Book Review: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

The Moral Case for Fossil FuelsThe Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex J. Epstein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m writing this because I want to allow myself some credit for having read this book. It is my sincere hope that no one reading this review will believe that I endorse the arguments in it. It will take some time to more fully understand them and work through a response to them, but this may suffice for now.

Alex Epstein is certainly an intelligent, articulate writer. He makes what appears to be a compelling case for continued use of fossil fuels to allow humanity to thrive and prosper. However, even at a quick glance it also appears that he is minimizing, or even completely ignoring the costs of that continued use.

“Human ingenuity can dramatically increase the amount of coal, oil, or gas that is available” (p. 18). Yet we need to drill in permafrost regions or deep ocean waters, blast the tops of mountains away and dump the poison-laced rubble in nearby streams, or inject brine deep into the ground and trigger nontrivial seismic events in order to do so.

Throughout the book his only reference to greenhouse gasses is to carbon dioxide. This ignores other carbon compounds such as methane that are many times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

On page 27 he compares the warnings of climate scientists to financial/investment advice given in the years leading up to the 2007–2008 financial crisis: take on more debt, riskier debt, because the things securing that debt are going to increase in value indefinitely. Doesn’t his own philosophy and advice compare more favorably with that advice, and aren’t the predictions and advice of climate scientists urging us to err on the side of caution, if anything?

He states on page 24 that the number of deaths related to climate is fifty times lower now than it was 80 years ago, even though CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have risen dramatically in that time. On page 62, in arguing in favor of nuclear energy, he observes that there have been zero deaths related to nuclear energy in the free world. That is true, but Chernobyl must be considered when evaluating the safety of nuclear energy.

I couldn’t help but think of the principle that it is possible to make statistics say anything one wants them to.

Fossil fuels allow us to pursue personal happiness (pages 84–85). This is central to his argument. Moreover, he affirms that his moral philosophy is based in the philosophy of Ayn Rand (pages 138, 213).

Mr. Epstein repeatedly claims that the greatest good is human flourishing. The resources we find around us are to be used in pursuing that aim. Their value is only seen in light of that aim. As a Christian I would argue that the created world, the environment from which we extract resources, is good in and of itself (Genesis 1:25) and deserves our protection even if we need to deprive ourselves of some physical pleasures. Yes, we need to use the resources we have to provide reliable medical care to people in The Gambia (pages 38 and 39) or clean drinking water to people in many developing nations. We don’t need to use the resources we have to indulge our passion for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (p. 85) if it means that we despoil the planet in the process.

Full disclosure: I enjoy a standard of living—yes, thanks in part to fossil fuels—that is obscenely high by global standards. If you’ve read this book and find yourself in a similar frame of mind, I’d welcome your thoughts.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

  1. Henry 2 March, 2017 / 12:49 am

    Thanks for taking Epstein to task for such a shameful book. Anyone who is a bedfellow with Ayn Rand has already established the lowest bar possible for ethical, compassionate and moral behavior because Rand has no moral compass other than selfish gratification. What is so shocking is that so many of our fellow “human beings” buy into such an empty philosophy of greed and Darwinian self empowerment as the basis for how they live their lives. Shockingly also is the fact that they often conflate such a shameful philosophy with their religious faith, whether Christian or otherwise. This is an incredible demonstration of self delusion.

      • Henry 2 March, 2017 / 4:50 pm

        Bless you Jerseybackyard. Thank you.

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