As you can probably tell from the title of his book, Alex Epstein is not a man with conventional views. A small business owner from California with a background in moral philosophy, Epstein has set out to defend as good something that, in modern society, is almost universally regarded as an evil: our continued and expanding usage of fossil fuel energy.
Epstein’s academic background gives him a unique, big picture perspective on the issue at hand. For him, the central problem with the modern Green movement is not its ignorance of economics, nor the dubious nature of some of its scientific claims, but rather its lack of a clear moral standard. Sometimes, environmentalists talk as if human happiness were their primary concern; other times, they talk as if protecting nature from human beings were their primary concern (a viewpoint which strangely excludes humanity from the realm of nature. Are human beings not animals too?). Epstein is an unashamed humanist; for him, human life is the standard of value, and that which is good is that which improves human lives.
Armed with a clear moral sight, Epstein takes aim at the assumptions which lie at the heart of modern environmentalism: the idea that human activity has made the environment worse, that burning fossil fuels has made the climate less liveable, that everything that was once pristine is now dirty and soiled. These assumptions, as the author shows, cannot stand up to the hard facts. The air and water are cleaner today than they have ever been, the number of deaths from climate related clauses has fallen dramatically over the last century, and people all over the world are living better and longer lives.
Epstein doesn’t deny that fossil fuels have downsides. What he does deny is that these downsides justify drastically curbing our usage of oil, coal and natural gas. On the contrary, he recommends increasing our usage. In contrast to the famous Greenhouse Effect, Epstein describes what he calls the ‘Energy Effect’. Human beings, when given access to affordable, reliable, abundant energy, are able to transform our environment, making it cleaner and safer, and allowing us to protect ourselves from the vicissitudes of climate.
It’s not the case that what was once an hospitable climate has been rendered inhospitable by human activity. On the contrary, the climate has always been inhospitable, but human innovation and development has made that irrelevant. Epstein argues that, rather than focussing on reducing our tiny effect on the global climate, we should focus on increasing our massive effect on our ability to survive and prosper regardless of climate conditions. Rather than curtailing people’s energy usage, we need to make energy as available as possible, to encourage global innovation and industrialisation.
The only energy sources cheap enough, reliable enough and abundant enough to allow for this are nuclear fission, hydroelectric power, and fossil fuels—especially fossil fuels. Wind and solar just won’t cut it. Maybe some day they will but, Epstein argues, some day is not now, and asking people to switch over to wind and solar now will only stifle innovation and make it harder for us to develop the next form of superior energy technology. Most importantly, depriving the developing world of fossil fuels will lead to millions of premature deaths. If our standard is human life, we have to recognise that increased usage of fossil fuels is a massive boon for human life.
For decades, alarmists have predicted imminent catastrophe unless we drastically curb our usage of fossil fuels; they have predicted widespread death from droughts, storms and massive sea level rise. Instead, the consequences of emissions have been minimal; at the same time human well being and environmental quality has improved globally by every measure, all while (and all thanks) to our increased consumption of oil, coal and natural gas.
Epstein is a great communicator. He doesn’t bombard you with complex statistics, obscure terminology and emotionalist predictions; instead his explanations are always calm, rational and easy to follow. His book is written for the layman, and can be understood without any background in science or philosophy. The work is well structured and quite comprehensive.
If I were to make one criticism of the book, it would concern its lack of detail on how to deal with the side effects of fossil fuel usage. Epstein concedes that fossil fuels have their downsides, and that it is necessary for the government to take action against pollution and excessive emissions. What he doesn’t explain is how exactly this should be done e.g. should we have a carbon tax? Should we ban less efficient car engines? Should we take action directly to remove pollutant matter from the air? Neither is Epstein too clear about the threshold above which pollution should be considered a problem. He eschews both the utilitarian and extreme libertarian positions on pollution, in favour of…well, I’m not quite sure.
Overall though, I think Epstein’s book is excellent. The perspective it offers on energy and environmentalism is almost unheard of in public discourse. Scaremongering and hyperbole are rampant, and the kind of calm, big picture, evidence based thinking that Epstein advocates is sorely needed. We need a new environmentalism, an environmentalism focussed not on minimising human impact,but on improving our environment to make it more and more congenial to human well being. It seems to me that Epstein’s approach is what we’re looking for.