Sunday, April 26, 2015

Epstein’s Energy Book: Is the Moral Case Necessary?

Yesterday I quoted from an answer to the Quora question “What do people think about Alex Epstein's new book "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” written by Josh Velson. I want to revisit Velson’s answer, because he seems largely to get Epstein’s main point. Nevertheless, Velson said:

I would not bother with it.

The book is, at its core, basically equivalent to the moral case for increased human energy usage as a method increasing human well-being and decreasing human misery.  The fossil fuel aspect is treated upon at length, and is the focus of the book, but frankly it's ancillary to what I consider to be the only substantive point of the whole piece.  

But here's the thing: anybody practically involved with energy infrastructure knows that there is a moral case for increasing energy use among the population of the poor and economically disadvantaged - and that the only possible way to do that, at least in the short term, is to continue using the infrastructure and fuels that we sustain ourselves upon now.  

Velson’s claim that the moral case is known to “anybody practically involved with energy infrastructure” seems very unlikely, given the fossil fuel industry’s weak, apologetic response to the anti-fossil attack crowd. But it’s undeniable that the moral case for energy is virtually unheard of in the broader culture. Fortunately, Mark Coldren demolished Velson’s assertion that the moral case is in any way obvious, rendering Epstein’s book unnecessary:

My primary reaction is to your qualifier "anybody practically involved with energy infrastructure" to "knows that there is a moral case for increasing energy use among the population of the poor and economically disadvantaged."

My impression growing up in the US educational system and interacting with US culture is that most people don't know there is a moral case for increasing energy use - carbon-based or otherwise. That's why Hans Rosling's TED talk is significant. It's not a very popular idea.

Don't you think it's worth having a clearly communicated popular-market book expounding the virtues of energy-dense civilization? That's what Alex's goal was, and with a publisher behind him he's written this new book with more time and resources than much of his past work, and I've been led to believe the citations are excellent. [Rosling’s talk,  The magic washing machine, extols energy growth in a simple yet powerful presentation. Worth watching.]

Velson, I think, gets Epstein’s main point. But he side-steps Coldren’s question when he answered:

I do own the eBook.  The problem is that in order to "expound the virtues of an energy-dense civilization" Epstein tries to advance the thesis that fossil fuels are the only option, and in order to do so implies that the environment does not have intrinsic value, that renewables are not worthwhile (citing much dubious research, for example on bat and bird deaths) and that climate change should be evaluated using metrics that understate its severity, among many others.  The first point is debatable - like Epstein, I hew to a more anthropocentric viewpoint rather than a naturalistic one - but the others go too far.  In acknowledging that energy is essential for alleviating human misery Epstein overstates his case for fossil fuels.

It’s not true that Epstein holds that “fossil fuels are the only option.” Fossils are the best option for most of our energy needs in the context of today’s technology. But Epstein doesn’t discount the possibility—actually, the near certainty—that some new energy technology, even some advanced form of direct solar energy, can and will eventually supplant fossils. Epstein makes this clear on page 34 (hardcover edition):

“Ultimately, the moral case for fossil fuels is not about fossil fuels; it’s the moral case for using cheap, plentiful, reliable energy to amplify our abilities to make the world a better place—a better place for human beings.”

It is certainly true that Epstein rejects the intrinsic value theory of nature. Intrinsicism is the fallacy that value can exist absent a valuer. The intrinsic value theory of nature implies that anything man does is destructive and thus immoral if it affects the natural world; which means, virtually anything man does is immoral. Intrinsicism is the essence of environmentalism and goes to the heart of Epstein’s case for fossil fuels; pristine, unaltered nature as the standard of value vs. human life as the standard of value—anti-life vs. pro-life.


Where do you hear prominent people openly extolling the virtues of “cheap, plentiful, reliable energy,” and calling for increasing our usage of energy? More likely you’ll hear incessant calls for government-mandated energy conservation, government-enforced switching to unreliable forms of energy, efforts to stop fossil fuel projects, and other forms of energy privation. How often do you hear the kinds of words energetically uttered by Hans Rosling in the above mentioned talk: “Thank you Industrialization; thank you steel mill; thank you power station; and thank you chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books!”

