The central goal of my recently-released book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels is to challenge—and change—the way we think about the morality of using not just fossil fuels but any form of energy. In particular, I think we urgently need to adopt a humanist instead of a naturist approach to thinking about energy and environmental issues.
Some context: historically and today, there is a shocking disconnect between our highly negative overall moral assessment of using coal, oil, and natural gas and the incredibly positive overall consequences that they have had on human life. The claim that fossil fuels are an addiction whose benefits are far outweighed by the long-term costs of catastrophic climate change, catastrophic pollution, and catastrophic resource depletion is not a new one. It has been made for the last 40 years by many of today’s most prestigious thinkers (Amory Lovins, Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, Bill McKibben). And it has been exactly wrong: the rapid increase of fossil fueled machines in the world has enabled us to improve every aspect of human well-being—life expectancy, infant mortality, nourishment, income, as well as key environmental metrics such as water quality, sanitation, and, perhaps most startling of all, climate danger (climate-related deaths are at record lows, down 98% over the last 80 years).
The reason for the disconnect between our fossil fuel morality and our fossil fuel reality is threefold.
We do not think big-picture. We tend to ignore or minimize the benefits of fossil fuel use (including the environmental benefits of using energy to overcome our hazardous and dirty natural environment) and we tend to exaggerate or manufacture the costs of fossil fuel use (.8 degrees of average warming over 150 years is treated as a catastrophic trend instead of a relatively mild and adaptable change).
We misuse experts, treating them as authorities who give us orders instead of advisers who give us explanations. This encourages and publicizes the kinds of experts who are eager to make catastrophic, authoritative-sounding predictions (even if they’ve been wrong 40 years running).
We are sloppy about the standard by which we measure good and bad, our standard of value.This is, I think, the most damaging and most subtle mistake we make in our cultural discussion of fossil fuels so I want to quote a few passages from the book.
Ultimately, when thinking about fossil fuels, we are trying to figure out the right thing to do, the right choices to make. But what exactly do we mean by right and wrong, good and bad? What is our standard of value? By what standard or measure are we saying something is good or bad, great or catastrophic, right or wrong, moral or immoral?
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.
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) God’s will. Religion is not the only source of nonhuman standards of value.
Many leading environmental thinkers, including those who predict fossil fuel catastrophe, hold as their standard of value what they call “pristine” nature or wilderness—nature unaltered by man. For example, in a Los Angeles Times review of The End of Nature, McKibben’s influential book of twenty-five years ago predicting catastrophic climate change, David M. Graber, research biologist for the National Park Service, wrote this summary of McKibben’s message:
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. I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line—at about a billion [sic] years ago, maybe half that—we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.
In his book, McKibben wrote that our goal should be a “humbler world,” one where we have less impact on our environment and “Human happiness would be of secondary importance.” What is of primary importance? Minimizing our impact on our environment. McKibben explains: “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.” This implies that there should be fewer people, with fewer desires, and fewer ambitions. This is the exact opposite of holding human life as one’s standard of value. It is holding human nonimpact as one’s standard of value, without regard for human life and happiness.
Earlier [in Chapter 1] we saw that human beings are safer than ever from climate, despite whatever impact we have had from increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from .03 percent to .04 percent. And yet Bill McKibben and others call our present climate catastrophic. By what standard? In his book Eaarth, McKibben argues that it’s tragic for human beings to do anything that affects climate, even if it doesn’t hurt human beings. He writes, referencing an earlier work: Merely knowing that we’d begun to alter the climate meant that the water flowing in that creek had a different, lesser meaning. “Instead of a world where rain had an independent and mysterious existence, the rain had become a subset of human activity,” I wrote. “The rain bore a brand; it was a steer, not a deer.” This means that something is morally diminished if human beings affect it. If fossil fuels changed climate, but not in a way that harmed humans—or even helped them—would it be right to use them because of their benefits to human life? On a human standard of value, the answer is absolutely yes. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with transforming our environment—to the contrary, that’s our means of survival. But we do want to avoid transforming our environment in a way that harms us now or in the long term. […]
The humanist believes that transforming nature is bad only if it fails to meet human needs; the non-humanist believes that transforming nature is intrinsically bad and that doing so will inevitably somehow cause catastrophe for us in the long run.
