Fossil Future, by Alex Epstein: A Review
What is your moral goal when discussing climate?
In this review, I provide a summary of what I thought were the major conceptual points made by the author, and then some further details on those points. Any discussion of the technical, scientific data on climate, I’ll leave for the text itself. Much of the book focuses on conceptual frameworks for discussing climate, and that is what I focus on here.
Summary Up Front
First, it’s important to identify your framework. Our basic assumptions about the world shape everything we think, say, and do.
Our knowledge systems, which include our media, our educational institutions, and their designated experts, are working within what Epstein calls the “anti-impact” framework. The anti-impact framework sees human impact on the Earth as inherently immoral. Thus, any policy they support will look to reduce the impact of humans on the Earth, regardless of that impact’s positive results for individual humans.
This anti-impact framework creates a hierarchy of concern with the unimpacted Earth above the prosperity of humanity. It then leads to ignoring the benefits of fossil fuel use because those benefits themselves are impacts on the Earth, and thus for anyone working in this framework, inherently immoral, regardless of the positive contributions to human flourishing.
It also creates a tendency to not account for what Epstein terms “climate mastery.” Climate mastery is the ability to reduce the negative impacts of climate for the purpose of human flourishing. Our ability to reduce climate danger is seen as inherently immoral because we impact the “natural” state of the Earth when making it safer for humans.
Climate mastery can involve anything as simple as creating homes that shelter us from the naturally dangerous environment of our Earth, to using fossil fuels to heat and cool our homes, using materials created from fossil fuels and the energy from fossil fuels to transport water to areas of drought, or building better structures to protect us from changing sea levels much like the Netherlands has done.
All of these benefits to individual humans are seen as immoral because the Earth was impacted in order to generate these benefits.
The anti-impact framework also creates a tendency to focus only on the possible negative side effects of fossil fuels, then ignore the benefits of fossil fuel use—cheap, reliable energy that allows us to flourish, helps protect us from changing climate, and frees us from daily toil, allowing us to use our minds to better our world. But, bettering our world assumes that making life better for humans is the moral goal.
That is what Epstein refers to as “human flourishing,” and is the pivot he asks us to make when thinking about our relationship with fossil fuels. This fundamental shift in thinking puts human flourishing at the top of our hierarchy of goals as opposed to reducing human impact.
A possible definition for human flourishing could be “as many human beings living in relative safety as possible, with the freedom to pursue their individual happiness.” And how do we promote human flourishing? By using our minds to intelligently impact our environment. This is why Epstein refers to the anti-impact framework, which our major institutions are working within, as being anti-human.
Humans, by their very nature, use reason to manipulate their surroundings for their benefit. So to think of any human impact on the planet whatsoever as immoral, is to see the very nature of humanity as immoral.
This is why the anti-impact framework then leads to ignoring the billions of people in our world that would benefit from fossil fuels, because they are still living without electricity and cooking indoors using wood and animal feces. They also dismiss their desires to be more empowered and have the reliable energy we do in order to have basic medical care, and force them to carry dirty water from local streams to their homes every day.
In order for them to crawl out of poverty, they will need to impact their environment, and that impact in and of itself is seen as immoral because preserving the “delicate balance” of the Earth takes precedence over their desires to flourish.
This is why Epstein argues we need to expand fossil fuel use. In order to promote human flourishing across the world, and in light of “green energy’s” low ability to provide enough sustainable energy with current technology, the current reality requires additional energy only available by using fossil fuels.
Billions of humans will continue to suffer otherwise.
What I found the most helpful in this book is the introduction to a framework for how to think about our relationship with fossil fuels. One of the hardest things to get people to understand is that they even have a framework with which they view the world, and that framework impacts how they view these issues. Epstein does a great job of teasing out the framework for the pushback against fossil fuels. He identifies and then provides ample evidence based on the words and actions of those operating under that framework to show us exactly what it is and how it affects the conversation.
These underlying frameworks for how we approach these issues are crucial.
“The issue of one’s primary moral goal is a crucial one in philosophy that we are almost never taught to think about, yet it shapes our evaluations to an almost unimaginable degree.”
For example, if you believe slavery is wrong, there has to be a framework you’re working under that presumes the individual dignity and value of each human being. But almost nobody thinks about that or can even tell you why slavery is wrong, even though they would fight you for saying otherwise.
We all have ideas like this that connect to deeper beliefs. The same goes for any other idea. They all come with foundational beliefs. And the same applies when it comes to our conversations around climate.
So when you’re talking about climate, first, what is your moral goal?
For the push against fossil fuels, the framework he identifies is what he calls “anti-impact.”
Someone with an anti-impact framework sees any impact upon the Earth by humans as intrinsically immoral because the Earth is a “delicate nurturer” that exists in a perfected balance, which can only be harmed by human impact. Epstein calls this out as an “anti-human” position.
Now, what exactly is so anti-human about people who are trying to “save the Earth” through reducing human impact?
The question to ask is, “For whom or what are they saving it?” Or “From what exactly are they saving it?” The answer to these questions are encompassed in what Epstein calls the “anti-impact framework.”
The reason Epstein considers this anti-human is because “Human beings survive and flourish by impacting nature.” One major difference—something that differentiates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom—is that we use reason to identify and differentiate the world around us and manipulate its nature for our benefit. To start from a place of anti-impact is to deny humans what it is that makes them human.
