“Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous—because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.”
― Alex J. Epstein, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels
Last week we commemorated another in the pantheon of leftist holidays – indeed, the original leftist holiday – Earth Day – so it seems like a good time to review the role of fossil fuels in the promotion of human flourishing on planet Earth.
Because we are human beings who care about our lives and want the best lives for ourselves and our children, we should care about the things which make our best lives possible. When it comes to morality and proper decision making, we can have several different goals as our objectives. These goals include: Human flourishing, minimum impact on our planet, minimizing so-called “greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions”, “equity”, “social justice”, “net zero”, and others. With so many competing and often mutually exclusive choices how are we to decide what is best for ourselves and our society?
The answer lies in the fact that as human beings our only standard of value and our only gauge of morality should be the promotion of human flourishing.
It is clearly self-evident that we are currently living better lives than any cohort of human beings in the history of this planet. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of history knows that up until the last couple of hundred years, life on this planet was difficult and short. The popular miniseries Game of Thrones, while fictional, was based on historical events and quite accurately portrays life in northern Europe during the Middle Ages, when people lived in huts they built with their bare hands or damp, cold castles – when wood or animal waste was burned for heat and light – when life was brutal.
The Inhospitability of Earth
Our planet is a beautiful place and is home to countless local environments. As I sit in my fossil-fuel built house, writing on a machine produced with and powered by fossil fuels, enjoying the heat produced by burning natural gas, it’s a bit chilly outside. Here in Oklahoma City, I’ve seen very warm, humid days that are made more comfortable by air conditioning, and very cold, ice-filled nights that would not be survivable without burning some fuel for warmth. And this is true all over the planet. Depending on the season, we may experience pleasant days where no environmental regulation is necessary. But for most of the time, we require some sort of heating or cooling to remain comfortable.
In Denver, average temperatures range from a low of 23° F to 88° F. (Obviously we all know that actual temperatures can go much higher or lower!). The dreaded 1.5° C (2.7° F) increase in temperature that the Left says is going to bring on a global apocalypse simply means that a low in Denver of 23 becomes a low of 26, or a high of 91. Slight warming will be good for plants and vegetation, greening the Earth and creating a more hospitable planet in many cases.
What they never teach in public schools – because they are, after all, leftist indoctrination centers – is that the Earth has been warmer in the past. Much warmer, and in fact, humans evolved in a warmer, tropical climate. We are not adapted to extreme cold and can only effectively manage it through technology.
As the chart below shows, we are currently at a low point relative to previous planetary history for both CO2 concentrations AND surface temperatures. Also, pointing out the obvious, there were much higher CO2 concentrations in the complete absence of human activity such as using fossil fuels.
A further couple of points are in order here. One, while the Left is creating fear over too much carbon, the real risk at present is too little carbon dioxide. Again, as it should be taught in schools, plants need carbon dioxide to live, to grow, to reproduce and…to produce the oxygen we breathe. Climate alarmists have been all to successful in painting carbon dioxide as a poisonous gas, when in fact it is literally life-giving. Without carbon dioxide, there would be no photosynthesis, meaning no animals, meaning no human beings. Without the greenhouse effect, the Earth would be a ball of ice. So, more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere isn’t going to hurt anybody.
Secondly, there is no consistent correlation between temperature and CO2 concentration. The sharp rises in temperature during the late Paleozoic period were accompanied by low concentrations of CO2. Likewise, the fluctuating temperatures during the more recent quaternary period were during a period of low CO2 concentrations.
What Fossil Fuels Do
In the 2000 movie Cast Away, protagonist Chuck Noland, played by Tom Hanks, is on a transpacific flight when his plane runs into a storm and crashes, stranding him on a desert island. Using only his hands and his mind, he has to find a way to survive. Some items from the plane – all of which were produced or made possible by fossil fuels – helped him to survive and eventually escape the island. Of course, the plastic he used as a sail on his makeshift raft was a product of fossil fuels and the ship which rescued him was powered by fossil fuels.
It is true that human beings were able to survive on planet Earth without the widespread use of fossil fuels, but there were much fewer of us and we did not have nearly the quality of life that we now enjoy.
Because fossil fuels don’t provide just fuel oil and gasoline, or the propane you use for that family barbeque on a Sunday afternoon. No, petroleum is a component of many things that we take for granted in our modern world, as shown in the table below.
It should be noted that this list is not complete, and that if oil gets more expensive, everything on this list gets more expensive too. While we tend to think of gasoline prices the most, the price of oil is a key driver of our modern economy. Indeed, as I wrote about in Prices and Profits – Oil and Gas in the Real World, oil and gas producing companies don’t set prices – markets do based on local and global supply and demand. Further, it is just a fact that as Democrats continue their war on clean, cheap, reliable energy, the prices of oil, natural gas, gasoline and everything else we use will continue to rise. Inflation is driven by many factors, and oil prices are one of the key drivers.
Another benefit of fossil fuels is the incredible labor saving benefits they allow us to reap the benefits of. Fossil fuels power machines that “…amplify and expand our productive abilities to produce the values we need to survive and flourish, from food to clothing to shelter to medical care to education.”1
Machines enable us to produce more value in less time. As an example, modern farming equipment can reap and thresh enough wheat to make 500,000 loaves of bread in one day which is about 1,000 times what a human could do.1
Further: “Machines also expand our productive abilities by producing types of value that no number of humans can produce without machines.”1
If you had to rely on just your hands and your brain to support your life, you would spend most if not all of your time in procuring the necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing and fuel for warmth. Machines, powered by fossil fuels, free up our time, enabling us to do so many more things: think – and produce philosophy and science. Recreate – enjoy our free time in ways that nourish our souls. Travel – and see the world. Even in our modern era, most people live close to where they grew up. Before the widespread use of fossil fuels, travel was time-consuming, dangerous and difficult. “Seeing the world” was reserved for the privileged few.
