FBB Book Review: “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels”

Winston Smith

Editor’s Note: Since we are nerds, and nerds like to read, the staff at the Finest Bagels Blog have decided to introduce a new set of featured articles reviewing books we’ve read lately. Out of fairness to our readers, we feel it necessary to provide a link to where the book can be purchased. This is not necessarily an endorsement of the author’s work and the FBB receives no financial gains should you decide to purchase the book. While we would prefer to get our money back for our copies, you can purchase Mr. Epstein’s book here.

The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact.

– Barack Obama

For many in our contemporary society, the debate over the use of what types of energy sources we consume and use to power our lives is not a new one. Since the inception of the environmentalist movement, energy sources and their effect on our environment and wellbeing has been a source of much controversy. Currently, in the United States and beyond, the debate has centered around continuing the use of fossil fuels or expanding the scope of which we employ renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. In his book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein offers a counter opinion to the political and academic elite by disagreeing with the negative views of fossil fuel use and that it is beneficial and necessary to help power our modern society, it is the moral thing to do. However, while Epstein provides moral justification and empirical evidence, the conclusion that he derives from these justifications falls flat.

While titled The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, the vast majority of Epstein’s work is dedicated to more empirically based arguments which attempt to present the case for increased fossil fuel usage. These empirically based arguments create, what Epstein believes, is a factual justification for his moral argument. To further analyze his argument structure, it is first necessary to focus on Epstein’s thesis. Epstein makes his main point clear by writing;

“Ultimately, the moral case for fossil fuels is not about fossil fuels; it’s the moral case for using cheap, plentiful, reliable energy to amplify our abilities to make the world a better place – a better place for human beings. (Epstein p. 34)”

Epstein contends that fossil fuel use “dramatically improves our ability to deal with any aspect of life” and that their use is not “ ‘unsustainable’ but is actually progressive. (Epstein p. 34)” Lastly Epstein makes his case that fossil fuel use is under threat and could lead to a “nightmare” if we were to stop.

Epstein begins his defense of fossil fuels by giving a brief history of the incorrect predictions of many climate scientists to show that what was thought as an imminent danger to us actually has dramatically improved our well-being. In this, Epstein falters in his understanding of the scientific method. Acknowledging that our understanding of the natural world may be wrong at one point does not imply that our current understanding is now somehow wrong. Epstein continues by stating that fossil fuel use globally has nearly doubled leading “to an epic improvement in human life across the board. (Epstein p.10)”, Epstein’s concludes that predictions of doom and gloom made by preeminent scientists have not come true, but the opposite has happened.

With these facts seemingly established, Epstein moves towards the namesake of the book, the moral case for fossil fuels. He asks the question of: “What will improve human life? (Epstein p.13)” With such a lofty question, one would expect big, bold, new ideas. However, Epstein bases his definition on a distinction created between two sets; human life and nonhuman. The standard of human life focuses on what is best for humans while the nonhuman standard is ultimately used to describe the environmentalist standard of values which Epstein identified as “‘pristine’ nature or wilderness – the nature unaltered by man (Epstein,, p. 30),” an obvious mischaracterization of the nature of the environmental movement. Between these, Epstein identifies with the human standard so as to show that the fossil fuels have created much more positive effects on our lives than negatives. Epstein makes clear that preservation of the environment fits within his standard of value only if it improves human life in some way. Summarizing his main point, Epstein writes; “Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous – because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life. (Epstein p.209)”

This moral argument has so many painstakingly obvious flaws within itself that it falters under its own ridiculousness and could only ever dream of pretending to masquerade as a well-functioning thesis. His distinction of standards of value is truly simplistic as it ignores any other alternative for a standard of value. The distinctions made are truly laughable extremes, Epstein provides no reasonable middle ground, which inherently biases the moral conclusion made as a result. Close analysis of Epstein’s standard of value also sheds light on its limitations, as while it is concerned primarily with human development and happiness, it fails to recognize humans are part of an ecosystem. Rather Epstein treats humans as somehow separate from the consequences that would arise from unfettered human development on both the environment and on humans themselves.

Ultimately, his argument comes from a stance of economic and geographic privilege as residing in one of the wealthiest nations of the world without want for plentiful energy while ignoring how his energy use affects those in other parts of the world. For example, Pakistan and its people have been ravaged by the effects of climate change; “The IPCC have associated increasing temperatures with the severity of the monsoon rains and predict an increase in severity.” Within Pakistan, “[n]early half of the population is dependent on agricultural livelihoods; there is considerable rural poverty, urban unrest, land degradation and shortfalls in food production.” These strengthened monsoon rains and flooding have caused “[m]ore than 10 million people were displaced, with about 20% of the country under water” in 2010.