The anti-impact framework sees all human impact on the Earth as immoral. So, every policy is geared towards reducing and eliminating human impact. By impact, we could mean cutting down trees to clear land and build a house, mining coal to produce energy to heat that house, creating a dam for hydro-electric power, clearing land to produce thousands of ears of corn that will reduce starvation in a third world country, or even changing a prairie into a wind farm for green energy like windmills or solar panels. Anything that is an obvious footprint of human activity is considered impact and needs to be reduced or eliminated.
Epstein provides a few examples as written by some publicly designated climate experts.
Famed climate expert Bill McKibben, in his book The End of Nature, writes:
“Though not in our time, and not in the time of our children, or their children, if we now, today, limited our numbers and our desires and our ambitions, perhaps nature could someday resume its independent working.”
Notice that he separates humans from nature as if we are unnatural, and thus our impact on the planet is unnatural as well.
Biologist David M. Grader reviewed McKibben’s book and explicitly agrees with McKibben:
“McKibben is a biocentrist, and so am I. We are not interested in the utility of a particular species or free-flowing river, or ecosystem, to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them. Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet [. . .]. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”
Again, notice that humans need to “rejoin nature” as if we are not a part of it and that our existence, our sheer numbers, need to be reduced as he hopes for “the right virus” to help kill us off to whatever level he deems “natural.” If that is not anti-human, I don’t know what is.
These designated environmental experts equate human flourishing itself as a moral catastrophe. Anything that promotes the increase of our abilities to master nature in favor of an increase in the ability of humanity to flourish is seen as something to suppress.
It’s important to understand this when evaluating what these designated experts are promoting policy wise. Are they promoting human flourishing, or are they looking to reduce human impact?
And why do they assume that the Earth is a place itself that is in perfect balance that only suffers with our influence? This “delicate nurturer” framework is also challenged by pointing out the many climate dangers that have been the biggest challenge to human flourishing, and that fossil fuel use has been the main driver in reducing the danger humans face from climate.
Instead of focusing on human impact, Epstein encourages a framework that promotes “human flourishing.”
Under the human flourishing framework, we would need to recognize the nature of humanity as creatures who necessarily, by definition, impact our surroundings in order to create an environment that supports our ability to flourish. Our adaptability and utilization of reason should be applied towards promoting an “intelligent impact on nature” that assesses both the risks and benefits of any energy utilization.
It’s important to understand how fundamentally different this starting point is. If one assumes that their primary moral goal is to support human flourishing, and they accept the basic understanding that humans by their nature impact their environment for that purpose, then impact itself is no longer immoral, but an expectation as we move towards the goal of human flourishing.
“The purpose and fundamental role of human impact throughout history is to make Earth a better place to live through intelligent, productive impact.”
Part of “productive impact” is what Epstein refers to as “climate mastery.”
Climate mastery is the concept that through human impact on the environment, we are able to mitigate the dangers inherent in climate, our environment, or simply weather, regardless of its sources being manmade or “natural.”
Humans are able to shield themselves from the cold using shelters created by impacting the environment and with heat, also created by impacting the environment. We resist drought by impacting our environment with systems that pump water from places of abundance to places in need. We impact our environment by generating energy that powers our hospitals (and builds them). And those hospitals extend our lives and sometimes even permit our children to survive in the first place by creating tools and powering tools that keep our premies alive.
These are all benefits of using fossil fuels that we don’t often hear about and are, in parts of the world that are saturated with these benefits, so common to that they are practically invisible.
Risks and Benefits
Another great point Epstein makes is that in these discussions surrounding climate, it is always focused solely on the risks of utilizing fossil fuels, and never balanced against the benefits. Anywhere else we would have a discussion about how to solve a problem, we would be addressing both, and not only the risks.
Vaccination is a great example. Anyone who touted only the benefits would be thought of as dogmatically pro-vaccination, while anyone who only raged about the possible side effects would be seen as a conspiracy theorist. But those who acknowledge both and work towards properly assessing the risks and benefits would be seen as sane, competent, balanced, and serious people. We should do the same for our discussion of fossil fuels.
What are the risks and how do we measure them? What are the benefits gained by using cheap energy from fossil fuels and their materials?
It’s easy to forget how much we in the developed world benefit from fossil fuel use, but that is not the case for much of the world’s population. Nine hundred forty million people in the world still have zero access to electricity, and three billion people (40% of the world) still have no access to clean cooking fuels, putting them at high risk of illness from indoor air pollution.
Everything involved in my writing this, on this platform, on this machine, having the time to think about it, read about it, and share it is a consequence of fossil fuel use.
Unless the discussion is properly framed, you’ll get an incredibly unbalanced viewpoint, which can also contain some exaggerations, much like what we saw with arguments over vaccinations.
When the book arrived and I saw that it was more than 400 pages long, I balked. But this was one of my easiest reads ever. Epstein uses very plain and easy-to-understand language, which can be tough with such a deep and complicated issue.
The best part of this book is the manner in which he carefully and thoroughly identifies the underlying world views that people are starting with and how they impact their conclusions. Once we identify that framework, there is still a lot of scientific evidence to parse through. What are the risks of CO2 increasing? What, if any, danger are our oceans in? Is our planet experiencing an increase in dangerous storms and wildfires, and why? Much of that is discussed in the text as Epstein reviews the evidence.
Regardless of your position on these issues, this book would be helpful in understanding your own framework and determining if it needs adjustment. At worst, you’ll be able to understand the arguments of those on the “other side of the aisle,” then address them accurately and honestly.
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