Fossil fuels, more importantly, give us freedom and time, which are two immeasurably precious gifts.
The Left’s Anti-Impact Framework
The modern Left is against fossil fuel use and development. They demand that we stop drilling for oil and natural gas, shutter coal-burning electricity generation plants and stop eating meat because cows fart too much. They take their childish whims and implement them as public policy – as when a state bans “fracking” or when they mandate that energy companies cannot recoup costs of providing energy to their customers. They want us walking and riding bicycles, buses and trains instead of driving our gasoline powered cars. And if we DO have to have a car, they want it to be an expensive, less-performing electric car.
But what about hydropower, which in the United States provides just over 6% of our electricity generation? “No”, says the Left. And it’s not just the opposition to building dams. They think that the reservoirs created actually generate MORE GHGs than fossil fuels do.
But what about nuclear energy, which is the cleanest, safest method of electricity generation available? In the United States, 19% of our electricity is generated by nuclear energy. But the Left says not just “No”, but “Heck no”, to nuclear. Due to some unfortunate incidents involving nuclear plants, (only one of which was in the United States), the Left has adopted a scorched-Earth (pun intended) activist stance against any new nuclear capability coming online. Not only that, Germany, the country that most clearly shows the self-sabotage of “green” energy policy shut down their last three nuclear plants this month.
Instead, they are going to burn coal – yes, coal! – to replace the Russian natural gas they aren’t getting because of Putin’s war in Ukraine. They hope (like children hoping for the tooth fairy) that “renewables” and “green hydrogen” can replace the reliable, safe nuclear energy they’re throwing away. It would be comical if it weren’t real.
“OK”, you say. “But what about so-called “renewable” energy – wind and solar – so beloved of the climate obsessed Left?” Not so fast! In what is known as ‘NIMBY” (“Not in My Backyard”), local communities all over America are opposing new developments of wind and solar projects. Part of the reason for this is that they take up so much more land and, in the case of wind turbines, are continual eyesores. Part of the reason is that it requires in many cases more energy – provided by fossil fuels – to produce the wind turbines than they will generate in their working life.
In addition to the land use objections, there are objections to the rare earth mining necessary, which often involves children in Third-World countries working in abominable and dangerous conditions. I find it unconscionable that the climate zealots ignore the real human cost involved in producing the batteries necessary for their schemes.
And when it’s all done and said, wind and solar only produce 15% and 4%, respectively, of our electricity.
Finally, the Left objects to any human impacts on the Earth for any reason. Indeed, as Alex Epstein writes in Fossil Future: “Thus, the consistent thread in opposing the impacts of energy on the rest of nature is not that they harm human flourishing but simply that they impact the rest of nature as such—which is considered intrinsically wrong and therefore in need of elimination. In other words, eliminating human impact, not advancing human flourishing, is the primary moral goal driving our knowledge system in the realm of energy…Let’s be clear: eliminating human impact is an anti-human moral goal.”2
The Left’s “anti-impact framework” very much drives their public policy goals, and indeed is consistent through their Anti-Life philosophy: abortion on demand, sterilization of children via “gender-affirming care”, enabling and allowing higher crime, drug and alcohol abuse and homelessness.
Years ago, as I was writing my series on climate change, I found this quote from a National Park Service ecologist:
“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 a part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line – at about a billion years ago, maybe half that – we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague on 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.”3 [Emphasis mine]
As I also wrote at the time: “Of course, these words are reminiscent of the plot of the Tom Clancy novel Rainbow Six, in which a group of eco-terrorists plans the introduction of a deadly virus [COVID-19?] to wipe out most of humanity, with themselves to remain as a privileged elite to enjoy and study nature without messy people around to interfere.”
Make no mistake: The Left’s anti-fossil fuel agenda is part of their larger Anti-Life agenda.
Why Renewable Energy Will Never Replace Fossil Fuels
Another factor that is omitted from the discussion is that so-called “renewable” energy can only replace the fossil fuels used in producing electricity. Wind, solar, biomass and other fantasy energy sources cannot possibly replace the fuels produced from petroleum that power our transportation needs. The long-haul, large capacity transportation of goods and people across large distances of land and sea would not be possible without fossil fuels and there is no viable technology to replace fossil fuels in this space.
Electric cars – which are expensive, unreliable and not as practical, will never replace gasoline powered cars unless we allow the government to mandate it. The electric grid, already in a deteriorating state due to the addition of unreliable, expensive wind and solar and the retirement of coal and natural gas burning plants, is in no position to support the increased electrification so ardently desired by our friends on the Left.
As the unreliability and cost-ineffectiveness of wind and solar become more apparent, more and more people will push back and less development will take place. It would require unrealistically large amounts of land to accommodate the wind and solar farms necessary to generate the electricity we already use. Add in the other adverse environmental impacts and it’s clear that large-scale renewable energy is just not practical, realistic…or desirable.
I implore everyone reading this to really think about your modern life. To cherish it. To understand that the three things that make it possible – free-market capitalism, limited government and fossil fuels – are all under relentless attack from the radical, extreme Left.
Just this past week, Colorado citizens proved that it is possible to stand up to a tyrannical government. We must do the same every day in support of our modern life which is in real jeopardy. It’s up to us – through activism, through social media, and yes, through how we vote in the next election – to fight for it. It’s literally a choice between Life and death.