Related Reading:

Epstein to Coal Industry: Claim the "Environmental High Road"

Saturday, April 25, 2015

In his Book ‘The Moral Case,’ Is Epstein Attacking a Straw Man?

Joseph Boyle posted this reply to my Quora review (see yesterday's post) of Alex Epstein’s book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels:

Seriously? Every climate change warning I've seen is about terrible consequences for people, while solar is well below $1/watt and the anti-wind cranks (who actually ARE pushing a mythical idea of unspoiled nature) are well skewered by Mike Barnard.

Read Josh Velson's answer to this question. Nobody is advocating the strawman this book harps on.

In his answer, Velson writes:

The book is, at its core, basically equivalent to the moral case for increased human energy usage as a method increasing human well-being and decreasing human misery [which is true].  The fossil fuel aspect is treated upon at length, and is the focus of the book, but frankly it's ancillary to what I consider to be the only substantive point of the whole piece.  

But here's the thing: anybody practically involved with energy infrastructure knows that there is a moral case for increasing energy use among the population of the poor and economically disadvantaged - and that the only possible way to do that, at least in the short term, is to continue using the infrastructure and fuels that we sustain ourselves upon now.  

It’s transparently directed against a straw-man version of an environmentalist that opposes all practical forms of energy provision (this resembles, for example, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, hardly majority organizations).

Here is my rebuttal:

“Every climate change warning” has been wrong to date, and Epstein looks at the track record.  There is no evidence to date for catastrophic climate change; only perpetually failed predictions of catastrophe. I read Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” in 1968, when I was 19. I was horrified. Mass starvation within 10 years! Guess what? No catastrophe. Yet, he’s still around. Same for the steady parade of catastrophe predictions since. No catastrophe. Just a better life for billions.

“Nobody is advocating the strawman this book harps on.”

It’s true most people are not anti-industrial. But bad ideas must be exposed and countered before they can take hold and metastasize. And bad ideas can and have taken hold before. Marx’s “scientific socialism” led to 20th Century Communism. The science of eugenics helped set the stage for Nazi Germany. Likewise, the logical consequences of the environmentalist ideological agenda will be devastating for people, if and when it passes into implementation.

I hope you’re right that Epstein is attacking a straw man. But consider this. There is no evidence that solar and wind can ever be more than an intermittent supplemental energy source. Yet intellectual and political leaders the world over want to cut carbon emissions by 80% in a few decades. If and when unforeseen breakthroughs allow “alternatives” to supplant fossils as a primary energy workhorse, they will without any help from government or any concerted effort to legally strangle fossil fuel development and usage. To force such a drastic cut in carbon energy beforehand would be cruel beyond words. Yet, that is what many leaders advocate, based only on unsubstantiated hope for “alternatives” to come along just in time. The Sierra Club and Greenpeace may “hardly [be] majority organizations,” but their ideas about pristine nature being the ideal, and fossil fuels being bad, have become mainstream. My own observations bear this out. In NJ, 3 new pipelines have been proposed. Opposition is fierce and one-sided, with not even passing acknowledgement by these activists or anyone else about the enormous life-serving energy benefits these pipelines can deliver. Plenty of letters against. But aside from mine, almost no one is openly supporting the pipelines. A straw man? I think not. We ignore bad ideas at our peril.


I don’t know who Boyle is referring to when he attacks “anti-wind cranks.” No one I’ve read or heard is against wind energy. Many, including myself, are against government taxpayer subsidies for wind energy (I’m against all corporate subsidies). But being against wind subsidies is not the same as being anti-wind. It seems Boyle has his own straw man. Or perhaps Boyle is referring to anti-wind environmentalists, who do push the idea of “unspoiled nature; in which case he proves my point. (Boyle says this perspective is “well skewered by Mike Barnard.” But Barnard doesn’t “skewer” anything but his own credibility. I’ll address Barnard’s comments, which is little more than an ad hominem rant, in a later post.)

