The Environmental Continuum: Reply to Alex Epstein
By Bryan Caplan
Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, replies to my criticism and questions over at Forbes.com. Overall, I’m dissatisfied with his responses. Here’s why, point by point. Alex is in blockquotes, I’m not.
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.
Alex makes it sound like there’s a binary choice: either we go 100% with the humanist standard or 100% with the naturist standard. But it’s entirely possible to go with a weighted average: say 85% humanist, 15% naturist, or 50/50, or whatever. And as far as I can tell, most people do in fact take an intermediate position, though almost everyone leans humanist.
Given this continuum of possible positions, it’s extremely unlikely we will ever “all agree” on the correct weights. Fortunately, Alex exaggerates the importance of this improbable consensus. With simple democratic voting, for example, the best policies will be adopted as long as 50%+1 accept the correct weights. In any case, Alex’s case for fossil fuels remains effective as long as most people put high weight on the humanist side.
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.
The key word in my statement is “primarily.” Yes, there is plenty of naturist rhetoric out there – plus a dollop of sheer misanthropy. But few people take it very seriously. How can we tell? For starters, look at what Americans’ name as the nation’s “most important problem.” “The economy” almost always tops the list. “The environment” is near the bottom.
Alternately, consider how rarely mainstream politicians advocate any specific policies that clearly impoverish most of their citizens for the sake of unspoiled nature. If voters took naturist standards seriously, politicians could win major elections by saying, “I’m going to impose a 300% tax on fossil fuels to save Mother Earth,” or “I’m going to ban meat-eating.” This rarely happens.
Alex then moves on to the three questions I posed to him.
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.
“Absolutely against” is a serious overstatement. A sensible utilitarian could recognize that fossil fuels are part of the solution, but still insist that a moderate carbon tax is also part of the solution. Indeed, the sensible utilitarian might say, “Imposing a moderate carbon tax increases the incentive to find ways to produce energy with lower carbon emissions.” The fact that we use fossil fuels to clean up fossil fuels does not imply that taxing fossil fuels is self-defeating; you’ve got to look at the net effect.
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
True, but the same goes for every plausible moral standard. (Objectivists often appear to disagree, for example, on what “promotes the survival of man qua man.”) But pointing out the vagueness of utilitarianism actually makes it even harder to see how Alex’s standard functionally diverges from this rival ethical approach. If he wants to clarify, Alex needs to (a) describe what he sees as the well-informed utilitarian position on fossil fuels, then (b) highlight his disagreements with this position.
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
Is “significant damage or imperiling” a gross or a net standard? I.e., suppose a new energy source gives everyone $5000 per year in improved medical care, but imposes $1000 per year in respiratory disorders. Does your standard say this is permissible or not? If you say no, then many of your arguments for fossil fuels are beside the point. (Think about your time series for weather-related deaths). If you say yes, then it seems like government does have to calculate overall benefits and harms after all.
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
This is another case where Alex talks as if the world is binary when it plainly isn’t. “Preventable” and “dangerous” both lie on a continuum. There is plenty that could have been done to reduce emissions even in early industrial cities. Most obviously: A modest tax on coal. What’s the point? Making the air a little less dangerous.
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.
Your position combines a superficially strict standard – no one can be significantly damaged or imperiled – with a massive loophole for “context.” Can you see why this is intellectually dissatisfying?
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.
Yes, but you have to subtract the unpleasant side effects of fossil fuels. When you do, the marginal benefits of fossil fuels in rich countries remain unclear.
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.
How can you say this? You’ve acknowledged that fossil fuels – like every energy source – have some unpleasant side effects. Reducing fossil fuel consumption trades a little extra convenience for a little less unpleasantness. What makes you think this is clearly a bad deal, especially in rich countries?
We can see historically that had we heeded the warnings in the 1970s
that we already had enough energy, the consequences would have been
Yes, but your strongest evidence comes from the developing world. This isn’t really relevant to my question.
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.
“Any attempt” would have been “disastrous”? That’s absurd. “Would have imposed high costs for small gains” might be true, but I’m still waiting to see the evidence.
Moreover, we have no right to do it.
By your own standard, wouldn’t there be a right to do it if marginal fossil fuel use “significantly damaged or imperiled” anyone? And if you’re factoring in context, doesn’t the context change when we’re focusing on marginal uses?
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.
Trivially true, but you’re missing the point. Conventional environmental regulations give detailed orders about how polluters have to reduce pollution. Pollution taxes specify a price and let polluters figure out the cheapest way to comply. There is a lot of evidence that the latter approach roughly halves the cost of pollution clean-up. So why does it fail to pique your interest?
Devising and implementing them require sophisticated technologies
to quantify emissions.
“Requires”? Not really. You don’t need sophisticated technologies to tax coal. Technology can definitely make emissions pricing work better, but that’s a weaker claim.
I don’t mean to be finicky. But much as I admire Alex’s book, his replies to my questions seem to consistently assume the real world fits neatly into simple binary categories. It doesn’t. Fossil fuels really can be great overall but bad at the margin. And if so, there is a simple case for moderate taxes on fossil fuels. This simple case might, on deeper consideration, be wrong. But it needs to be engaged, and I don’t see that Alex has vigorously engaged it. Yet.