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The Center for Industrial Progress
Alex Epstein, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels Interview Transcript
James Hahn II: Joining The Tribe on the podcast today is Alex Epstein. Alex is the founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, a for-profit think tank he found in 2011. His writings on energy have been published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Investors Business Daily among hundreds of other publications. His views have been covered in the New York Times and Rolling Stone. He is a highly sought after speaker, and he has spoken on the economic and environmental benefits of fossil feels at dozens of universities including Stanford, Duke, Rice, and UCLA appearing more than 20 times in the past year. He has defended fossil fuel energy in debates against Greenpeace, 350.org, and the Sierra Club. He has graciously given us a little bit of his time today.
Alex Epstein, thank you very much for joining us on the podcast today.
Alex Epstein: Hey, good to be here.
James Hahn II: It’s great to have you. I’ve been tracking you down for probably a year now. I’m a huge fan of all of the work you’re doing. Give us a little background on this book you just released.
Alex Epstein: The new book’s called The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. It came out on November 13th. It’s a synthesis of pretty much what I’ve been obsessed with for the last seven years, which is understanding these fuels that we use everywhere, coal, oil, and natural gas, and yet are taught to hate. The question is what should we really think about them? Should we be using them? Shouldn’t we? And if we shouldn’t, why do we keep using them? And if we should, maybe we should use more. So there’s all sorts of interesting things to understand to come to an intelligent decision about that issue. In my own research and reading I never found anything that put all together, so you write the book you want to read.
James Hahn II: You even make an argument that we should use more fossil fuels?
Alex Epstein: Yeah, “even”. It sounds radical except that’s exactly what we choose you do every single year. Almost every year we use more fossil fuels than we did in the previous year. Just to give a little context, I was born in 1980. In that year, like pretty much every year in recent memory and even more distant memory, people said we should be using less fossil fuel. And yet now we use 80% more than we did in 1980, and every single aspect of life has gotten better. Most amazingly you have some 2.5 billion people who have many many more years on their life expectancy in just China and India alone. That’s directly tied to the fact that instead of using manual labor they can now use machines in their lives. Machines require machine fuel, and that is energy. Coal, oil, and natural gas have proven the best sources again and again.
James Hahn II: Let’s talk a little bit more about that digging in because I think about this a lot in terms of history. Even just 100 years ago people died at much earlier ages, 150 years ago even more so. And the people who claim to be for progress are often times, I’m finding in my 4.5 year journey into this industry, they’re often times the people who are that the largest opponents of progress, seemingly. Can you take us inside the mind of those people? If you can; if you will?
Alex Epstein: Well, it’s interesting to think about what does progress mean? Because there’s this term “progressive” that generally people who are more in favor of statism, or government control of the economy, they claim that. And originally there was some plausibility. They claimed, “Well, if the government gets more involved that will allow human beings to become more productive and more people will get the benefits of increased productivity.” What was called the old left was very pro, at least claimed to be pro-industry, pro-industrialization.
But the environmentalist movement and that part of statism, which they still claim. The modern left still claims to be progressive, but it’s really been emptied of any meaning because to progress; to progress in what way? It means human beings progress with regard to their civilizing of nature. That’s what progress really meant. It meant that we transformed the world around us in new and better ways to meet our needs better and better. That’s precisely what environmentalists are against, and that’s precisely what many of us are taught to be against with this idea of “being green”. We’re taught that our focus in life should be, “Let’s minimize our impact on the planet.” The moral philosophy behind this book is that’s the wrong philosophy. Because to survive men need to impact the planet a lot. Our philosophy should be, “Let’s maximize human well-being.” So, the people who call themselves progressives today have no right to that term because they’re against the progress of civilization.
James Hahn II: It’s amazing to me because they march in such lockstep to people who live such contrary lives. You were just in New York City a couple months ago for the big march when he made those fantastic YouTube videos which I’ll link in the show notes. You’re standing in the middle, what was that the “global warming march” or something like that?
Alex Epstein: They call it a new one every time, but People’s Climate March was this one.
James Hahn II: That came, I remember correctly right on the heels of Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech at the United Nations. I wasn’t sure if he drove his houseboat and attached that to his private plane to get over there. It just seems that certain people, again going back to this term of “progressive”, if you have a free market based thought process you’re pretty much a target for being called a hypocrite, this, that, and the third. But, a lot of these people that are trying to force their will of almost regress almost 100% of the time their lifestyles just don’t add up.
