Alex Epstein

September 18, 2017

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: Alex Epstein

Alex Epstein

Today’s episode is with Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels.

For decades, environmentalists have been telling us that fossil fuels are going to destroy our planet. But Alex is interested in the other side of the story: How every measure of human well-being, from life expectancy to clean water to climate safety, keeps getting better and better, despite our reliance on fossil fuels.

In this episode, you’re going to hear an amazing opinion on climate change and the future of energy production.

Listen in to Alex Epstein to learn:

  • Why fossil fuels will continue to help human civilization flourish for decades to come
  • How unclear thinking is complicating our modern decision-making process
  • What it means to think with reason and clarity

What’s the one big idea from your book that you’d like our listeners to remember six months from now?

My book presents a framework for looking at not just fossil fuel use but any large-scale policy decision. This framework is based on the idea that the way in which we measure the positives and negatives, the way in which we measure whether a policy or a decision is moral or not, should be by looking at whether it advances human flourishing or not.

By contrast, the dominant way in which we currently measure energy production’s morality is by the degree it impacts nature.

“The idea of maximizing human flourishing versus minimizing human impact on the environment is a deliberate choice we have to make before we can objectively analyze fossil fuel use.”

But it’s true of other issues too. It’s true of how we think of vaccines, GMOs, antibiotics, and so on.

We first have to decide what our goal is. Is it to maximize human flourishing? Or minimize human impacts? When you’re clear on that, and if you decide that maximizing human flourishing is the best way forward, you’ll start to see some really surprising conclusions.

One of my goals with this book is to help people start thinking about the large-scale issues facing humanity in a way that has human flourishing as the primary goal.

How did you come up with the concept for your book?

My interest in the issue of energy, and specifically fossil fuels, was very unexpected because growing up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a very liberal place, I certainly heard nothing positive about fossil fuels. The same goes for Duke University where I attended college.

I wasn’t an environmentalist and I was pro-free-market, but I did have a general kind of concern around global warming, or climate change. At the same time, I don’t really like fossil fuels but even energy didn’t interest me that much.

During college, I was more interested in philosophy, so I decided to become a philosopher who would use philosophy to clarify practical issues. I started writing about any issue you can imagine.

Cloning, foreign policy, animal rights, the list goes on, but writing about energy issues never really never struck me until I found myself doing research for a course I was teaching on the history of journalism. I suspected that the account of John D. Rockefeller monopolizing the oil market was inaccurate and in researching that, I began to understand the history of the energy market.

I realized that before fossil fuels dominated the energy market there was this whole early competition among different ways of lighting our homes. This thing that we call oil, or petroleum, won out over other methods because it was that it was the only thing that could provide cheap, plentiful, reliable, illumination energy. It was so superior in terms of being the most cost-effective solution.

Fossil fuel-powered electricity lights many modern homes.

This early research impressed two things on me. One, energy is very under-appreciated, at least it was by me, and I’m not just talking about lighting homes or streets, but for powering every single machine in a machine-labor society.

The second thing I realized was that all forms of energy are not created equal. Certain forms of energy are much more cost-effective than others because they’re much more resource efficient.

“Energy doesn’t come from nothing, people have to come up with a process to produce that energy cheaply, plentifully, reliably, and hopefully safely.”

Those two realizations made me think, “Okay, well it’s really important that we use the best forms of energy. I know we’re still using a lot of fossil fuels, are these fuels really that bad? Or are we under-appreciating a positive value?”

I had this idea that there are environmental risks to using fossil fuels, but I didn’t really understand those very well. On the other hand, could there be major economic risks to not using fossil fuels?

Of course, I didn’t know enough about the issues to make an informed argument one way or the other, so I began to investigate further. That investigation led me to think that most of the discussion around this issue is biased in different ways. People have an animus against fossil fuels without really looking into it.

What I wanted to do was take a humanistic look at climate change from the perspective of, “What energy choices will most advance humanities wellbeing?” It was that question that led me to explore the issue of fossil fuel use. Ultimately, the conclusion became my book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.