Related Reading:

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Epstein’s Refreshingly Objective Presentation of the Pros and Cons of Fossil Fuels

Quora is a nice little social media website founded by two former Facebook employees. According to Wikipedia:

Quora is a question-and-answer website where questions are created, answered, edited and organized by its community of users. The company was founded in June 2009, and the website was made available to the public on June 21, 2010.[3] Quora aggregates questions and answers to topics. Users can collaborate by editing questions and suggesting edits to other users' answers.[4]

You can also reply to other users’ answers.

I posted this answer:

There is a fundamental moral conflict underpinning the fossil fuel debate—pristine, unaltered nature as the standard of value vs. human life as the standard of value. From the first, culturally dominant perspective, fossil fuels (and, more broadly, industrialization as such) are fundamentally immoral. From the second largely unidentified perspective, fossil fuels, being the most practical form of industrial energy at this time in history, is good. Epstein draws the moral battle line—unaltered nature vs. humans’ need to alter nature—and takes the pro-life side.

Unlike anti-fossil ideologues, however, Epstein presents a balanced view to support his case. He doesn’t shy away from fossil’s negatives. He tackles the main objections and risks of fossils, from pollution to climate change, head on. (He also explores the horrendous pollution consequences of wind and solar). He then compares the negatives of fossils side-by-side with the benefits—and compares fossils with their alternatives—in a clear and succinct style, and lets the facts determine his conclusions. And there is a wealth of facts.

Committed anti-fossil ideologues won’t read the book or take it seriously. Whether they acknowledge it or not, their opinions are dictated by a particular moral view and standard of value—unaltered nature as the good—and no amount of facts will alter their position unless they re-examine their embedded moral premises. But for people with a healthy respect for objectivity, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels is a real value. It is a needed counterpoint to the grossly one-sided, mainstream drumbeat against fossil fuels, which is steeped in an anti-fossil prejudice so irrational that it would make any racist look rational by comparison.


I also engaged other correspondents (no surprise there). I’ll post their comments and my replies next.

Related Reading:

The Secret History of Fossil Fuels—Chapter One, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Earth Day: The Anti-Industrial Revolution

“The uncontested absurdities of today are the accepted slogans of tomorrow”. - Ayn Rand

One such uncontested (except by Rand) absurdity was inaugurated on April 22, 1970…the first Earth Day. The inability or unwillingness of Americans to understand and appreciate the actual meaning behind that concept has allowed Earth Day to evolve into a powerful symbol of an ideology that is anti-human life.

Ayn Rand coined the term “anti-industrial revolution” to describe the “ecology” movement of the 1960s and 1970s. That movement was the precursor to the modern environmentalist movement.

The basic premise of Environmentalism is that “nature” in its raw state—which means unaltered by human intervention—has intrinsic value. But the concept "value" cannot be divorced from the concept valuer. Nothing can have intrinsic value ... i.e., value in and of itself. But that is exactly how environmentalism sees nature. The consequences to human freedom and well-being by the acceptance of that doctrine are horrendous. Mark Levine puts it thus:

If nature has "intrinsic value" then nature exists for its own sake. Consequently, man is not to be preferred over any aspect of his natural surroundings. He is no better than any other organism and much worse because of his destructive existence.
Is not man, therefore, expendable? And if he is, is not the suppression of his liberty, the confiscation of his property, and the blunting of his progress at all times warranted where the purpose is to save the planet - or any part of it - from man himself? After all, it would seem that there can be no end to man's offenses against nature if he is not checked at every turn. (Liberty and Tyranny, pages 121-122)

Think of what it means if nature has intrinsic value. It means that whatever nature "does"—raw nature—is valuable and not to be altered. A volcano erupting and destroying Mount St. Helens, taking with it millions of trees and wild animals, is raw nature, and thus good. Man clearing a forest and “destroying” an ecosystem to build a housing development is not "natural," and thus bad. Animals devouring one another to survive is raw nature. Man using animals for the purpose of testing (human) life-saving medicines is not. Crop-destroying insects or plant diseases is raw nature. Insecticides and bio-engineered pest- and disease-resistant crops is not. A black primordial goo lying underground is raw nature. Gasoline and heating oil is not.

