The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels [Book Review]

We are hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels. Extraction and combustion of coal, natural gas and oil threaten the biosphere. Thanks to mankind’s greed and unwillingness to sacrifice,our Mad Max future promises only Global Warming, rising sea levels and a cataclysm of poverty and resource depletion.

At least that’s the refrain of environmentalists and politicians since the first Earth Day 46 years ago. The drumbeat is so loud and so consistent, even the CEOs and PR flacks of giant energy corporations have become apologetic for the business they’re in.


Like a breath of fresh air, along comes The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (2014), by Alex Epstein, founder of the Center for Industrial Progress. (You can read Chapter 1 free of charge – click here.)

Contrary to expectations, Epstein is not a scientist or engineer. When he testified to Congress in April, Sen. Barbara Boxer told him:

“You’re a philosopher and not a scientist, and I don’t appreciate being lectured by a philosopher and not a scientist.”

As an engineer with a deep appreciation of science, I appreciate being enlightened by a philosopher as opposed to the ideological hacks who usually dominate the discussion.

Epstein writes:

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.

There’s the contrast. For so long, the conversation has been led by environmental activists (Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren and others) for whom environmental impacts trump human concerns. They say that humans can only have a negative impact on nature. Many of them actually argue for depopulating the planet.

Epstein argues that the qualities of fossil fuels — namely energy density and transportability — have enabled industrialized societies to promote the health and prosperity of their citizens, and improve conditions in the developing world, all in a way that has measurably improved the environment relative to earlier in the industrial age. These assertions are supported with an abundance of graphs and figures.

About the time I was reading Epstein’s book, an article appeared in The Atlantic, of all places, that unwittingly illustrated one of his main points:

Why Lightning Disproportionately Kills the Poor
About 24,000 people die each year around the world—the majority of them in developing countries.

In the 1890s, lightning most commonly killed people asleep on their beds inside their homes. That doesn’t happen anymore. By now, if  lightning strikes a home there’s enough wiring and plumbing for the electricity to ground out. In the 1920s, only 1 percent of homes in the U.S. had electricity and plumbing. By the 1930s, the U.S. had developed codes regulating both, and as more buildings followed those regulations they became safer. Since the 1950s, nearly all homes in the U.S. have both electricity and plumbing, and consequently, Ronald Holle, a meteorologist with Vaisala, the world’s largest manufacturer of meteorological equipment, told me lightning deaths inside homes in the U.S. have become nonexistent. In the past 20 years, he said not one person in the U.S. (excluding the elderly or disabled who were caught in fires started by lightning) has died from a lightning bolt that hit a home. But in poor areas of the world, homes may not have all those wires and pipes that help divert electrical shock. Those  homes often have a thin roof made of corrugated metal. And if lightning hits that, the bolt can jump to the nearest person.

Epstein doesn’t put it quite this bluntly, but Mother Nature is a b*tch. Fossil fuels have largely empowered Homo sapiens to mitigate many of the harsher elements of nature. Epstein spends no time denying Global Warming, but thinks that we should acknowledge its benefits (e.g., increased crop yields) while preparing to adapt to the gradual changes in climate he expects.

Epstein has a powerful and controversial message. I am about 95% on board; what I am unsure about is the whiff of Objectivism that comes through (Epstein is a former fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute). My personal philosophy is more rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, with mankind as the preeminent work of the Creator, who has blessed mankind with the bounty of His creation and charged him with stewardship of same.

But I quibble. (!)

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels has enlightened my worldview, and I encourage fellow conservatives and anyone within the energy industry to read it.

Cross-posted at

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