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The Earth Is Not A God

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Jerry Weinberger, City Journal

The false theology of radical environmentalists

Book review: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, by Alex Epstein (Portfolio, 256 pp., $27.95)

The seventeenth-century philosopher Sir Francis Bacon argued that the human mind had been squandered on superstition: metaphysical speculation, theological disputation, and violent political delusions. Bacon’s greatest American disciple, Benjamin Franklin, agreed. It would be better, both believed, to focus on the conquest of man’s common enemy: nature. Bacon and Franklin were right, but they misjudged superstition’s staying power. Fast-forward to a conversation I had with the late Arne Naess, the Norwegian father of “deep ecology” and guru of the European Green movement. With a straight face, Naess told me that the eradication of smallpox was a technological crime against nature. For Naess’s deep ecology, the smallpox virus “deserved” and needed our protection, despite having maimed, tortured, and killed millions of people.

In his sprightly recent book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein takes on Naess’s American progeny—people such as Bill McKibben and David M. Graber—who have become influential opinion-makers on the environment, fossil fuels, and technology. Epstein asks us to imagine someone transported to the present from a virtually fossil fuels-free England in 1712, when the Newcomen steam engine was invented. What would that person think of our world, where 87 percent of all energy is produced from fossil fuels? In short, he’d be amazed to find clean drinking water, sanitation, enviable and improving air quality, long life, freedom from much disease, material prosperity, mobility, and leisure.

Epstein makes a compelling “big picture” case that the interaction of technology and fossil fuels provides everything we take for granted today. He also reminds us of earlier hysterical predictions of doom concerning fossil-fuel use. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, environmentalists such as Paul Ehrlich predicted mass starvation by the year 2000 because “world food production could not keep up with the galloping growth of population.” Flat wrong: the world’s population doubled, and the average person today is far better fed than when the starvation apocalypse was announced. That’s because the other apocalypse proclaimed back then—the depletion of oil and natural gas by 1992 and 1993, respectively—also proved wrong. Since 1980, worldwide usage of fossil fuels increased massively, yet both oil and natural gas supplies have more than doubled, and we have enough coal to last 3,000 years.

Epstein explains what the environmental doomsayers could not or would not see: first, that “fossil fuel energy is the fuel of food”; and second, that the human mind is as powerful as Franklin and Bacon said it was. Humans discovered more fossil fuels, and technology used those fuels to industrialize food production. Moreover, fossil fuels enabled Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution in food science, which, unlike the political movement of that name, actually did something to improve world nutrition and relieve the suffering of millions. Ehrlich was also wrong about fossil-fuel pollution in the developed world. In the U.S., though the use of fossil fuels climbed steadily since 1970, emissions of pollutants decreased dramatically—thanks to technology.

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