The common denominator of that which is not “raw” nature is that it represents the application of human intelligence to the advance of man’s well-being and survival. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. Every living species, from the lowest bacteria to the most advanced mammals, must act according to its nature to sustain its life. In other words, every living species is provided by nature with some means of survival, which it must rely on and exercise.

There is one crucial fact of nature that sets man apart from every other living species. Every other species must essentially adapt itself to its natural environmental background. It has no choice in the matter, since it basically has no way of altering that environment. It is thus equipped with the basic means of survival determined by its nature to survive in that manner. Any species that lacks or loses the means to adapt perishes. Man, however, is not equipped to adapt to raw nature. He must, if he is to survive and thrive, adapt his environmental background to his own needs ... by building homes, inventing medical treatments, developing advanced agriculture, producing fuel for transportation and heating ... all produced from exploiting the materials found in raw nature.

Environmentalism’s elevating of nature to the absurd and logically indefensible status of having intrinsic value is a direct assault on, and denial of, man’s method of survival; his need to transform raw nature as dictated by his very nature. That man is himself a product of nature does not daunt the environmentalist mindset. They champion nature, except the one creation of nature that sets man apart. Since man’s primary, basic means of achieving this is his rational mind, the anti-science of environmentalism is thus anti-mind, which means anti-man.

Environmentalism should not be confused with the idea of developing cleaner methods of producing and consuming that which we need to survive and thrive. That is not what the leaders of the environmental movement have in mind. It is human production and technology that is the enemy. Following are some quotes from some of those leaders:

The collective needs of non-human species must take precedence over the needs and desires of humans.

—Dr. Reed F. Noss, The Wildlands Project

Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, is not as important as a wild and healthy planet ... Some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.

—David Graber, biologist, National Park Service

The extinction of the human species may not only be inevitable but a good thing....This is not to say that the rise of human civilization is insignificant, but there is no way of showing that it will be much help to the world in the long run.

—Economist editorial

I suspect that eradicating smallpox was wrong. It played an important part in balancing ecosystems.

—John Davis, editor of Earth First! Journal

We, in the green movement, aspire to a cultural model in which killing a forest will be considered more contemptible and more criminal than the sale of 6-year-old children to Asian brothels.

—Carl Amery

We have wished, we ecofreaks, for a disaster or for a social change to come and bomb us into Stone Age, where we might live like Indians in our valley, with our localism, our appropriate technology, our gardens, our homemade religion—guilt-free at last!

—Stewart Brand (writing in the Whole Earth Catalogue).

This last is the ideal that drives environmentalism…the return of mankind to a pre-industrial age when man lived “in harmony” with nature. A time when nature was worshipped, rather than exploited for human gain. Rather than a warm winter home, they long for an existence of savages cowering in fear of natural forces. The name itself, “Environmentalism”, captures the very essence of its meaning, just as Communism or Nazism captures the essence of those systems. In fact, statists of every stripe have latched on to the environmental movement to further their anti-capitalist agendas.

But make no mistake. The agenda of the environmentalists is to thwart, roll back, and destroy the life-giving technology and industrialization of the modern age. This is not to say that I believe that they will succeed. Most people don’t equate environmentalism with an anti-man’s-life agenda. There is a real danger, though, that they will succeed at advancing a statist agenda under cover of environmentalism, leading to a deteriorating economy, rising impoverishment, and possible dictatorship. I submit in evidence the two news items cited in my 2010 Earth Day post.

By celebrating “Earth Day”, we should be aware of the enemies of man that we are helping to bring to power in America and around the world.

