THE MORAL CASE FOR FOSSIL FUELS
Popular opinion about fossil fuels can be summarized in one word: addiction.
The industry’s attackers have successfully portrayed its core product,
fossil fuel energy, as a self-destructive
addiction that is destroying our planet
and the fossil fuel industry as a fundamentally immoral industry.
Like any immorality or addiction, the
argument goes, we may not pay for it
at the beginning, but we will pay for it
in the end. Thus, the only moral option
is to use “clean, renewable energy” like
solar, wind, and biofuels to live in harmony with the planet instead of exploiting and destroying it. And we need to do
it as soon as is humanly possible. This is
the moral case against fossil fuels.
But, as I explain in a new book “The
Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” if we truly
think critically about the morality of
fossil fuel energy, both its benefits and
its risks, fossil fuel energy is not a dangerous addiction but a healthy choice.
But what does it mean to be moral?
I believe an activity is moral if it is
fundamentally beneficial to human life.
By that standard, is the fossil fuel industry moral?
By producing the most abundant, affordable, reliable energy in the world,
the fossil fuel industry makes every
other industry more productive—and
it makes every individual more productive and thus more prosperous, giving
each person a level of opportunity to
pursue happiness that previous generations couldn’t even dream of. Energy,
the fuel of technology, is opportunity—
the opportunity to use technology to
improve every aspect of life.
Including our environment.
Any animal’s environment can be
broken down into two categories: threats
and resources. (For human beings, “re-
sources” includes a broad spectrum of
things, including natural beauty.)
To assess the fossil fuel industry’s
impact on our environment, we simply need to ask: What is its impact on
threats? What is its impact on resources?
The moral case against fossil fuels
argues that the industry makes our environment more threatening and our
resources more scarce.
But if we look at the big-picture facts,
the exact opposite is true. The fossil fuel
industry makes our environment far
safer and generates new resources out
of once-useless raw materials.
Let’s start with threats. Schoolchildren for the last several generations
have been taught to think of our natural environment as a friendly, stable
place—and our main environmental
contribution is to mess it up and endanger ourselves in the process. Not
so. Nature does not give us a healthy
environment to live in—it gives us an
environment full of organisms eager to
kill us and natural forces that can easily
It is only thanks to cheap, plentiful,
reliable energy that we live in an envi-
ronment where the air we breathe and
the water we drink and the food we eat
will not make us sick and where we can
cope with the often hostile climate of
Mother Nature. 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 man-
ufacture pharmaceuticals, among many
other things. And those of us who enjoy
exploring the rest of nature should nev-
er forget that oil is what enables us to ex-
plore to our heart’s content, which pre-
industrial people didn’t have the time,
wealth, energy, or technology to do.
Nowhere is the necessity of energy,
and thus fossil fuel energy, more evident than in protecting us from the climate. The climate is inherently dangerous (and it is always changing, whether
we influence the change or not). Energy
and technology have made us far safer
In the last eighty years, as CO2 emissions have risen from an atmospheric
concentration of 0.03 percent to 0.04
percent, climate-related deaths have declined 98 percent. Take drought-related
deaths, which have declined by 99. 98
percent. This has nothing to do with a
friendly or unfriendly climate, it has to
do with the oil and gas industry, which
fuels high-energy agriculture as well
as natural gas-produced fertilizer, and
which fuels drought relief convoys.
Fossil fuels make the planet dramatically safer. And dramatically richer in
Environmentalists treat “natural resources” as a fixed pile that nature gives
us and which we dare not consume too
quickly. In fact, nature gives us very little in the way of useful resources. From
clean water to plentiful food to useful
medicines, we need to create them using ingenuity.
This is certainly true of energy. Until
the Industrial Revolution, there were
almost no “energy resources” to speak
of. Coal, oil, and natural gas aren’t
naturally resources—they are naturally useless. (Or even nuisances.) Those
who first discovered how to convert
them into energy weren’t depleting a
For decades, environmentalists have told us that using fossil fuels is a self-destructive addiction that will
destroy our planet. Yet at the same time, by every
measure of human well-being, from life expectancy
to clean water to climate safety, life has been getting
better and better.
The explanation, energy expert Alex Epstein
argues in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, is that we
usually hear only one side of the story. We’re taught
to think only of the negatives of fossil fuels, their
risks and side effects, but not their positives—their
unique ability to provide cheap, reliable energy for
a world of seven billion people. And the moral significance of cheap, reliable energy, Epstein argues,
is woefully underrated. Energy is our ability to improve every single aspect of life, whether economic
If we look at the big picture of fossil fuels compared with the alternatives, the overall impact of
using fossil fuels is to make the world a far better place. We are morally obligated to use more
fossil fuels for the sake of our economy and our
Drawing on original insights and cutting-edge
research, Epstein argues that most of what we hear
about fossil fuels is a myth. For instance . . .
Myth: Fossil fuels are dirty.
Truth: The environmental benefits of using fossil
fuels far out weigh the risks. Fossil fuels don’t take a
naturally clean environment and make it dirty; they
take a naturally dirty environment and make it clean.
They don’t take a naturally safe climate and make it
dangerous; they take a naturally dangerous climate
and make it ever safer.
U. S. $27.95 | CANADA $32.95
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“With more politicians in climate science than scientists, the refining fire of debate has devolved into the burning of heretics. Alex
Epstein’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels may make your blood
boil, but his cool reason and cold, hard facts will lead us beyond
hysterics to a much better future.”
“If you want to see the power of fine logic, fine writing, and fine research,
read Epstein’s book. In my long career, it is simply the best popular-market
book about climate, environmental policy, and energy that I have read.
Laymen and experts alike will be boggled by Epstein’s clarity.”
“Alex Epstein has written an eloquent and powerful argument for
using fossil fuels on moral grounds alone. A remarkable book.”
“In this brave book, Alex Epstein provides a clear, full-throated response
to the catastrophists who want us to replace nearly all of our existing
energy systems with expensive, incurably intermittent sources like wind
and solar. We need more people like Alex who are willing to make the
case for hydrocarbons. As Alex shows, those fuels are allowing billions
of people to live fuller, freer, healthier lives.”
By Alex Epstein
The opinions expressed herein are the
author’s own and not those of Alaska Business
Publishing Company, Inc.