Review: “Fossil Future” by Alex Epstein
In Fossil Future, Alex Epstein presents us with the most heterodox of hypotheses: not only are fossil fuels not bad, but we actually need to use more of them. Generally speaking, even the bravest of “climate skeptics” we only go as far as purporting to show the benign nature of fossil fuels. For Epstein, however, fossil fuels are not only a neutral factor in human civilization, but a overwhelming net positive. Because of the benefits that fossil fuels bring us, we should all reject any notion of fossil fuel conservatism and continue and expand their usage into the future.
How does Epstein defend his thesis? One of his main focuses in the book is to clearly understand the standard by which we measure the benefits and costs of fossil fuels. Epstein posits that much of the time, the standard that we unconsciously adopt is an environment-focused standard. Whatever changes or affects the environment around us is bad, and whatever preserves it as it exists now is good. Epstein argues that we should abandon such a standard of evaluation and instead adopt a standard based on human flourishing. Whatever is good is that which promotes human flourishing and that which is bad is what halts or reduces human flourishing.
By adopting this human-flourishing framework, Epstein demonstrates the benefits of fossil fuel usage, as well as their continued adoption and use into the future. Fossil Fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, etc.) are uniquely gifted in their ability to give to us energy that is portable, abundant, and reliable. Other forms of energy, such as many renewables like solar and wind, don’t possess this bundle of benefits. The sun doesn’t always shine, and wind doesn’t always blow, but in order for the hospitals to save lives, the power has to always be on.
Human civilization is in constant need of energy. In all eras and in all places, from fueling fires for cooking to shoveling coal for steam engines to burning gasoline for commuting to work, energy is non-negotiable for human flourishing on this planet. Fossil fuels are the one source of energy available to us that is up to the task of providing energy when we need it, how we need it, and in the amounts that we need it. As a result, as fossil fuels usage increases, every metric of the quality of human life increases well. When more fossil fuels are consumed, human life expectancy, calories consumed per capita, GDP per capita, etc. all increase. From a human flourishing perspective, fossil fuels have massive benefits that absolutely cannot be ignored.
But what about the side effects of fossil fuel usage? After all, the entire climate change problem we face today is a result of the negative impact that fossil fuels have on our environment. Epstein fully acknowledges that both the benefits and drawbacks of fossil fuels have to both be taken into consideration. It is true that consumption of natural gas, oil, coal, etc. all have unfortunate by-products, the most concerning of which is the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. Even so, Epstein qualifies the negatives of fossil fuel usage in two important ways: the catastrophizing of climate change, and the concept of “climate mastery”.
Epstein claims that the effects of CO2 emissions on the temperature of the Earth are real, but have been blown out of proportion by our current “knowledge system”. Put simply, a knowledge system is that way in which information is transmitted from experts and researchers to the public. The knowledge system of climate science has catastrophized in the past before as well. Epstein offers several examples of this phenomenon at work, such as the purported “global cooling” that a minority of scientists were able to present as a impending crisis in the 1970s. Another is the famous Ehrlich-Simon debate, where the catastrophizer’s concerns about the earth’s alleged diminishing resources were proven to be wrong. Epstein proposes that if you look at the actual scientific data, such as that proved by the vaunted UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and contrast it to what is told to the public, there is a clear catastrophization scheme at work in the climate change narrative as well.
Even if the effects are as bad as the climate alarmist claim, we need not fear the repercussions from fossil fuel usage. This is because using fossil fuels gives us a greater “climate mastery”. As human beings economically advance, they are able to exercise greater control over the environment in which they live. Thus, as our fossil fuel usage spurs economic growth, individuals are able to protect themselves more and more from the dangers of the environment in which they live. Epstein brings forward a shocking statistic to demonstrate this point, stating that over the last 100 years, climate related deaths have fallen worldwide by 98%. All the while, we are told that increasing fossil fuel usage is dangerous for mankind even though the opposite is true. As a result, even if climate warming from fossil fuel usage brings substantial negative effects, it is fossil fuels that grant to us an extraordinary ability to protect ourselves from the environment in which we live.
Epstein first put forth his case for increased fossil fuel usage in his 2014 book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. It has been eight years between the publication of his first book and its sequel, Fossil Future, and the intervening years were well-spent. Fossil Future is almost three times as long as its earlier counterpart, and everything that he explored in The Moral Case is expounded upon and given greater depth here. It isn’t often in the nonfiction world that an author will write the same book twice, but Epstein has done so, and Fossil Future is all the better for it.
The issue of climate change is one of the most invasive and polarizing of our times. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be going anyway anytime soon either. For anyone interested enriching their understanding of the subject, I highly recommend Fossil Future. It will present a perspective that I can nearly guarantee you haven’t heard on a topic that desperately needs fresh and nuanced views. The book is packed with information and arguments and even though you may not agree with Epstein by the end, you will be made all the better for having been exposed to his views.