It may seem obvious that whenever we are evaluating what to do about a product or technology, we need to carefully consider not only the negative side effects but also the benefits. And yet many of most of our leading thinkers and institutions fail to do this when it comes to fossil fuels. We are routinely told that we must rapidly eliminate fossil fuels. Such calls ignore three crucial, undeniable facts about the benefits of fossil fuels:
1. Fossil fuels are a uniquely cost-effective source of energy.
2. Cost-effective energy is essential to human flourishing.
3. Billions of people are suffering and dying for lack of cost-effective energy.
Fossil fuels are a uniquely cost-effective source of energy
Fossil fuels today are widely portrayed as one source of energy among many — one that is easily replaceable by alternatives, especially “renewable” solar and wind.
But this portrayal completely contradicts reality. In reality, alternatives such as solar and wind have been fiercely trying to compete with fossil fuels for over 50 years, and yet fossil fuels still provide 80% of the world’s energy — four times as much as every alternative combined. And, despite calls to do otherwise, global fossil fuel use is growing fast. China and India, for example, have 288 new coal plants with a combined capacity of over 300 GW in development as of January 2022.
Why are fossil fuels so dominant and growing fast?
Because they are a uniquely cost-effective source of energy, providing energy that is (1) low-cost, (2) reliable, (3) incredibly versatile and (4) on a scale of billions of people in thousands of places.
No other source of energy comes close to fossil fuels’ cost-effectiveness.
And the uniquely cost-effective energy fossil fuels provide is not merely a modest benefit: It is a benefit that is essential to human flourishing — human beings’ ability to live long, healthy, fulfilling lives.
Cost-effective energy is essential to human flourishing
Just as human beings cannot function without sufficient food to power them, machines, whether automobiles, iPhones or steel furnaces, cannot function without sufficient “food” — energy.
The essential value of energy and machines to human flourishing is that they amplify and expand our naturally meager productive ability — our ability to produce the material values we need to survive and flourish, from food to clothing to shelter to medical care to education.
I like to call today’s enormous use of machines to amplify and expand our productive abilities “machine labor.” Machine labor is clearly a major part of the reason why billions of people today live the longest, healthiest, most opportunity-filled lives in history.
For example, in the U.S., the average person uses about 75 times more “machine calories” than food calories — which means we have, in effect, 75 “machine laborers” producing value for us 24/7.
Billions of people are suffering and dying for lack of cost-effective energy
Here’s a scary fact that we almost never hear: Over 3 billion people – more than one in three on Earth – use almost no energy, including electricity. I call these people members of the “unempowered world.” As energy expert Robert Bryce has observed, the average person in the unempowered world uses less electricity than a typical American refrigerator. And 2.4 billion people, mostly part of the unempowered world, use primarily wood and animal dung to cook and heat their homes.
The fact that billions are suffering and dying for lack of cost-effective energy is a tragedy that can only be meaningfully addressed for the foreseeable future by continuing increases in fossil fuel use.
Thus, a key benefit of fossil fuels is extending and improving the lives of billions of poor people around the world.
The unique, essential and desperately needed benefits of fossil fuel energy should be discussed front and center whenever we consider fossil fuels’ side effects, including climate-warming CO2 emissions.
And yet leading thinkers and institutions routinely ignore the benefits of fossil fuels entirely. Take the bestselling book “The Madhouse Effect” by climate scientist and designated expert Michael Mann. One of the major topics is how rising CO2 levels will do harm to food production, but, incredibly, Mr. Mann makes no mention of the essential benefit of fossil fuel use to the availability of food — that the availability of food we have today is totally reliant upon low-cost, on-demand, versatile, global-scale fossil fuel energy to power modern agricultural machines with oil and to create modern fertilizers with natural gas.
Mr. Mann’s and other designated experts’ calls to rapidly eliminate fossil fuels without considering the benefits of fossil fuels have already led to disaster. For example, European countries have been obsessed with speculated climate challenges to agriculture, but not on producing enough fossil fuel to cheaply power their farm equipment and produce fertilizers. Skyrocketing fuel, fertilizer and food prices —along with deadly dependence on Russia — were the inevitable result of their fossil fuel benefit denial.
Until and unless our leading thinkers and institutions fully recognize the massive, life-or-death benefits of fossil fuels going forward, they should not be regarded as credible.
• Alex Epstein the founder of the Center for Industrial Progress and author of the forthcoming book “Fossil Future” (Portfolio: May 24, 2022).
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