Rather than celebrate raw nature, as embodied in “Earth Day”, we should instead look around at all of the life-giving benefits we enjoy as a result of industrialization.

Earth Day is the “holiday” of the anti-industrial revolution. Instead, we should celebrate the holiday of the Industrial Revolution, Exploit The Earth Day!

Related Viewing:

Related Reading:

What “Going Green” Really Means—Collection by Voices for Reason

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels—Alex Epstein (Chapter 1, The Secret History of Fossil Fuels, available free.)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Social Security 'Solution': More Taxation?

Writing as a New Jersey Star-Ledger “guest columnist,” University professor and occasional political appointee Richard F. Keevey suggests A solution for the social security dilemma; eliminate the earnings cap for Social Security taxes. Keevey comes to his conclusion after noting other proposed fixes, such as raising the retirement age and “privatization” (private investment accounts controlled within Social Security. All of these approaches have merit, he says, but none match his “more simple approach”:

Specifically, instead of taxing only the first $118,500 (plus annual increases based on COLA), individuals would pay on full salary. Thus an individual earning, for example, $750,000 would pay the rate on the full salary rather than just to $118,500. There would be no increase on others.

Keevey concludes:

This approach would solve the social security dilemma and guarantee payments to all citizens, particularly seniors most in need for the next 75 years and lessen the projected debt. Just as important, it would remove social security from the national crisis agenda, making federal budgetary decision-making simpler and focusing attention to where it should be - containing health-care costs and reforming national tax policy.

I left these comments:

Since inception, Social Security tax rates on workers have risen from 2% to 12.4% (including the alleged “employers share,” which is only a gimmick to hide the fact that the worker is actually paying the full freight). Over that same time frame, compensation subject to SS taxes has risen from $3000 to $118,500. Despite that gargantuan, double-barreled confiscation of Americans’ hard-earned wealth, the politicians have over-promised the “earned benefits” by at least $13.5 trillion (some estimates are much higher).

It’s a fantasy to think more taxes would make SS sustainable. Expanding the tax base to all income would just give the politicians even more incentive to over-promise benefits. Overspending is never a tax problem. The fundamental problem is political control of SS proceeds and benefits. Wherever politicians control proceeds and benefits (Medicare, public employee pensions, highway trust funds, etc.) there is an “unfunded liability” or “under-funding” crisis. SS is no different. Keevey’s “solution” is to force the most productive taxpayers to pay for the politicians’ gross mismanagement of the system. I can’t think of anything more counterproductive than expanding the tax base.

And what will plundering people who have already “contributed” the current maximum amount get them in return for their massive increase in taxes? Keevey doesn’t say. But we can guess the answer; nothing! One of the least unfair aspects of the current Social Security set-up is that the benefit payout is at least loosely correlated with taxes paid in. True, benefits are skewed toward the lower end of the income scale. But at least people know that the more they pay, the more restitutional return they’ll get. That would make Social Security even more unfair than it already is, because it would break the already tenuous bond between “contributions” and benefits, and tip into overt wealth redistribution.

I say Social Security is fundamentally immoral, because everyone is forced into it whether they want it or not. It essentially punishes people who are responsible enough to plan their financial lives long-term, for the sake of people who aren’t.

Having said that, I understand that SS not going to be phased out and repealed, as it should, anytime soon. So I suggest, as a compromise between the status quo and full repeal, the next best thing—full privatization: Take control of SS “contributions” and “benefits” out of the hands of politicians. Convert the system into a private account set-up, so account ownership and control of investments is held in the individual “contributors” own name, like an Individual Retirement Account, preferably a Roth (since SS taxes are not income tax deductible when seized from workers’ paychecks).

What would be accomplished? Imagine . . .

