Book Review: Fossil Future

Fossil Future is a thought-provoking, full-throated defense of fossil fuels, bringing convincing evidence & a moral philosophy of human flourishing to bear on the contentious topic of climate change.

Human-impacted climate change has been labeled as an “existential threat,” a “catastrophe,” and an “apocalypse.” Depending on the ‘expert’ testimony you choose to believe, we either have ten years, seven years, five years, or a mere three years (back in 2017) to save the planet from total devastation. This intense doomsaying is widely promulgated in our media, our government institutions, and our corporate world. It is leading to serious mental health issues in younger Americans, who take this rhetoric from teachers, parents, and social media influencers seriously and have developed what has been labeled “climate anxiety.” We are told that we need to totally reorient the global economy, completely end all use of fossil fuels, and stop having children if we are to end this horrible crisis and preserve the earth in a pristine natural state.

But is any of this fear and apocalyptic rhetoric justified? A provocative new book from the philosopher and energy researcher Alex Epstein argues that it isn’t. And not only that, Fossil Future argues that to expand human flourishing we need to expand fossil fuel use, not curtail or end it entirely.

This argument is entirely contrary to the widely-accepted political and scientific narrative, so Epstein has to fight an uphill battle to convince people to alter their worldviews so significantly. One important fact that helps lend Epstein credibility as compared to some other fossil fuel advocates is that he does not deny that climate change is happening and that humans are impacting it. This reasonableness is found throughout Fossil Future, and makes its arguments more compelling and digestable. Despite the headwinds pushing against alternate ideas on energy, this book is an admirable effort in such a direction and much of that has to do with its approach of working on reframing the issue and taking in the full context.

Part I of Fossil Future lays out the stakes and sets up a particular framework through which to view the issue of fossil fuels, mankind’s energy use, and climate change. That framework, labeled by Epstein as one of “human flourishing,” is radically different than the dominant media framework, which he calls “anti-impact.” The divergent moral goals of those competing frames are clearly spelled out; the anti-impact framework sees an unimpacted natural world as the key goal, while the human flourishing framework focuses on increasing human potential through whatever means possible, including impacting nature. When set in stark relief against its rival, the human flourishing framework looks more reasonable and pro-human than the alternative, which places the climate above the needs of humanity. Epstein also discusses an important assumption that the dominant perspective on climate change often relies on: that the planet is a “delicate nurturer” which would create perfect living conditions for humans if we only let it be. Fossil Future roundly debunks this contention, proving that the natural, unmodified condition of the earth is one which drove a much worse standard of living, from far lower average lifespans to greatly increased climate-related deaths (down 98% over the last century or so). The split between these two positions – the mainstream “delicate nurturer” assumption and Epstein’s alternate “wild potential” premise – is reminiscent of the classic debate over the natural state of mankind and the environment best represented by the 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his 17th century English counterpart, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes famously declared mankind’s state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” while Rousseau envisioned an Edenic state of nature where man lived in a natural utopia. This centuries-old divide crops up throughout history and politics, and is strongly present in the modern anti-impact movement against fossil fuels.

The next two parts of Fossil Future delve into a full context cost-benefit analysis of the use of fossil fuels versus the expert-preferred ‘green’ alternatives. These chapters are particularly interesting because of the fact of the cost-benefit analysis itself, something which is rarely, if ever, done when it comes to expert discussions of climate change and fossil fuels. Part II of the book is a rundown of the massive benefits of fossil fuel use, from the prosperity and security offered to the empowered world of fossil fuel users, to the unique properties of fossil fuels for broad, cost-effective use, to the ability for fossil fuels to protect us from the effects of climate change. The explanation of the widespread wonders which fossil fuels have produced in the realm of human flourishing is excellent and very persuasive. The moral case Epstein makes for fossil fuels is just as compelling, advocating for the immense benefits which could accrue to the world’s poorest people if they were able to more fully embrace this source of energy. Alternatives are discussed, with solar and wind found lacking – the evidence proffered here is significant – and the green-despised hydro and nuclear seen as more useful complements. Epstein finds nuclear power to be a potential substitute for fossil fuels in most cases over the next century, especially if that energy source can be unshackled by government regulators.

Graph from Fossil Future showing decreasing climate deaths as atmospheric CO2 has risen.

Part III, which attempts to dispute the predictions of climate doom offered by experts, is more of a mixed bag. Epstein’s discussion of the catastrophizing impulses of our media and expert class is good, as it clearly offers examples of this hyperbole and its predictive failures in the past, which puts the credibility of future predictions into question. The chapters which focus more on debunking current climate predictions were, for me, less effective. They do not go as deeply into the science as I would have hoped – understandable for a mass market tool of persuasion, but nonetheless disappointing. A more detailed examination of the predictions and models would have been helpful, as so much of this debate becomes inaccessible to those without a higher level of scientific understanding, something used to gatekeep dissenting perspectives.

That brings me to another criticism, albeit a minor and personal one: it is too repetitive. Charts and graphs are reused in multiple chapters, facts and arguments are repeated often, and prior chapters are occasionally quoted verbatim. I understand why this choice was made – it serves to hammer home the key messages to an audience that may be new to the topic – but it made Fossil Future less of an interesting and engaging read than it could have been. Space taken up by these restatements could have been used to explore more of the science, or give more concrete examples to cite in discussions with family, friends, and others.

The final part of the book deals with those discussions, and serves as a very good ending. It is rare to see a political advocacy book which concludes with actually-useful tips on how to work towards the goals laid out in the text instead of empty platitudes; Fossil Future is that rare bird. It lays out how one should go about persuading others about the net benefits of fossil fuels and the disastrous potential of ‘green’ energy plans like Net Zero, grounding itself in the frameworks and principles laid out earlier, as well as a strong foundation of property rights and freedom. It talks about the immense human potential for adaptation and innovation to cope with changes in the environment, all powered by the cost-effective energy provided by fossil fuels. It discusses the problem of unilateral disempowerment by the US and Europe, which would see us deliberately cripple our economies and societies while our geopolitical foes embraced fossil fuels and enriched and strengthened themselves. These are persuasive arguments and are presented in a way that makes them easily comprehensible and, most importantly, shareable.

Persuasion really is the focus of Epstein’s book, and that makes it truly appealing to someone like myself who values that approach. I would wholeheartedly recommend Fossil Future to anyone who is interested in reading an alternative perspective on climate and energy that is well-argued, respectful, and based in reality. We would do well as a society to reorient ourselves to focus more on the broad flourishing of the human race than we do on a fictional natural utopia. As I’ve said before, in the debate between Rousseau and Hobbes, Hobbes was right. He is again when it comes to climate, and Fossil Future agrees, making a pro-human case for an empowered, prosperous future.

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