Alex Epstein: I think it’s very possible overemphasize the issue of hypocrisy. The question is if you say someone’s a hypocrite that means they’re saying one thing is moral, and then acting another way. But the question is which is right? I think it’s fine if Leonardo DiCaprio becomes, more than fine, if he becomes a movie star, entertains a lot of people, and has a houseboat. What’s not fine is he advocates policies that would prevent most people from having a house. Period. And I think part of what’s going on there is that he has absolutely no clue about what an achievement civilization is, and how difficult it is, and how much of overcoming that difficulty has been done by the fossil fuel industry. He rides his houseboat, pays a bunch of money, and has acted in some movies. It seems like, “Oh, why not do that with wind? Why not do that with the sun? Why not do that with switchgrass? Why not do that with corn?”
There’s no concept of well maybe there’s a good reason why we’re not using those other things. Maybe all the industries have been competing, and this one that uses fossil fuels, which means compressed ancient dead plants, maybe there’s a reason why use those. And maybe they’re 10 times better than everything else. And maybe solar and wind aren’t remotely comparable. That turns out to be true, but what interests me just as you ask that is he doesn’t even feel the need to inquire into the causes of the amazing progress of civilization and fossil fuel’s role. He assumes that can be dispensed with. He sees no risk in not using fossil fuels. He only risk in using fossil fuel. So, all these imaginary modeled scenarios in DiCaprio’s mind; those are real.
But the actual things that 7 billion people depend on to be able to switch on a light, or use a refrigerator, or have a next meal; that’s just, “Oh, anyone can do that.”
James Hahn II: Take us through a little bit of that history, then. Because I’ve read plenty of your stuff over the last couple years, and I remember you talking about how a lot of the entire continent of Africa still subsists on wood for energy and what that does to their environment. Can you give us an idea of what we were doing to the environment before fossil feels, and what that looks like today?
Alex Epstein: I think of it more in terms of what was the environment doing to us before fossil fuels. Because one of the core dogmas, or core assumptions of our modern discussion, is what I call the perfect planet premise. Which is that the planet, independent of human beings and before human beings was perfect in some way and we just mess it up. When we think about our environmental impact we just think about how are we making things dirtier? How are we making things more dangerous? But, anyone who has lived in reality, and the reality of nature, knows this to be a bizarre premise. Because nature is an incredibly dangerous place to be. It doesn’t give you ample clean water. It doesn’t give you ample clean-air because you need heat. By default you’re going to burn wood, and you’re going to be inhaling a lot more of that than you ever would coal smoke, smog, or anything like that. On down the line. It doesn’t give you sanitation. It doesn’t give you safety from disease. It certainly doesn’t give you safety from danger. It doesn’t give you safety from climate.
So, nature is an incredibly dangerous place. What man needs to do—everyone realized this, again, when people lived in nature—is master it. And how do we master it? Well, we need to transform it. We need to build things that never existed like homes. We need to shield ourselves from all kinds of threats like hurricanes, and heat waves, and cold snaps, which are natural phenomena. To do that, the way in which we can do that transformation, we need energy. We need energy and machines to transform the world around us. I show lots of statistics in the book that people think of shocking. We have more clean water than ever. We’re safer from climate than ever. You’re 50 times less likely to die from client related cause, like a heat wave or hurricane, now than 80 years ago. And that’s shocking until you get rid of the perfect planet premise and realize, “Oh, no wait. We’re not taking a safe planet and making it dangerous. We’re taking a dangerous planet and making it safe.” And even if there are side effects in the process of that, it’s like having a life-saving antibiotic. It’s so worth it.
James Hahn II: It seems like such an anti-human worldview. I can recall when I was in community college, Lansing Community College. One of the Lansing Stars, up there in Michigan. We went to the Michigan Historical Museum and there were all of these plaques and pictures and stories about all of these all of these settlers that came out and they logged all the ash trees and made all of these beautiful things. Since I grew up, and now that I think about it, it sort of ruins the memory for me. Because I looked at that like I was looking at mass murder scene because I was being enculturated into the doctrine regresses, if I can coin that term. And it really takes something away from the general joy of life to be able to to say, “Yes, this is a good thing because all these people got houses. And all of these people were able to survive off the land”. Instead nowadays you look at those pictures and see piles of trees that might as well be people because the agenda that is that is so prevalent from grade school on a up through all of adulthood at this point.
Alex Epstein: This an issue that extends much more widely than fossil fuels. It’s this premise that anything made by man is environmentally bad. And everything not made by man is environmentally good. It’s the view of human beings as somehow unnatural and therefore bad. I call this a bias against the human race, or human racism. One of my next books is going to be about it because it corrupts how we think about everything. We’re afraid of any man-made chemical, even though man-made chemicals can be incredibly life-saving and natural chemicals can be incredibly damaging. We’re afraid of man-made changes to food, even though every food we eat is the product of genetic engineering over a long period of time. You wouldn’t have a dog if it wasn’t for more primitive GMO technology. You’d just have a wolf trying to eat you.
There’s this huge hatred of our own species. Once one looks at things from the perspective of, “No, I’m not going to hate our own species. I’m going to focus on what maximizes our well being”, you realize the benefits of a lot of these things we’re taught to hate are amazingly positive and the risks are far exaggerated. It’s certainly true of fossil fuels.
