The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: A World of Oil

The Moral Case for Fossil FuelsMost of us have probably been pretty happy about the relatively low gas prices we’ve been enjoying since late last year. Not surprisingly, however, environmentalists driving to the latest Keystone pipeline protest aren’t quite as joyful. Lower gas prices generally mean increased consumption and for the average movement environmentalist that’s one step closer to their imagined apocalypse. In their world increased use of fuels, particularly fossil fuels, is nothing short of immoral.

Alex Epstein would disagree with that judgment and does so with the recently released The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Epstein argues that for decades we have been told one side of the fossil fuel story and it’s time that we consider the enormous benefits that they have provided humanity for the century or so that civilization has been powered by them. Moreover, he asserts, the opponents of fossil fuel have traded in myths in support of their cause and that needs to be remedied if we are to have a serious conversation on fossil fuel usage.

The core argument at the heart of Epstein’s book is that in the debate over fossil fuels, few – even their proponents – discuss their moral positives. Epstein argues that no other technology is capable of meeting the needs of the planet’s inhabitants. It is thanks only cheap and reliable fossil fuels, he writes, that we have improved the living standard of billions of human beings. It is a moral obligation, he asserts, to use more fossil fuels to improve human lives, the global economy and the environment.

Epstein makes his case while exploring the various debating points that the opponents of fossil fuels generally utilize. Much of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels explores the environmental aspect of fossil fuel use, most notably climate change. Epstein argues that fossil fuel use has increased life spans, cleaned the air and brought food to people where there was limited availability before. To be sure, Epstein isn’t sanguine about the negative aspects of fossil fuel use and notes that risks need to be managed properly and technology employed to reduce pollution in places, such as China, where economic growth may have been given outsized priority.

Is this fossil fuel powered economic growth sustainable? Epstein answers in the affirmative, but only if we declined the opportunity to pursue so-called “sustainability” practices. How much oil remains to be extracted is perennially debated but Epstein believes that the amount of fossil fuels yet to be taken far outstrips what we’ve taken to date. Our only limits is the yet to be developed technology and economic viability to do so. We have the fuel, the only issue will perhaps be paying for it.

So is Epstein correct? It is undoubtedly true that fossil fuels have powered human civilization to undreamed of heights. It is also true that on most environmental markers the predictions and assertions by environmentalists have been resoundingly incorrect. No one can argue that in the metrics used to gauge human life that the average person is far better off than those of only a century ago. More difficult to determine is the easily availability of future supplies. The fly in the ointment is that more expensive ways to extract fossil fuels will likely mean more expensive energy costs for everyone.

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels is regrettably the type of effort that will preach only to the choir, and will either be ignored by environmentalists or reacted to with vitriol. That’s unfortunate because Epstein has argued a fairly persuasive case and deserves to have an debate with environmentalists where they can attempt to rebut his arguments with honest facts. He won’t get that debate, and I have a feeling that Epstein isn’t surprised by that. He can be thanked for a compelling counterargument that his opponents may be avoiding but a growing number of people weary of the strident claims of environmentalists are taking note of.

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