesn’t use fossil fuels (except, they evade, to mine, fabricate, transport and assemble it), it isn’t mining the earth’s precious “natural resources” (except, they evade, for enormous amounts of steel, concrete, and various rare and toxic elements), etc. The opponents will point to the fact that solar farms, because they use a diffuse, intermittent energy source, take up an enormous “footprint” on nature, that they require prominent, long-distance transmission lines to take to their customers, that they require large-“footprint” backup systems to store energy or fossil fuel plants to serve as backups, etc.

Clearly, “going green” is not primarily about human health—indeed, in its opposition to just about anything industrial, it threatens the industrial foundations of modern health and sanitation. The essence of “going green,” the common denominator in all its various iterations, is the belief that humans should minimize their impact on nature.

“Green” leaders and followers may disagree on how to implement this ideal, and they certainly do not follow it consistently, but nevertheless it is uncontroversial that minimizing impact is the ideal.

But if we take ideas seriously, then the “green” ideal should be more than controversial. It should be jettisoned, as it is squarely opposed to the requirements of human life, including the requirements of a healthy human environment.

The Industrial Ideal

Human beings survive by transforming nature to meet our needs. The higher our level of survival, the more we must transform nature. In other words, we survive to the extent we depart from the “green” ideal.

Nature does not provide us with the wealth or the environment we need to live long, healthy, happy lives; hence the historical life expectancy of 30. To live and thrive, we must create wealth and create a livable environment.  And every new  act of creation, from building a fire to building an air-conditioned home to building the Internet, requires additional impacting—transforming—nature.

The fundamental reason for today’s incredibly high standard of living is that thanks to industrialization—the pervasive use of man-made power to fuel industrial machines—human beings can do hundreds of times more work to transform nature than we could even 200 years ago. But if our ancestors had followed “green” strictures, industrialization would have never got off the ground.

When the early oil industry turned night into day by making cheap illumination available to millions, they did it by drilling thousands of deep holes in rural Pennsylvania, extracting the black gold beneath, refining it into various useful substances, burning kerosene to create light, and dealing with whatever waste products emerged. J. J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway, a private transcontinental railroad that revolutionized American transportation and commerce, required men to mine iron ore from the ground, to combine it with carbon to make steel, to mine and use coal to power the steel furnace, to pour the mixture into molds, to use the molds to make railroad tracks, to lay the railroad tracks across patches of wilderness, to displace various plants and animals that stood in the way, and many more changes to the status quo.

Fast forwarding to today, the Chinese airports and buildings that many marvel at also transform nature on a massive scale—from the magnitude of the physical structures themselves to the coal plants, gas plants, factories, mining operations, oil rigs, oil refineries, and heavy machinery that went into building them, not to mention the industrial transportation system that keeps them maintained and stocked with supplies.

Industrial progress is not “green.” “Going industrial” requires a commitment to impacting nature as much as necessary to make it more hospitable to human life. And it is no accident that in generations past, Americans viewed industrial progress, not industrial abstention, as an ideal to strive for. Earlier generations took pride in transforming nature—in being a people that “tamed a continent,” that built new factories, that paved new roads, that drilled new wells, that mined the earth for resources. Whole towns would celebrate when a new bridge was built, when a factory was erected. They would proudly drive their automobiles, fly in planes, support new railroads, build new roads—without a shred of guilt over the fate of the two-toed sloth.

What about “green” support for “green energy” and a “green economy”? Is this not just a new, superior form of industry? Far from it. Any talk of green industry is ultimately contradictory, which is why such industries never materialize on a significant scale. All energy production requires an enormous amount of industrial development, both in its production and in its consumption.

Thus, environmentalists frequently oppose every power source, including solar and wind, for their various impacts. (They complain that solar and wind farms have the largest land “footprint” of any form of energy generation, which is true.) Similarly, for all the talk of “green construction,” “green building,” and “green jobs,” any activity with a major industrial presence will draw “green” opposition—as the valuable website www.projectnoproject.com aptly details.

The more consistent anti-industrialists are explicit about their goal, including its ultimate implication: de-development and depopulation. Stanford environmentalist celebrity Paul Ehrlich, who likens population growth to a “cancer,” “A massive campaign must be launched to de-develop the United States. De-development means bringing our economic system into line with the realities of ecology and the world resource situation.” Billionaire Ted Turner, a “mainstream” figure, says: “A total [world] population of 250-300 million people, a 95% decline from present levels, would be ideal.”