James Hahn II: It’s amazing to me because my mother is an oncology nurse. Certainly she is there for a lot of people who pass, but there are a lot of people that make it out of the hospital today that would’ve just passed away in bed 50 years ago even. This is a result of all these technologies that are made from plastics. I had a post on Drillinginfo a few months called “75 Ways Your Life Would be Ruined Without Oil and Gas”. It’s so pervasive around you that you can’t even really speak—if someone is speaking against fossil fuels, they are detached from reality in some sense, don’t you think?
Alex Epstein: Yeah, although there’s an element of ignorance, particularly of people that go through the educational system. But among the intellectuals there’s this bias against the creations of man. Fossil fuels just happen to be the leading form of energy that man creates. Historically, nuclear energy got the exact same treatment in the 1970s. Environmentalists claimed that it was unnatural and that it had unacceptable byproducts, or risks, or side effects. And when you would point out these are extremely manageable. Even worse case scenario on three-mile island and Fukushima, people aren’t dying, which is untrue of every other energy technology they do. It was still this idea there’s something wrong, that this is unnatural. So we think it’s unnatural if we create radiation, even though it’s completely manageable. Or we think it’s unnatural if we change the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from the .03% .04%. But we don’t look is if the change we’re making overall good or overall bad? We just assume that it’s bad, even though it’s more than doubled the life expectancy.
This is not a debate really over facts. It’s a debate over philosophy and over assumptions.
James Hahn II: What was the genesis of the demarcation in our philosophy as human beings, and seeing progress as a good thing? Was it the rise of environmentalism through the 60s and 70s? It must have started in academia, right? That’s pretty much where it all starts.
Alex Epstein: What’s interesting is the anti-human philosophy has always existed. Just thousands and thousands of years in different forms, particularly in the form, although I’d say more innocently in the form of primitive religions. Where animals are worshiped, and weather gods are worshiped. That is based on ignorance of how nature works, which includes an ignorance of how to master nature. Whereas once you get to the modern era we have science where we can understand the mechanisms of how the world works around us, and we can harness those mechanisms using technology. At that point, once you understand the way to get things is not just pray for rain, but to use technology to harness the rain, to store the rain, to move the rain, to move the products of the rain, etc. Then you have no excuse whatsoever for being afraid “Will I upset the climate god? Will I upset the rain gods? Will I disturb this little thing?” No, your focus is not that direction. Your focus is can I transform this to my my benefit? I’d say that historically that’s always been around. What’s interesting is that in the 60’s and 70’s it really emerged very prominently. I think part of that was simply the fact that once people were prosperous enough it wasn’t real to them how bad life in nature is. And I also think that, Ayn Rand the philosopher has a good essay on this called “The Left, Old and New”.
After the fall of communism and the failure of socialism in all its different forms many people who believed that the individual’s life is not important; that we should all serve the state. They couldn’t anymore claim that socialism was going to give us the best factories. So they glommed onto an ideology that said, “Well, actually factories are bad.”
James Hahn II: That’s a really fantastic point that I haven’t thought of yet as we’ve been talking, or even in the context of this conversation. It’s not shooting yourself in your own foot, but fossil fuels have extended our life to such a degree and given us such a great amount of comfort that we’re even able to think about these things. It wouldn’t even be possible to have this worldview if it weren’t for the amount of progress that’s happened all around us.
Alex Epstein: This is why the supposed “biggest victims of climate change”, so-called, are the least concerned. They are the most concerned about getting industrial progress to where they live. Because they know on an intimate level there’s always going to be storms. There’s always going to be dirt. There’s always going to be disease. But we want to be like the people who overcome those, we don’t want the people who are at the mercy of the ”natural levels” of them. Where here it’s easy to think of nature like a friendly Disney movie because we don’t actually live in it, and because fossil fuels have enabled us to create this incredibly stable, safe, clean place, and then misapply that the uninhabitable or uninhabited parts of the world.
James Hahn II: Well, I love it Alex. We shall overcome. This is that such a fascinating conversation. I don’t think we’ve delved this deeply into philosophy yet on the podcast. I certainly could to talk your ear off for another few hours, but I know that you’ve got to run because you a very busy man. If people want to find out more about you and the Center for Industrial Progress or the book “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels”, where would you send them?
Alex Epstein: Easiest thing is AlexEpstein.com.
James Hahn II: I apologize for saying Alex Epstein up front.
Alex Epstein: Just keep saying it either way, it will imprint itself in people’s minds. Thanks for having me on the show.
James Hahn II: It’s my pleasure, and thanks again for the time. I will continue to share your links across interwebs.
Alex Epstein: Alright, sounds great.
James Hahn II: Alright, thanks Alex.