The modern environmental movement is guilty of a great many sins — alarmism, data-fudging, it’s knee-jerk embrace of socialism — but the clear winner is its indifference to human well-being. Occasionally, this manifests itself in open misanthropy, complete with comparisons of humans to locusts who decided to ditch their usual standards of social responsibility and just live in the moment. More often, however, it’s simply a matter of ignorance combined with selfishness: fossil fuels hurt the earth; using them makes me feel bad; therefore, we should try to use less of them ourselves and force others to do the same.
Even if fossil fuels are less-dangerous than advertised — as seems to be the case — this ignores the other half of the the ledger: what are the benefits of using hydrocarbon fuels? Only after examining that can one arrive at an informed opinion.
Attempting a fuller accounting that weighs assets against liabilities is what Alexander Epstein’s new book, The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels is all about. I’m only part way through it, but it makes for good reading and an excellent resource (the charts showing how energy consumption and fuel reserves have increased in the past few decades while pollutants have decreased over the same period are, themselves, almost worth the cover price). For a short introduction, I’d also recommend the Cato Daily Podcast interview with Epstein from a few months back. Reason’s Ronald Bailey offers a qualified endorsement, with the negatives being based more on a dislike for Epstein’s framing of the argument than a disagreement with it.
Simply put, modern life is dependent on energy consumption and the more energy one has access to, the better one’s average quality of life. This isn’t simply about our favorite electronic devices: without our modern levels of energy, we’d lose our economy, as well as also our abilities to keep people warm in the winter, cool in the summer, cured when sick, and fed when when hungry. As F.A. Hayek argues more generally in The Fatal Conceit, prosperity engenders responsibility:
Like it or not, the current world population already exists. Destroying its material foundation in order to attain the ‘ethical’ or instinctually gratifying improvements advocated by socialists would be tantamount to condoning the death of billions and the impoverishment of the rest.
If we care about others, we need energy and — despite billions of dollars and years of research — no other resource has yet shown itself to be as reliable, scalable, inexpensive, or easily-used and transported as fossil fuels.
Obviously, we should keep looking at alternatives — hey, we might find something even better! — and try to improve on what we have. No one, after all, wants pollution and there is some point at which the costs would outweigh the benefits.
But as Epstein argues, we aren’t anywhere near it.