The true nature of “green” emerged particularly clearly in a debate over nuclear fusion in the late 1980s. Some uninformed news reports announced that fusion—which, if it worked, would be the cheapest, cleanest, most plentiful source of energy every created—was on its way to commercial reality. Many expected environmentalists to embrace this development. They condemned it.

“It’s the worst thing that could happen to our planet,” said leading environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin. Ehrlich memorably said that allowing human beings to use fusion was “like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.” Environmentalist icon Amory Lovins stresses he would oppose any fusion-like energy breakthrough: “Complex technology of any sort is an assault on human dignity. It would be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy, because of what we might do with it.”

Do not make the mistake of writing off these anti-industrialists as “extremists” who don’t reflect on “moderate” greens. While the “extremists” are more consistent than the “moderates,” they share the same ideal—the anti-impact ideal that destroys industrial progress to whatever extent it is practiced.


(Read Part II.)


  1. Wade Ebeling  

    Great article. You only touched on the root of the “green” movement. Guilt. Several of my own family consider themselves “green” aware. They often look at me with pouty eyes and tell me how horrible they feel that more people do not understand our impact on the earth. I do not feel guilt for trying to provide for my family. I cannot fit a cube of block(my work) in the back of a prius{read: pious}. They sleep well year-round at 72 degrees; Guilt-free. I wish I could sum up where this guilt stems from; but, I do not understand it. Maybe someone like yourself could help me.


  2. Ed Reid  

    One wonders how many “noble savages” the ideal “green” world would support; and, how we would get to that number from our current population.


  3. Jon Boone  

    I’ll look forward to tomorrow’s post. But although I enjoyed the take on the buffoonish pontifications of Tom Friedman and the Old Testament attitudes of the likes of Jeremy Rifkin, Paul Erhich, and that pied piper of glib ludditis, Amory Lovins (to whom nuclear fusion must have seemed akin to building the Tower of Babel), I nonetheless am uneasy about giving “industry” carte blanche to stoke the economy. There is nothing wrong with the idea of pursuing an industrial standard based upon having the most power density in the least amount of space at a price affordable by all, as Rockefeller University’s Jesse Ausubel has reminded. In fact, Ausubel has shown how this is the general trendline of modernity.

    There are reasons for environmental “regulations,” ranging from preventing the air and water from being polluted and/or poisoned (all should remember the fires on Lake Erie), to safeguarding habitats for vulnerable species of plants and animals (recall that OVER 95% of the forests in eastern North America have disappeared as grist for our economic ambitions), to incorporating natural vistas and pristine habitats simply for nourishing the soul (we would be less as a nation, in my view, without the majesties of our national parks. And let’s not forget that the Bald Eagle was functionally eliminated as a nesting species in the continental US by-uh–industry.

    I’ve written rather extensively on the displacement behavior of environmentalists as they engage in footpecking about modernity (see: http://tinyurl.com/3lhygfz). And I’ve taken on the galoots of The Sierra Club who now actively oppose all the primary power providers in the production of electricity (see: http://tinyurl.com/yfamlvf).

    What seems to be lacking in this latest call to unshackle industry from onerous regulation is a fair minded sense of the history that led to those regulations. And the aggressive incivility that so aggrieved many citizens. One can see this today as the coal industry, in pursuit of low cost power, removes whole mountains, leaving the surrounding community bereft of a promising future (not to mention the flora and fauna lost). I have long argued that industry action that would likely result in wholesale changes to a community, whether it be a untrammeled biotic area or a town, should build in ways to mitigate those changes as a basic cost of doing business. In this way, government would then not have to get involved. But too often these mitigation costs are ignored, on the grounds that they make the bottom line too expensive. After which, the fur flies. And government, first through the courts because of rational lawsuits and then as a strife-induced regulator, intrudes.

    The public too is schizophrenic about industry, caught in the headlights between knowledge of industry’s frequent displays of arrogance (my favorite whipping boy is GE) and their heavy stock investment in those industries (I boycott all GE products). As a child, I can well remember the sulfurous cloud over a small town in Virginia produced by the town’s main employer, a textile mill. The cloud could be seen ten miles away. In these kinds of situations, the left hand and right never seem connected in ways that can result in coherent policy, either within a family or within Congress. Few things reflect this basic footpecking better than Congressional behavior. In the final analysis, they is us….