The extent to which Epstein fails to understand these documented, real-world effects of climate change in his moral argument further exemplifies his lack of understanding of how his geographic and economic privilege shapes his views on fossil fuel use and climate change. His moral conclusion is simply blinded, it could never be comprehensive enough as he seemingly is only able to see benefits from fossil fuel use. Enabling fossil fuel use to continue at an exponential pace so as to allow more millions of humans to be displaced is simply not a justifiable moral conclusion.

Leading out of his moral argument, Epstein provides evidence to show that “no other energy technology besides fossil fuels” is able to meet our energy demands. This section of the book is the least controversial as fossil fuels will continue to be a substantial portion of the world’s energy portfolio now and in the near future. In this section, his main argument is that it is “really hard” to “produce cheap, plentiful, reliable energy for billions of people – and the fossil fuel industry is the only one … that’s figured out a solution. (Epstein p. 45)” Problems of reliability, scalability, and cost are all legitimate problems of our current renewable energy sources. While his analysis of our energy consumption is factually correct, Epstein warps this information to strengthen his argument that environmentalists want the world to cut fossil fuels use at a rate that is close to going cold turkey. While many environmentalists do want to curb the use of fossil fuels, this does not mean the total obliteration of our energy sources which would actually lead to a nightmare.

In the continuing chapters, Epstein sets out to prove that “just as energy improves our ability to deal with any aspect of life … it … improves our ability to make our environment healthier and safer from natural and manmade threats. (Epstein p. 34)” Epstein begins by focusing on the greenhouse effect and the fertilizer effect. He believes that the greenhouse effect is correct and at work, but contends that there is no evidence of a catastrophic impact from CO2’s warming effect (Epstein p. 92). This contention is incorrect as rising temperatures from CO2 will bring about many negative impacts on our lives such as life-threatening symptoms such as increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular problems, more frequent and severe weather events, damage to infrastructure, rising sea levels and increased coastal flooding, and the risk of water, food, vector, and rodent diseases could increase.

Epstein then moves to the fertilizer effect which is an effect of CO2 in which plants are fertilized with larger amounts of CO2. To back up his claim, Epstein cites the work of Craig Idso that showed that “more CO2 means more plant growth. (Epstein, p. 114)” While the plant growth may be true, more CO2 has negative effects on plants such as; “the nutritional quality of food crops can be diminished when elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The last chapter that Epstein utilizes to prove his empirical case for fossil fuels use is spent on improvements to the environment. He simplifies his argument stating that through energy use “we could use machines to transform our hazardous natural environment into a far healthier human environment. (Epstein p. 142)” The irony of an individual advocating for continued use of fossil fuels to clean up messes that fossil fuels make seems to be lost on Epstein.

Alex Epstein seems to continually miss the mark in his contention of a moral case for fossil fuels. This book tries to offer a compelling argument for fossil fuels until it comes under any review of scientific and philosophical scrutiny. The most concerning fact of this book is the broad generalizations of some type of mass discrimination of those who would share Epstein’s views. When writing about climate change skeptics, Epstein drew a conclusion  between the labeling of climate change deniers and Holocaust deniers; “A huge source of confusion in our public discussion is the separation of people (including scientists) into ‘climate change believers’ and the climate change deniers’ – the latter a not-so-subtle comparison to Holocaust deniers. (Epstein, p.91)” This statement truly encapsulates Epstein’s views of the world and their relations to those, like Epstein, who do not believe in the modern interpretation of climate change. This book ultimately comes from a viewpoint of someone who feels that they have been personally victimized and desperately tries to show the errors of modern science. If a book that is thoroughly researched and provides solid moral reasoning is wanted, this book should not be recommended. It is nothing more than a thinly veiled defense of processes that have led to direct negative consequences on all human life and will continue to do so if Epstein is able to achieve his final goal of continued and expanded fossil fuel use.

One thought on “FBB Book Review: “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels”

  1. DISCLAIMER: I haven’t read it. However, I have watched an interview with him where he talks about the book.
    That being said, would you not take a vaccine just because it has side effects? I think the point he is trying to make is that the benefits far outweigh the side effects.

    Liked by 1 person

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