January 11, 2015

Review Corner

Imagine if we had followed the advice of some of our leading advisers then, many of whom are some of our leading advisers now, to severely restrict the energy source that billions of people used to lift themselves out of poverty in the last thirty years? We would have caused billions of premature deaths--deaths that were prevented by our increasing use of fossil fuels.

What happens if today's predictions and prescriptions are just as wrong? That would mean billions of premature deaths over the next thirty years and beyond. And the loss of a potentially amazing future.

Review Corner, it has ben noted, is frequently too generous with stars. Today's stinginess for a great book will seem cruel by comparison

I had elected not to read Alex Epstein's The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. I read a great review in the Objective Standard, and the topic was certainly of interest, but it was clear that Epstein grounded the book on Objectivist principles and I had trepidation.

A recommendation from both Blog Brother Bryan and a mutual LOTR-F friend pulled me back in the fold. "Is it 'too Objectivist?'" I asked Bryan. He replied "How can something be 'too Objectivist?'"

I succumbed to peer pressure, picked it up on Kindle, and enjoyed it immensely. It is a powerful, well documented, and comprehensive book. It sounds some common themes we've discussed on ThreeSources, but adds great depth, clarity, and corroborating data.

This is a microcosm of the central idea of this book-- that more energy means more ability to improve our lives; less energy means less ability-- more helplessness, more suffering, and more death. Of course, this book is focused on fossil fuel energy-- but only, as you'll see, because I believe that it is the most essential technology for producing energy for 7 billion people to improve their lives, at least over the next several decades. If there was a better form of energy and it was under attack in a way that wildly exaggerated its negatives and undervalued its positives, I'd be writing the moral case for that form of energy.

Epstein shows that all the negative externalities for fossil fuels are highlighted if not wildly exaggerated, but all the bird-slicing, rare-earth mining, habitat-destructing side effects of renewables are conveniently ignored. Likewise, the safety, reliability, and portability of oil, gas, and coal are rarely compared to against their suggested replacements.
Why do our thought leaders never talk about this part of the fossil fuel- energy equation, which we can call the energy effect? It's all around us. While in Minnesota over New Year's 2014 visiting some dear friends (they would have to be dear for me to brave that weather ), I realized, upon walking from my car to the bed-and-breakfast about forty feet away, that I couldn't find my key. I was in the natural climate. As I searched for my key at -10 degrees Fahrenheit, my fingers getting very cold very fast, it occurred to me that, were I stuck outside, I could easily die within the hour.

That's "natural" for you. Natural farming cannot feed us, natural climate will kill us. No amount of human flourishing is possible without expending significant amounts of energy. Therefore, it is natural to bring in the primacy of survival and importance of human adaptation.
I hold human life as the standard of value, and you can see that in my earlier arguments: I think that our fossil fuel use so far has been a moral choice because it has enabled billions of people to live longer and more fulfilling lives, and I think that the cuts proposed by the environmentalists of the 1970s were wrong because of all the death and suffering they would have inflicted on human beings.

I risk lapsing into a familiar internecine argument here. But I think the case is compelling -- devastating -- without "human life as the standard of value."
Not everyone holds human life as their standard of value, and people often argue that things are right or wrong for reasons other than the ways they benefit or harm human beings. For example, many religious people think that it is wrong to eat certain foods or to engage in certain sexual acts, not because there is any evidence that these foods or acts are unhealthy or otherwise harmful to human beings but simply because they believe God forbids them. Their standard of value is not human life but (what they take to be) Godís will.

Oh buddy! I think you just turned down a side road there. Can we get back on the highway? I charged the Leaf overnight, but I still have range anxiety...
You might wonder how holding human life as your standard of value applies to preserving nature. It applies simply: preserve nature when doing so will benefit human life (such as a beautiful park to enjoy) and develop it when it will benefit human life. By contrast, if nonimpact , not human life, is the standard, the moral thing to do is always leave nature alone.

Again, well trod arguments, but: I see where Epstein is coming from. I don't object to his including a human life as your standard of value (HLAYSOV); it does not scare me off his thesis. But it impedes my sharing his book and propagating his arguments. If I lend this to somebody (well, if I had lefty or moderate friends who'd actually read a book and I lent it...) I imagine they'd take away that "species extinction is fine as long as Man comes out okay."

That argument is neither completely unfair nor completely false. But but but -- that's not the argument I want to have. I want to talk about billions of people killed if we listen to the Paul Erlichs of the world. I want to talk about bringing billions out of poverty and privation. I want to talk about the clinic in Nambia where babies die because the generator only runs four hours a day. Instead, we'll discuss HLATSOV.

So, it's a five star book if you could rip the Objectivism out. As it stands it's 4.5.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at January 11, 2015 10:12 AM

I set this review aside for later, since it was so long. I still haven't read it all, but let me at least point out one thing:

"I want to talk about billions of people killed if we listen to the Paul Erlichs of the world."

"I want to talk about bringing billions [of people] out of poverty and privation."

"I want to talk about the clinic in Nambia where [human] babies die because the generator only runs four hours a day."

So really, you want to talk about the primacy of human life without first establishing that human life is your standard of value. That's fine by the way, just don't be surprised when all of your interlocutor's objections take the form of "who died and made humans the boss?"

Posted by: johngalt at January 16, 2015 4:14 PM

I just assumed that you agreed with every word.

Yes, the Saganists will not be moved. We wicked humans are a cancerous blight on a perfect world, blah, blah, blah. But I contend that they are beyond reach.

A moderate environmentalist would find much food for thought in this book; the things which matter to him or her are frequently better in the prosperous society with high energy use. Looking to capture that person at the philosophical margin, I worry about the equally strident example I provided of species extinction. My new invention improves human life but wipes out many species. We do not really need all those for human flourishing per se, but their protection is worthwhile.

Posted by: jk at January 16, 2015 6:24 PM | What do you think? [2]