Which would be worse: a hostile foreign regime using a sinister magnetic pulse to take down the entire electrical grid–or the chief executives of the world’s major oil companies having a collective personal crisis about carbon emissions, shutting down their operations, and sending their employees to live the rest of their days off the grid in rural Vermont? Either way, the country goes dark. Transportation stops. Schools, hospitals and businesses close down. We are left to grow our own scrawny vegetables and slaughter our own animals for meat. We cannot even text.
If you drive a car, or use modern medicine, or believe in man’s right to economic progress, then according to Alex Epstein you should be grateful–more than grateful. In “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” the author, an energy advocate and founder of a for-profit think tank called the Center for Industrial Progress, suggests that if all you had to rely on were the good intentions of environmentalists, you would be soon plunged back into a pre-industrial hell. Life expectancy would plummet, climate-related deaths would soar, and the only way that Timberland and Whole Foods could ship their environmentally friendly clothing and food would be by mule. “Being forced to rely on solar, wind, and biofuels would be a horror beyond anything we can imagine,” writes Mr. Epstein, “as a civilization that runs on cheap, plentiful, reliable energy would see its machines dead, its productivity destroyed, its resources disappearing.”
When you consider that most of us live what we would consider decent, moral lives, it seems extraordinary that anyone feels it necessary to write a book called “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.” We use fossil fuels and their by-products in everything we do and rarely consider it a vice. A pang of conscience may strike us when we read of oil spills or melting icebergs. But not when we are sitting on a plastic chair, visiting a power-guzzling hospital or turning on our computers. To call fossil fuels “immoral” is to tarnish our entire civilization and should plunge us all into a permanent state of guilt, which seems a bit strong.
I interviewed Alex Epstein about “How Coal and Oil Improve Our Lives” on the 12 September 2012 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio. If you’ve not yet heard it, you can listen to or download the podcast here:
- Duration: 1:03:15
- Download: Standard MP3 File (14.5 MB)
For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.