How did you go about researching such a complex topic as fossil fuel use?

One thing I’m pretty good at is the purposeful acquisition of knowledge. There’s an unlimited amount of information in the world and there’s never been more good information and there’s never been more bad information.

Researching very complex topics is a question of how do you get good information and how do you integrate it in a way that gives you an organized body of knowledge that then you can then apply. I’m pretty good at separating the good information from the bad information. I get a sense of where the information is coming from and ask, “Is this person actually a good thinker? Are they biased or are they even-handed? Are they sloppy or are they precise? What’s their goal?”

With that in mind, I started out reading a lot from many different authors. The best author I came across was a guy named Petr Beckman. He’s a Czech immigrant who unfortunately died in 1993, but from 1973 to 1993, he produced a newsletter called Access to Energy. It was the best survey of the development of energy technologies over decades that I could find.

The whole volume was about one million words, so I got a volunteer to compile all the newsletters together and I read or listened to almost all of them.

What that gave me was a very fast injection of knowledge on the history of energy. Not just how different energy technologies work but also what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are. Beckman was not an advocate of fossil fuels but one thing that struck me was that he was very even-handed about them.

He’s known best as an advocate of nuclear power and ultimately, I think in the long-term, nuclear power will be the best solution for human beings.

He wrote this amazing book called The Health Hazards Of Not Going Nuclear.

Cooling towers emit steam from a nuclear power generating station.

Even the title, The Health Hazards Of Not Going Nuclear, implies that he’s looking at the risks of using something and of not using something. Even when I disagreed with him, I could still see his reasoning. That approach really struck me as a good way to think about things.

How did your assumptions around energy production change over the course of your research?

I had a number of assumptions going into this research. For example, I had some positive assumptions about solar energy that I ultimately ended up agreeing with. But I also had some assumptions that were completely wrong.

Take, for example, how most people view the environment.

In general, the way we’re taught to think of environmental impact is that anything that impacts the environment is bad.

We tend to think of energy production’s environmental impact on a scale from zero to negative. It’s either screwing up the planet a lot, screwing up the planet a little, or doing almost nothing, which is what we might call clean-tech.

But, if you look at the actual relationship between energy production and the environment then you start to see that the human impact on the environment actually makes the earth a much more suitable place for human life. Our environment doesn’t have everything in it that we need to live, it doesn’t have the resources we need to survive.

In terms of cleanliness, nature doesn’t give us ample Fiji or Evian water, we need to purify the water, we need to transport that water.

“The whole human-centric perspective on the environment where human beings are producer-improvers and not parasite-polluters is a novel idea to many, but it’s the idea that we’re here to actually improve the planet for our own flourishing.”

My original thinking of “there are economic benefits to energy production and environmental harms” changed to “there are major environmental benefits to energy production; therefore, if you do anything to make energy more expensive, you’re depriving people of those environmental benefits in addition to economic benefits.”

Where did the idea that human impact can only harm the environment come from?

The modern thinker most connected to this view is Jacques Cousteau. He definitely subscribed to the idea of the noble savage and of nature as perfect. I call this the perfect planet premise which in essence is that without humans, the planet is perfect. You often hear people that hold this belief say things like, “Human beings are a cancer on the planet.”

The perfect planet premise was much more plausible before the existence of science because people didn’t really understand nature. They didn’t understand how to transform it to meet our needs very well.

In that pre-scientific time, it’s understandable that humans would do things like rain dances, not to disrupt things, but in hopes that nature would nurture us. Obviously, that worked very poorly.

They didn’t have the science or technology that we do today. Once you have access to that knowledge you can start to understand the mechanics of your environment and begin to transform it to be much better for human beings.

Lowlands are transformed into productive agriculture using technology.

Sure, some aspects might not work out as well as others. But we also have the technology to correct that.

What’s one thing each of us can do to ensure we flourish as individuals?