I believe that this non-humanist or “naturist” premise that transforming nature is intrinsically bad has ruined our environmental policy. It leads policymakers to regard vital industrial development, such as new mining, drilling, or construction, as inherently environmentally bad. And the prejudice against man-made impacts makes the vast majority of us tend to drastically overestimate the costs of using fossil fuels and drastically underestimate the costs of restricting fossil fuels, even though few of us would subscribe to naturism consistently. I believe that our energy and environmental policy needs to become a humanist one. And, as I argue in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, if we look at the big picture data without bias, a humanist policy means absolutely rejecting the calls to restrict fossil fuel use in the name of slashing CO2 emissions.
Recently Bryan Caplan, an economist whose work I admire, wrote an interesting challenge to this approach in Part 4 of his exceptionally thoughtful review of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, arguing that “human life as the standard of value” is “rhetorically” effective but “philosophically…a mess” because it’s too vague.
I agree with him—in a sense. Caplan rightly points out that if you only go by “human life as the standard of value” there is ambiguity about whose lives you are concerned with in what way. For example, a utilitarian might say he’s a humanist concerned with the “greatest good for the greatest number” even if that means violating the rights of individuals. For example, if the Chinese government sacrificed the health of the residents of a certain residential area by installing a polluting coal plant that they thought would benefit the country as a whole. Whereas an individualist (which I consider myself) might say that emissions should be permissible when they are unavoidable, or do not pose a risk to anyone that is out of proportion to the many other risks that all members of society accept as a matter of course, but that it is wrong to sacrifice the health of some people for the sake of others by exposing them to avoidable and disproportionate risks.
In the book I briefly argue for my view, and Caplan understandably asks for elaboration. I’ll address some of his technical questions later on, but I want to acknowledge that I have not fully worked out how the government should handle every form of pollution and welcome the contribution of others in doing so. But here’s my contention: we cannot come up with the best policies until we all agree on the baseline question of whether we are to use a humanist or naturist standard of value. (After that there are other questions within humanism, such as individualism vs. collectivism, and even different individualist approaches. But the humanist question is first.)
I disagree with Caplan’s assessment of the state of our debate, that “Most people, laymen and philosophers alike, think we should protect the environment primarily for the sake of humanity.” Most people, laymen and philosophers alike, have been exposed to sloppy thinking about standard of value (and to environmentalist propaganda) since youth. Thus, most people routinely devalue human life and routinely demean the profound value that is fossil fuels. Indeed, the term “green,” the most politically correct term today, literally means “minimized impact.” From Chapter 9:
How different are [most Americans] from the thought leaders who influence our culture? I think our motives are much better, but we have adopted many of their same bad thinking methods, and we partially share their nonimpact standard of value. Notice that, with each issue surrounding fossil fuels, we all too easily believe the negatives and are blinded to the positives.
How many of us have ever thought to appreciate the man-made miracle that is cheap, plentiful, reliable energy?
How many of us appreciate the people who actually produce it, rather than demonize them and laud their imaginary replacements in the solar and wind industries?
How many of us consider the possibility that human beings could be a positive force climatewise, whether by fertilizing the atmosphere or by creating an environment that maximizes climate benefits and minimizes climate risks?
How many of us consider the possibility that we are improving our environment by using fossil fuels? In my experience, not even the fossil fuel industry considers that possibility. As a culture, we are consistently inclined to view the fossil fuel industry as negative, and in particular, environmentally negative.
Why? Because we haven’t been taught the facts? That doesn’t explain it—why don’t we look for positive environmental facts about the fossil fuel industry, instead of assuming that they don’t exist? Because we believe that to be environmentally good, to follow an environmentally good standard of value, is to be “green,” to not have an impact on things.