  • Real savings to replace the fraudulent “trust” fund that is spent by Congress in exchange for a promise to raise taxes on future generations to cover the phantom “surplus.”
  • Unlike currently, each SS participant would have a property right to his savings: He can use his savings as fits his personal circumstances—buy an annuity for monthly payments, pay off a house, donate to a favorite charity, take a long-delayed vacation, invest it—and pass on unspent funds to his heirs.
  • Each “contributor” getting quarterly statements showing his growing balance. (Let some politician suggest messing with that! Now that’s a real “lockbox.”)
  • No more politicians using SS for vote-buying or demonization of opponents for political advantage.
  • Pride in knowing your future benefits are funded by your own earnings, rather than sucked from younger workers’ pockets.
  • No more national unfunded liability “crisis.”
While government has no right to impose forced savings, personal accounts would be far better, and far less unfair, than the status quo. What responsible, self-respecting person would object to that?

Related Reading:

Social Security is Much Worse Than a Ponzi Scheme - and Here's How to End It—Richard M. Salsman

Friday, April 17, 2015

Gravity Payments' Voluntary 'Minimum Wage' vs. Minimum Wage Laws

The CEO of a small technology company—Dan Price, chief executive and founder of Gravity Paymentsrecently made a splash when he cut his $1 million salary to $70,000 while raising all of his 120 employees to the same level, effectively establishing a company-wide $70,000 minimum wage.  

This development elated the liberal establishment. But it’s worthwhile to note that this “minimum wage” is instituted by a private company, by voluntary consent. So unlike coercive minimum wage laws, it’s not immoral. Is it practical to remove the incentive for individual employees to increase their income by improving their personal productive contribution? It’s doubtful, and I wouldn’t entrust my savings in the stock of a company that had this type of compensation policy.

Be that as it may, if Price’s company thrives, more power to it. If it fails, the company and its employees take the consequences, its customers taking their business elsewhere. Whatever the outcome, it’ll only prove workable, or not, for this one company. There is no one-size-fits-all compensation philosophy.

This is important to point that out because some on the Left are trying to equate Price’s policy to the broader issue of minimum wage laws. For example, in its editorial Who will be the next CEO to embrace a salary cut?, the New Jersey Star-Ledger asserts that the new wage policy at Gravity Payments “makes [Price] the polar opposite of the Koch brothers, who have used their vast fortune to fund candidates that fight minimum wage increase while cutting services for the needy.”

I left these comments:

Wrong. The actions of Price and the Koch brothers spring from the same moral premises.

Those who oppose minimum wage laws (or minimum wage increases) are fighting for the rights of private businesses to do exactly what Gravity Payments’ CEO did; set his own company’s pay scale voluntarily and without government interference. Polls of millionaires notwithstanding, the moral difference between the government imposing minimum wages by law and a private company setting its own “minimum wage” policy couldn’t be more black and white. To equivocate the two is like drawing no moral distinction between a cashier taking your money at the checkout counter in voluntary exchange for goods, and an armed street thug taking your money at gunpoint.

Such equivocation is a classic statist gimmick. Consider “cutting services for the needy.” What “services” is the S-L complaining about? Government-imposed services, since no one—not the Koch brothers or anyone I know of—ever proposed cutting private voluntary charity for the needy. But just as with the minimum wage, there is a black-and-white moral difference between, say, the SNAP food stamp program and a private food bank.

Statists blur the line between aggressive legal coercion and private voluntary action in order to expand government control and diminish liberty. This is how today’s Left is able to get away with relentlessly advancing its corrupt, egalitarian, achievement-hating Rawlsian concept of “economic justice.” In the process, they’re destroying actual, political justice.  

Real justice is rooted in political freedom and individual rights. Rights are sanctions to freedom of action in pursuit of personal advancement, not an automatic claim to material benefits—like an unearned guaranteed wage or free food—that others must be forced to provide. The government should be protecting individual rights, including the rights of all private employers and job-seekers to set their own compensation terms in voluntary contract—just as Price did with his employees at Gravity Payments and as the Koch brothers fight for. The government’s job is to protect us from criminals, not become the criminal.

Related Reading:

Obama's Corrupt "Equality" Campaign and the 99/1 Premise