My next project is The Human Flourishing Project. It’s about developing, spreading, and applying this kind of framework. I think that there are both macro and micro things we need to consider, and I think micro things are often very underrated.

Let’s pretend that the masses hold on to the idea that human flourishing is the guiding principle of human progress, including each person’s progress as an individual. Well, when I use Facebook, I’m now going to think, “Am I really flourishing using Facebook? Is it possible to use Facebook to flourish? How do I do that?”

That’s obviously a very micro-level application of my framework. But being weary of the truth that any new technology can be misused and that sometimes there are conflicting incentives where people want you to overuse their technology is important to think about.

For example, and this isn’t something I’ve talked about publically before, but one thing I’d like to do as part of The Human Flourishing Project is to get people to think more about how they spend their free time. Think about your weekend and ask yourself, “What does it mean for me to flourish on a weekend?”

Let’s say for me, it’s all about rejuvenation and social connection as I have a fairly solitary work week that’s quite intense mentally.

So by taking a step back asking, “Hey, is what I have planned for the weekend going to rejuvenate and connect me?” can be a game changer.

I really hope that one consequence of The Human Flourishing Project is that individuals enjoy their lives much more because there are so many people doing a lot of good work but not getting enough enjoyment out of life.

People enjoy sitting in the sun talking in a park.

What would a flourishing weekend look like for Alex Epstein?

In terms of rejuvenation, I have that down pretty well, so going for a swim in the ocean is pretty high on my list of rejuvenating activities.

Right now I’m in the Bay area so it’s quite cold but I’ll still go in without a wetsuit. Certainly, when I was living in Laguna Beach I would go in three times a day and do transcendental meditation. It was really rejuvenating.

I also ride something called a One Wheel. I would highly recommend this to anyone. I think it’s criminal that everyone doesn’t use one, but check it out at It’s basically a snowboard for the streets and it really is just as fun as snowboarding, if not more fun.

Finally, I’ve been doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu for 14 years so that’s another big thing for me as well.

If I can make sure that I get to my jiu-jitsu class, get some One Wheel in during the day, and get in the ocean before the weekend is over, then that’s a pretty successful and rejuvenating weekend for me.

As for social connection, I actually find that a bit more difficult because I move around a lot. I have a couple of really close friends in the Bay area, so they’re on the top of my list, but they have kids so sometimes it’s a matter of planning things a week in advance just to make sure I get that social interaction in.

My main point is that you need to figure out what’s going to help you flourish, maybe it’s rejuvenation and social connection, or maybe it’s something else entirely.

Once you know what that is, make a plan in advance because your chances of success are much higher than if you simply react in the moment. It’s too easy to say, “You know, I’m tired, I think I’ll just watch a couple of episodes on Netflix.” Well, five hours later you still haven’t contributed to your flourishing.

So plan ahead.

Who are you most excited to talk to on your new podcast, The Human Flourishing Movement?

The whole podcast concept has been fascinating because often times I’m more interested in the topic and the guest than the audience, unfortunately. But I love it. My goal is to extract the best knowledge from people and apply that in a way that enhances human flourishing, but it’s harder to do that than it sounds.

There are three basic components to the upcoming podcast: acquire, organize, and apply knowledge to advance human flourishing, but each of those is quite difficult.

It’s really hard to acquire good knowledge because how do you validate it? How do you know that it’s accurate?

It’s hard to organize knowledge because there are so many different ways to think about a single piece of knowledge. How you put it into a system that makes sense for your specific aims?

Then, it’s hard to apply knowledge because again, there many different ways to apply a single piece of information. How do you apply it in a context that makes sense and is useful for the most people?

So, screening guests is going to be a big part of the show. How can I pick people that are objective? How can I pick people who aren’t afraid of challenging questions like, “Why should we believe you? How can we validate what you’re saying?”

It’s also going to be interesting in terms my own learning as far as knowing how to ask effective questions and knowing what to say in order to get good answers versus bad answers.