The most important issue to resolve politically is: Are we on a human standard of value or not? This is not a “rhetorical” issue. It is the philosophical issue. We have a modern movement to oppose fossil fuel use to an extent that would harm billions of people. And many thinkers, including economists who would consider themselves humanists, are supporting the goal of drastic fossil fuel reductions. We have economists debating over how large taxes on CO2 should be with the aim of reducing fossil fuel use by 80%.
Those of us who consider ourselves humanists have to look at the big picture of human impacts. I think if we do, any humanist will conclude that human life requires more fossil fuel use, and that caps on CO2 are inhuman.
Postscript: Three questions and answers
Professor Caplan raised three related challenges to my individualist-humanist approach, which I’ll summarize and give my thoughts on here.
1) How does your view functionally diverge from the “common good” view you condemn as “immoral”? If talk about individual rights means anything, shouldn’t there be noteworthy cases where you favor stricter pollution controls than utilitarians? Weaker controls?”
Let’s assume that the utilitarians in question, unlike most utilitarians in practice today, have an objective, unprejudiced, and informed assessment of the nature of fossil fuels’ impacts on human life. Such a utilitarian, for example, would be absolutely against a tax on CO2, properly recognizing that as a tax on progress for the sake of avoiding a problem (climate danger) to which fossil fuels are a major part of the solution.
Even in that case, there is one difficulty of comparing my position to “utilitarians” because there is no consensus among utilitarians about what constitutes the “greatest good for the greatest number” on any issue. Utilitarians are always disagreeing about how to calculate the utilities. More generally, the problem with the “greatest good” or “common good” approach is that the notion of the common good is inherently vague. It is impossible or nearly so to balance the competing claims by various factions that they or others would be benefited or harmed in various ways—ways that are not always commensurable. (Some utilitarians, like Peter Singer, who comments on fossil fuels, regard animal well-being as a part of the “common good” that human beings often need to be sacrificed to.)
So there is no coherent humanist “common good” view on this issue that I can compare my own views to, point by point.
But there is a principled difference that would apply to any variant of the utilitarian approach.
The role of government, in my view, is not to calculate the overall benefits and harms of a technology. It is to define a threshold at which a technology violates people’s rights by significantly damaging or imperiling them. This threshold, as I indicated earlier, must be based on what is possible given the current state of technology and the current state of risk in a society. For example, in early industrial cities, when we could not avoid most of the ravages of human emissions (which are almost always more dangerous than machine emissions), the technology and infrastructure didn’t exist to combat them, so you cannot say that human emissions are illegal. But you can and should pass laws protecting people from the forms that are both dangerous and preventable.
If it can be objectively established that a given use of a technology significantly damages or imperils anyone, then either the technology cannot be used in that way or the users of it need to compensate the damaged parties in some way. However, the determination of whether someone is damaged or imperiled needs to be made contextually. We are necessarily exposed to all sorts of small risks by living among other people, and even apart from other people we’re subject to natural risks of all sorts (especially when we don’t have the technologies that make us safe from nature). The damage or risk caused by a technology is only significant when it stands out from this background level. And what this background level is will be relevant to the technological development of the society.
Thus, the soot put into the air by early coal plants was not a significant damage to anyone in a context where people were generally living in squalor and breathing polluted air from wood-fires. Whatever damage or risk the plants imposed on members of the community fell well within the general tolerances that everyone in that a populated area accepted and had to accept as normal. (If the coal plant caused some greater damage to its immediate neighbors, that is a separate matter and could be dealt with in court.) However, in a context where everyone has a higher standard of living, cleaner air, and greater control over their environment (all made possible in large part by coal-energy), the soot put out by those plants would qualify as significant damage to every member of the community, and so, in that context, there is a place for some form of legal redress.
2) What is the evidence that the marginal benefits of fossil fuels are enormous or even positive—i.e., that it is good for an average American to use a little more rather than a little less fossil fuel?
One theme of the book is the marginal benefit of the opportunity of every additional Calorie of energy. (Caplan observes that I only use the word “marginal” once, but that is only because the terminology is not used much except by economists.) Energy is our ability to use machines to improve our lives.
