Do your friends have even a clue as to the massive cost of eliminating fossil fuels? What it would mean for their way of life? Perhaps they do, but it’s not polite to admit to such obvious truths in many circles. Alex Epstein cares enough to tell the world about the spectacular benefits and currently dismal alternatives to fossil fuels in his new book, The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels. His thesis and and a few of his arguments are reviewed in a pair of posts by Bryan Caplan, who really likes the book. According to Caplan:
“Epstein’s book has two key claims. His first claim is descriptive: Laymen and experts alike greatly underestimate the benefits of fossil fuels and greatly overestimate their costs… .
Epstein’s second key claim is normative: Human well-being is the one fundamentally morally valuable thing. Unspoiled nature is only great insofar as mankind enjoys it… .”
Both claims strike me as reasonable, though the first is true only as a generalization about modern energy mythology, punditry and statist philosophy. In fact, one might say that society acts as if it understands the benefits of fossil fuels very well, as evidenced by our emphasis on maintaining a high and/or growing standard of living supported by these energy sources. Yet the popular misconceptions are a reality, and we persist in choosing leaders who favor policies that handicap fossil fuels and human well-being.
Caplan offers some choice quotes from Epstein’s book. I repeat only three. The first is on the benefits of plentiful energy:
“Energy is what we need to build sturdy homes, to purify water, to produce huge amounts of fresh food, to generate heat and air-conditioning, to irrigate deserts, to dry malaria-infested swamps, to build hospitals, and to manufacture pharmaceuticals, among many other things. And those of us who enjoy exploring the rest of nature should never forget that energy is what enables us to explore to our heart’s content, which preindustrial people didn’t have the time, wealth, energy, or technology to do.”
The second quote might seem controversial to some, but it is unequivocally true:
“[W]hen we look at the data, a fascinating fact emerges: As we have used more fossil fuels, our resource situation, our environment situation, and our climate situation have been improving, too.”
The third quote is about the drawbacks of some prominent alternative energy sources:
“Traditionally in discussions of solar and wind there are two problems cited: the diluteness problem and the intermittency problem. The diluteness problem is that the sun and the wind don’t deliver concentrated energy, which means you need a lot of materials per unit of energy produced…
Such resource requirements are a big cost problem, to be sure, and would be one even if the sun shone all the time and the wind blew all the time. But it’s an even bigger problem that the sun and wind don’t work that way. That’s the real problem– the intermittency problem, or more colloquially, the unreliability problem. As we saw in the Gambian hospital, it is of life and death importance that energy be reliable.”
There is no doubt that technology will someday bring better and cleaner energy sources, but we are nowhere close. The flow of subsidies to weak alternatives destroys resources, and the subsidies themselves skew heavily toward the upper end of the wealth distribution. And of course, popular fears about nuclear energy have limited our ability to diversify. For the indefinite future, we would do well to embrace plentiful and cheap fossil fuels, especially to help reduce poverty and poor living conditions in the developing world.