Henderson on Epstein on Fossil Fuels
By David Henderson
How can a practical case also be a moral case? Simple: if one’s standard of value is human life, as Epstein says his is, then whatever enhances human life is moral. There are some problems around the edges of his argument, but in a big-picture sense it holds up.
The best way to see that is to consider a true story he retells about Gambia, a tiny country in West Africa. In 2006, Kathryn Hall, founder of the energy charity Power Up Gambia, observed an emergency cesarean section in that country. The baby died only minutes after birth. The doctor explained that if he had had enough electric power, he would have been able to use an ultrasound machine and plan the C-section rather than do it as an emergency surgery. Hall also observed the birth of a full-term baby weighing only 3.5 pounds. In the United States, the infant would have been put in an incubator. But the hospital managers, knowing they did not have a reliable energy supply, did not bother wasting money on an incubator. The baby died.
This story drives home the importance of a stable energy supply. Our lives literally depend on it.
Of course, we could still live our lives with much less energy. It’s just that our lives would be less full, we would be able to do fewer things, and we would be less wealthy. So it’s not just our lives that are Epstein’s standard, but a certain kind of life. Unfortunately he never makes that point explicit.
This is an excerpt from “Ethics and Energy,” my basically positive review of Alex Epstein’s book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Co-blogger Bryan Caplan was the person who first piqued my interest in the book with his posts here, here, here, here, and here.
Another excerpt from my review:
He reminds us that we need to judge various energy sources by the cost of all the resources used to produce energy. Sure, rays from the sun are free, but the various materials used to convert those rays into a usable energy form are very expensive, requiring many other materials per unit of energy produced. Referencing a U.S. Department of Energy report, he notes that such materials “can include highly purified silicon, phosphorus, boron, and compounds like titanium dioxide, cadmium telluride, and copper indium gallium selenide.” The story for wind power is similar. He points out that generating one megawatt of electricity with wind power requires 542.3 tons of iron and steel, compared to only 5.2 tons to get the same amount of electricity using coal.
Moreover, both wind and solar energy are unreliable, for what should be obvious reasons: try getting solar energy at 8 PM in the winter or wind energy on a windless day. Epstein’s critique is more devastating than this, but at least you get the flavor.
I’ll close on a positive note. Epstein’s last chapter is his best and should have been his first chapter. In it, he tells how he paid famous environmentalist Bill McKibben $10,000 to debate him. That alone impressed me. Epstein tells the story in such a dramatic way that it almost gave me chills. I recommend reading it first; you will likely then be motivated to read the rest of the book.