In the original dustsheet. Blue board binding with silver title.
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For over a decade, philosopher and energy expert Alex Epstein has predicted that any negative impacts of fossil fuel use on our climate will be outweighed by the unique benefits of fossil fuels to human flourishing–including their unrivaled ability to provide low-cost, reliable energy to billions of people around the world, especially the world’s poorest people. And contrary to what we hear from media “experts” about today’s “renewable revolution” and “climate emergency,” reality has proven Epstein right:
Fact: Fossil fuels are still the dominant source of energy around the world, and growing fast—while much-hyped renewables are causing skyrocketing electricity prices and increased blackouts.
Fact: Fossil-fueled development has brought global poverty to an all-time low.
Fact: While fossil fuels have contributed to the 1 degree of warming in the last 170 years, climate-related deaths are at all-time lows thanks to fossil-fueled development.
What does the future hold? In Fossil Future, Epstein, applying his distinctive “human flourishing framework” to the latest evidence, comes to the shocking conclusion that the benefits of fossil fuels will continue to far outweigh their side effects—including climate impacts—for generations to come. The path to global human flourishing, Epstein argues, is a combination of using more fossil fuels, getting better at “climate mastery,” and establishing “energy freedom” policies that allow nuclear and other truly promising alternatives to reach their full long-term potential. Today’s pervasive claims of imminent climate catastrophe and imminent renewable energy dominance, Epstein shows, are based on what he calls the “anti-impact framework”—a set of faulty methods, false assumptions, and anti-human values that have caused the media’s designated experts to make wildly wrong predictions about fossil fuels, climate, and renewables for the last fifty years. Deeply researched and wide-ranging, this book will cause you to rethink everything you thought you knew about the future of our energy use, our environment, and our climate.
Review – The sheer boldness of the title means the book immediately makes it clear it is against the prevailing narrative of the day’s political, business and media class, which is to drive down and remove fossil fuels. It is also clever in how an author, by reframing the issues at stake, gets us to re-examine our assumptions about how matters “ought to be”. This approach applies beyond the controversies about energy, global warming and Man’s impact on the Earth. Epstein avoids the mistake that a lot of global warming sceptics make in trying to minimise the scale of warming. He’s not a denier in any shape or form: he states pretty clearly that yes, Man is contributing to some of the warming we see, but then relentlessly present the question: what is the overall impact of this warming? He asks if there are positive impacts from warming that aren’t considered or suppressed. He says that cheap energy gives us the ability to mitigate and adapt to that warming that leaves us overall better off than if we go down the decarbonisation path before we have effective substitutes such as widespread nuclear energy, etc. He argues that we are not remotely close to reaching that point. The data he presents is sobering. And the key point of this book is his focus on human flourishing, and he addresses head-on the assumption that many alarmists implicitly and explicitly make that the Earth is a delicate system that cannot withstand much impact, and that Man’s wisest course is to reduce impact as much as possible by having fewer babies, using less energy, doing less, being less in every sense. The sheer cost of what the alarmists are calling for is often not very honestly spelled out. This, thanks to writers such as Epstein, is getting harder to conceal. Epstein says the “delicate nurturer” assumption of the Green orthodoxy is bunk, and I agree with him. This assumption makes no sense on a reading of evidence: the Earth is instead an often hostile place; the climate has changed before without our influence and is likely to continue doing so; nature is truly “red in tooth and claw” and that until the Industrial Revolution happened, the life of people in the countries in which it occurred were often nasty, brutish and short. Another key point is that Epstein writes about how cheap, reliable energy – both are crucial qualities – allows us to not only overcome major problems of poverty etc, but it gives us the tools to handle and hopefully master some – not all – of the side effects of C02 emissions. He relentlessly talks about the “full context” of fossil fuels. In a way, what this book is constitutes a thorough cost-benefit analysis. OK, I have been nice about this book, but I think there are a few points of criticism to make. In his discussion of human impact, not enough is said about Man’s negative impact on biodiversity, and how to prevent or limit this. A frequent criticism made is that there has been a dangerous loss of species on the Earth and a reason for that being bad is that this is a loss in terms of the robustness of the Earth, the possibility of new plants, medicines, etc. True, modern agriculture – driven by fossil fuels (fertilisers, etc) mean we can produce food for billions without having to burn down every forest and plough every patch of land. But it would have been good to see more discussion about protecting biodiversity. Epstein hints at this, but does not really go into detail. That’s a pity. Another gripe – as has been made by another mostly positive reviewer here – is that Epstein repeats his points about the anti-impact, delicate nurturer, human flourishing, climate mastery points over and over and over. He needed to have this edited down and made more concise. I found some of his paragraphs to be unwieldy. It’s a style point, not a substantial one, but as a journalist by trade I wanted to make it. I also think more needs to be said about the economic viability of fossil fuel extraction in the medium term. Yes, there remain vast amounts of the stuff, but the economic costs of extracting oil, gas and other substances rise as reserves are left in deeper rocks, etc. At some point it just will not be profitable to do it. The financial viability of fossil fuels will change over time, and this is likely to drive more capital, and hopefully more energy, into encouraging nuclear power.
At the moment some in the Green side are coming around to nuclear energy, and I think it would be good for Epstein to give this more focus than he does, although he does shout out to a few writers, such as the excellent Michael Shellenberger. A number of Greens are open to being persuaded. There’s a need perhaps to build more intellectual bridges and take a friendly approach. I have seen Epstein speak, and he’s an engaging guy. Overall, this is an excellent book, and deserves to be read in the right spirit. I doubt it will persuade those firmly on the anti-impact, alarmist side, but for those who are open-minded, or who need new arguments to deploy, this is an excellent contribution. I will definitely keep an eye out for Epstein in future.
Alex Epstein is an energy expert and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, which offers a positive, pro-human alternative to the green movement. His New York Times bestselling book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, has been widely praised as the most persuasive argument ever made for our continuing use of fossil fuels, winning Epstein the “Most Original Thinker of 2014” award from The McLaughlin Group.
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