Quoting from the section “Every Calorie Matters”:
When we talk about different sources of energy, we are talking about different technologies that are better or worse at producing energy with the resources we have. If we choose the most capable technologies, we get more energy. If we choose less capable ones, we get less. It’s that simple. When someone says, “Let’s use solar,” he is, usually unwittingly, saying, “Let’s have less energy with which to improve our lives.” There is no limit to the amount of energy we can use to improve our lives. And in a world where we produce only one fourth as much energy as would be necessary for everyone to live like Americans, every machine calorie counts.
One of the expressions I use in the book is “Energy is opportunity.” That is a crucial concept because whether or not someone uses a given Calorie rationally, that Calorie is an opportunity for him to improve his life.
In The Ultimate Resource 2, resource economist Julian Simon suggests new ways to use large quantities of cheap energy:
If the cost of usable energy is low enough, all other important resources can be made plentiful, as H. E. Goeller and A. M. Weinberg showed.
For example, low energy costs would enable people to create enormous quantities of useful land. The cost of energy is the prime reason that water desalination now is too expensive for general use; reduction in energy cost would make water desalination feasible, and irrigated farming would follow in many areas that are now deserts. And if energy were much cheaper, it would be feasible to transport sweet water from areas of surplus to arid areas far away. Another example: If energy costs were low enough, all kinds of raw materials could be mined from the sea.
The enormous opportunity that more (fossil fuel) energy production provides us plus the ability of modern fossil fuel technology to cheaply produce energy with ever-smaller risks and side-effects means that there is no reason to have any inclination whatsoever to reduce (including tax) energy use.
We can see historically that had we heeded the warnings in the 1970s that we already had enough energy, the consequences would have been disastrous. More energy improves lives in many ways, documented in the book, and some of them are profound. For example: the advent of the coal-hungry internet. Any legal measures to constrict marginal fossil fuel usage in the developed nations in the 1980s would have hampered the development of that technology. And any attempt to constrict FFs now will hamper future technologies. That would have been disastrous. Moreover, we have no right to do it.
3) Isn’t the textbook environmental economics approach of putting a price on pollution a better policy than the combination of technology-and-law that you propose?
No. Putting a price on pollution is one variety of the technology-and-law approach. Policies designed to put a price on pollution are enacted by law. Devising and implementing them require sophisticated technologiesto quantify emissions. And one of the goals of such policies is to spur the creation of further emissions-limiting technologies.
When deciding which form of legal solution to use with a pollution problem, the first step is to determine that there is in fact a problem that justifies government intervention—using the guidelines I discussed earlier.
Then it can be determined whether trying to price the pollution makes sense.
In many contexts, a pricing approach makes no sense, such as a situation where a certain level of waste is unpreventable but the government needs to protect against dangerous and preventable uses. Using the example of human waste in cities, there could be no law against disease-spreading fecal matter as such, but the government should have prosecuted, say, a horse owner who used a neighbor’s front porch as a waste dump. A tax on the overall phenomenon of waste would have made no sense. Should there have been a tax on every individual human? Every new child? In the 1800s, a tax on human emissions or a tax on coal emissions would have accomplished besides impoverishing people and slowing progress.
Laws that aim to make polluting expensive have to be compared to other laws aiming to curb pollution. “Putting a price on X” seems most plausible when we are dealing with aggregate phenomena such as sulfur dioxide emissions in Los Angeles creating smog. The leading issue under discussion today that falls in this category is the alleged climate catastrophe that is supposed to result from our increase of CO2 in the atmosphere from .03% to .04%. If that was a truly phenomenon that carried a major, catastrophic phenomenon, it would be worth considering different kinds of laws to avoid the threshold of catastrophe.
But that gets to the deeper, practical question: is it necessary and justifiable to attempt to use the law to curb pollution in the first place with fossil fuels? It is this question rather than what the specific laws should be that the book aimed to (briefly) address. And my answer is: it is necessary and justifiable to use it in a way that is based on an objective determination of what will protect the rights and well-being of individual human beings. And it is unjustifiable and immoral to sacrifice those rights and well-being to naturist dogma.