  4. Karl Meisenbach  

    City smog and filthy rivers are not good for men (though they are not the kind of danger that the ecological panic-mongers proclaim them to be). This is a scientific, technological problem—not a political one—and it can be solved only by technology. Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death.

    “The Anti-Industrial Revolution,”
    Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution


  5. Ed Reid  

    The environmental community appears to have adopted a variation of the Shylock defense. Industry may take its “pound of flesh”, as long as it does not spill “one drop of blood”.


  6. aepstein  

    Jon, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ll be curious to see what you think after Part 2, in which I address many of the issues that you raise, both about the rise of environmentalism and about what it means to “go industrial.”

    Wade, guilt is a huge issue which I will elaborate on in future posts. But in general, it stems from thinking there’s something wrong about you. To the extent you perceive yourself as departing from the ideal, you will feel guilty of some kind. In tomorrow’s post I discuss the mechanics by which environmentalists get us to accept their false, guilt-inducing ideal.


  7. garret seinen  

    Again we face the dilemma of multiple definitions for a concept. “America, land of the free” can have two different meanings – free from consequences or free to be creative lead us down two very different paths. The nanny state, wanting to protect us from self-inflicted pain, will inevitably restrict most actions. Toss in the ‘green’ standard, that human desires are secondary to maintaining a static earth means that little development will take place.
    But Jon I have a question for you. If someone buys a mountain, grinds it up and causes no harm to other human beings, then when done leaves the site habitable for living things, why should we object? Modifying the environment is something we all do, even to the extent that speaking vibrates previously stationary air molecules. The standard should be ‘physical harm done to humans’ rather than preserving the existing landscape to keep the view as it was to appease non-property owners. We can not buy the view, only enjoy it until someone buys and builds on the vacant lot, just as we did to the people who enjoyed the sight lines before we moved into the neighborhood.


  8. Jon Boone  

    Answering your question would take a book, since it would involve nuanced discussion hedged by a lot of “it depends” conditionals. In brief, however, if the mountain being dismantled were only a hunk of rock forged 250 million years ago by continental collision and then shaped by erosion in ways that purged it from hosting varied, highly contingent biota, I would agree with your premise. Beyond this, I would say that human beings do not exist outside of nature. We and our culture, along with its many artifacts, are a fundamental part of nature. All organisms, including our species, are at work relentlessly interacting with the larger world, in the process reshaping it. But we humans should not, I think, behave like locusts, consuming the earth because we’re hungry–and we can–without regard to what I have called a sense of civility. That is, a recognition of how our actions impose on others with whom we share our world.

    Even the proteins in our cells maintain a continuous, very civil dialog within and without the cell, in order in large part to keep the cell in a rational harmonic relationship with its environment. Cells that don’t do this become cancerous. And, of course, eventually kill their host, then themselves. We’re not cancer. We can do better. And we should.

    Removing something as imposing as a mountain might not result in the physical destruction of any human, as you suggest. However, the destruction of what would likely be many hidden biological interactions, some of which we only dimly understand and can’t yet fathom their potential, is something we should not undertake lightly. There are physical, environmental, economic, social, even psychological implications that should be weighed carefully. One can experience some of these “implications” by visiting areas where mountaintops have been removed and talking with the people there and the scientists who have studied the area before and after. In general, the impression one gets from this is a profound sense of loss and an overwhelming belief that the coal company acted with arrogant incivility. Virtually all feel that there ought to have been a law to prevent this. Which is why government then gets involved….


  9. Kent Hawkins  

    Although I sympathize with much of the sentiment, I disagree with some of the themes in this post. Policy corrections are needed, especially in connection with the avoiding the current emphasis on so-called “green” approaches, and in this respect this post is right. But, it is not getting industrial policy right that is important. It is getting energy policy right, which will lead to the optimal industrial policy and maximum benefit to mankind.