But in terms of who I would actually want to talk to, right now I’m really interested in this psychiatrist named David Burns. He wrote a book called Feeling Good which has sold over five million copies, so it’s one of the more popular ones.

Anyway, he has this theory on psychological resistance, or why certain people exhibit resistance to psychological change.

He’s found through experiments that two-thirds of patients typically exhibit a positive response to psychological therapy while one-third of patients see no effect. So it’s really quite interesting and he’s basically asking, “Why is that? Why do we see a positive response from this group but not from the other group?”

His methodology and his eagerness to be validated is really interesting. So he just seems like a super exciting person to ask questions to and to try to challenge and to learn from.

At this point, I’m looking to find the people that I think are killer thinkers and extract the best knowledge from them and organize it in a way that makes sense to me and, hopefully, to my listeners.

How can we become better thinkers?

I’m a huge Ayn Rand fan. Her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is a really good introduction to thinking with reason. I don’t know if there is any one complete guide to thinking though. There are all sorts of important aspects to thinking that are covered by different books.

I wish I could have a complete list of them right now, but the main thing to focus on is that the path to better thinking lies in formulating clear concepts.

“Clear concepts are at the root of better thinking.”

So going back to the issue of human impact on the environment, well environmental impact is not a clear concept. Are you talking about environmental degradation or are you talking about environmental improvement? Until you’ve been clear about what you’re talking about, you’ll never be able to form a convincing argument.

But part of having a clear concept is also having a clear purpose for formulating that concept. So when I start to think about the environment I’m doing so in the context of human flourishing, and in that context environmental impact is not a useful concept for me.

One more example is the climate change.

Everyone uses the term climate change, but it’s not a clarifying term at all. What does climate change mean? Climate change is a fact of nature. Are you are talking about change within the global climate system? Or are you’re talking about a change to the overall global climate system? Maybe you’re talking about man-made change, maybe you’re not.

There’s this incredible vagueness to the term yet there are some super smart people who just throw these words around like they know what they are talking about.

“Ayn Rand once wrote, “No mind is better than the precision of its concepts.” And I definitely live by that.”

If you could give one piece of advice to Elon Musk, what would that be?

I’ve been studying him lately because there are certain things about the way his mind works that are so phenomenal, and I think even under-appreciated by his cult following, which I am not a member of at all.

I would love to have a public discussion or debate with him; that’s my number one goal.

As far as advice goes, I’m not in the business of giving epic geniuses unsolicited advice even though I think his thinking is deeply wrong about certain things.

I would really like to ask him to think about what the purpose of life is in connection with technology. His thinking seems to be focused on this platonic ideal of technological perfection. But he seems to define perfection, in part, as having as little impact on nature as possible.

He’s got this amazing enthusiasm about technology but he doesn’t seem too focused on human flourishing in the way that makes sense to me.

I’d really like to ask him, “Do you buy into this minimizing human impact premise? And is that preventing you from contributing to human flourishing as much as you could be or as much as you might think you are?”

What parting advice do you have for aspiring authors?

One great piece of advice I found very useful was to think of intellectual products as commercial products.

There’s a lot of literature on marketing: how to think about a market, how to position yourself in a market, and how to create value in someone else’s life so that they go out and spend their time and money on your product or service over everyone else’s products and services.

So take that marketing approach and apply it to your writing. Ask yourself, “What need can I fulfill with my writing? What market gap exists that I could fill with my book?”

Once you’ve identified a market for your writing, you have to validate it. Will people really want it? Will they buy it?

In addition, make sure you really care about the topic.

“If you want to write a book that sells, it needs to have two things: first, it needs to address a real need that people have, and second, you need to really care about that need.”

That’s a really good start.

When you’re ready to actually write, a book is just another form of value creation. Don’t sit around waiting for an agent to come to you, just start writing.

I spent 10 years trying to create a lot of value for people who were confused about an issue that I really cared about and that they really cared about. Eventually, that paid off, and the result of all that hard work is my book.