Propaganda Shrugged

Reviewed by: Andrew Welch

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels /Alex Epstein

Alex Epstein wants to shake up the way that we think about fossil fuels and challenges which behaviours we consider moral and immoral. In his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, he proposes reframing the conflict of environmentalists versus the hydrocarbon industry. It’s not a question of fossil fuel usage being good or bad – it’s a question of what standard of value we are using to judge it. 

The author is a self-labelled humanist – a term he uses to describe someone who “treats the rest of nature as something to use for his benefit.” The nonhumanist “treats the rest of nature as something that must be served.” What may at first appear to be conceit actually makes sense if we look deep enough inside the value system of most humans. He argues that we should all hold human life as our one and only standard of value.

This is a must-read book for environmentalists and climate change activists, but it’s not an easy read. Firstly, it’s hard to read anything that contradicts your strongly held beliefs; however, questioning those beliefs is essential to gaining a truly balanced perspective. Secondly, Epstein clearly targets an audience on the totally opposite end of the spectrum, opening with ‘proving’ that all the so-called ‘experts’ preaching the supposed detrimental impacts of rampant fossil fuel consumption are dead wrong and always have been. (The ironic single-quotes and sneering italics are his frequent literary devices, not mine.) Thirdly, although he conveniently lists the most common logical fallacies that surface in this debate, he happily (and frustratingly) employs each one in his own arguments.

Epstein is a practical philosopher and that’s where he shines. He’s not a scientist, and when he attempts to take on science, his misuse and misrepresentation of statistics and data is unmistakable and shoddy. He chooses policy-based evidence over evidence-based policy. To be fair, it’s a habit all humans have, being blind to evidence that contradicts our beliefs. Furthermore, he does also present facts that many activists choose not to see. However, he’s also happy to make up his own, such as “if there is no equal or superior alternative, then any government action against fossil fuels … is a guaranteed early death sentence for billions.”

The book is highly critical of mainstream thought leaders because they’re always preaching the costs of fossil fuels and rarely the benefits. This is quite true, and while the reason might be not so much a bias but a tacit acceptance that such benefits go without saying, if we don’t consciously consider them, it may well skew our perspective. Fossil fuels have made near-miraculous contributions to our standard of living in the last two centuries, and anyone who says we should stop using them needs to have their arguments seriously questioned. Fair enough.

Accepting that there are errors and bias on both sides, I’d rather review the essence of his argument – that being, in his words, “Mankind’s [sic] 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.” Consequently, we should burn more, not less.

The problem is the standard he has chosen to judge our morality as a species. He may be a humanist, but his goodness indicators are entirely quantitative measures. More people, living more years, earning more money, to buy more stuff – all good. For example, the only scale he uses to measure safety is number of deaths (including life expectancy and infant mortality) – never health. Happiness? Quality of life versus standard of living? Those he avoids entirely. By his singular measure of success, a planet with 120 billion extravagant consumers, living 150 years each should be a stunningly better place for all (all humans, that is). It’s a deeply flawed more-is-always-better approach for an author who claims to be writing about morality.

In The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein reframes the fossil fuel debate correctly (as a value question), but, with Ayn Rand as his muse, he employs a highly questionable perspective for his big picture, ethical egoism. Still, I think this book should be on every environmentalist’s bookshelf, if for no other reason than Stephen Covey’s “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” 

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein, New York: Portfolio, 2014, 256 pages. Reviewed by Andrew Welch.

Reviewer Information

Andrew Welch is the author of The Value Crisis

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