    As I have written in this article at http://www.dimwatt.eu/ (scroll down to “We are not Getting Energy Policy Right – and We Must”):

    “…getting energy policy right, in individual countries and globally, is essential to being better able to make sense out of all the other issues that are critical to us including: human rights, justice, poverty, medical and health care, education, government, justice and social systems, health and medical systems, economic development, and even world peace (add to this list whatever you believe to be important). This is because energy matters are the requisite enabler of other human constructs, all of which are inextricably inter-twined with energy. Effective use of energy is the foundation of the survival and development of our species.”

    Putting industrial policy first leads too easily to overly-nationalistic thinking and incorrect energy policies, for example the illusion of the value of “green” jobs. Again from the above article:

    “I suggest we all know that nationalistic-oriented thinking is not working. For example, the developed nations should be well aware that their high energy availability, and use, does not necessarily provide: (1) national security, (2) economic success, (3) prosperous agriculture, (4) social cohesion, (5) cultural development, or (6) the assurances of a fulfilling future. Neither will it lead to the successful immediate modernization of undeveloped countries. Intelligent access and use must be the policy guide for the realization of these goals.”

    Finally, I agree that we must learn from history, which is a point made in this post. However, it does not follow that we must repeat history.


  10. aepstein  

    Kent, thanks for your insights. I am using industrial in the broadest sense of the term. E.g., industrial civilization, industrial revolution, industrial progress. Energy is a subset of industry, and energy policy is a subset of energy policy. To produce energy requires developing nature, and to consume energy (whether for production or direct) consumption requires developing nature. The key, vital issue at stake in energy and more broadly in all of human life is: Is it right for man to transform nature on a massive scale to meet his needs? My post tomorrow will cover all of this more, including what policy should be.


  11. Jon Boone  

    Again, I’ll look forward to reading Part II, Alex. Meanwhile–and following on Kent’s point–let me suggest that it is energy that is the foundation for all subsequent enterprise, therefore making industry, and all other activity in the universe, a subset to it. More specifically, the task of industry it seems to me is to find ever more efficient ways–in time and space–of converting energy into controllable power. And basic productivity flows from getting sufficient power to allow more time to do a multiplicity of work.

    Patterns of energy conversion and consumption, as we endeavor to internalize our externalities, does indeed involve “transforming nature.” But this is a two way street, at minimum, and more probably an infinite way street, for in the process we also transform ourselves. One doesn’t have to be Hindu to see recurring cycles of construction and destruction, even measured in nanoseconds, as the essence of existence. It is both our blessing and our curse as humans to be conscious of these patterns and because of the power of our minds, to contemplate ways of controlling them, perhaps as steward for this exquisite planet, even as we realize the ultimately futility imposed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

    The proper fit between the natural and built environments, between what Jane Austin called “wildness and artifice,” is one of the greatest human challenges. It has been taken up by our greatest minds and is at the core of our arts, many religions, philosophy, politics, architecture, and, by the end of the 19th Century, as industrialists came squarely up against the concept of resource limitation with the ending of the American frontier, economics. Cheers!


  12. mark holton  

    @ aepstein
    Alex, did you mean to say that energy policy is a subset of INDUSTRY policy?


  13. Go Industrial, Not ‘Green’ | JunkScience Sidebar  

    […] Go Industrial, Not ‘Green’ (Part I) by Alex Epstein September 23, 2011 […]


  14. Breathtaking – Obama Administration Bans Asthma Inhalers | Consumers Alliance for Global Prosperity  

    […] and the founder of the Center for Industrial Progress.  In the first, Epstein highlights how the policies being promulgated by radical green groups actually run counter to the very industrial progress, noting that had […]


  15. john hall  

    Back in the 1980’s,you couldn’t pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading about Rifkin attacking Biotechnology.He filed a ton of lawsuits against it.His main complaint was that scientists
    were rushing to use this technology without a full scale evaluation of it’s safety and it’s impact on
    society and the environment.He raised concerns and issues and warned of unforeseen consequences.But now,with his Third Industrial Revolution,Rifkin’s doing the exact opposite.He getting people all excited and anxious to make the switch to renewable energy.The problem is Rifkin’s not raising concerns and issues with renewable energy like he did with Biotechnology.He’s not questioning the cost,safety and reliability of hydrogen and battery storage and the toxic materials and chemicals used I the manufacturing of solar panels.not to mention the impact solar panels and wind generators will have on society and the emviroment.


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