An Interview with Alex Epstein

Alex Epstein, founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, was a leader behind the open letter Don’t Divest, Educate. He has taught and spoken multiple times at Stanford, including a debate at the Law School last spring.

The Center for Industrial Progress has published an open letter recommending against fossil fuel divestment and for greater understanding of the energy industry, which you can read here.

Adam Jensen: In your letter you make a few points specifically directed at students: you claim the divestment movement isn’t about education, and more broadly, that students don’t learn basic facts about energy sources. What are some basic facts about energy that you wish students knew?

Alex Epstein: One is that the energy industry is the fundamental industry. It powers every other industry and thus the more affordable, reliable energy you have, the better you can do the task of of any other industry, or indeed any category of task in life. Energy is what allows everything from the factory to produce cars you can afford (as against the first cars which took an insane amount of manual labor), to the labor saving devices at home that make it so women don’t have to spend all day cleaning their homes. Energy is the amplifier of everything in life.

Two is that there are different technologies which attempt to provide cheap, plentiful, reliable energy, and that by far the most successful is fossil fuel technology. It produces about 85% of the energy in the world.

If you know those two facts then no matter what you hear might be wrong with the fossil fuel industry, you have to realize that this is the thing keeping you alive. You have to take that as a very serious data point. No one who takes that data point seriously can possibly conduct themselves in the way that the divestment movement does. They engage in complete, blind condemnation, and assert that they know where energy should come from. And as I say in my book, saying solar and wind can replace fossil fuels is like saying wood can replace steel.

AJ: And if you were to support that with a concrete attribute of solar and wind energy, you’d highlight intermittency?

AE: It’s not just intermittency. Solar and wind are very diluted forms of energy, and the more diluted something is, the more resource intense it’s going to be to capture – you need a huge amount of infrastructure to do it. It’s just a standard inferior technology… We recognize the phenomenon of winning competitions by being superior and losing competitions by being inferior in every other realm, and yet in energy everything is viewed as interchangeable. That’s a product of not being taught to think about or value the realm. If you’re not taught to think about or value something, then it’s easy to view it in an empty way, as something you can just change like a light bulb.

AJ: In addition to wishing that more students recognized energy as the industry behind all other industries, you also wish that our education included some normative ideas about energy. For instance: since energy supports human life, the energy industry ought to be valued as good?

AE: Well for sure. Ultimately human life is the standard of value for everything, so we need to look at everything from a human perspective. And if we look at fossil fuels from a human perspective, asking: what are the benefits? what’s the overall? what’s the big picture? how do the positives and negatives shake up? The net result is unbelievably positive for human life on whatever axis you want to choose, including the environmental axis, where I have the most unusual opinion.

AJ: [Laughs.]

AE: It’s an unusual viewpoint, yes, but one that is extremely logical when you think about it. If you think about the environment from a human perspective, and you’re open to the possibility that we can improve our environment, not just destroy it, then you see that all of these things which are supposedly destroying our environment are in fact incredible net improvements, and fossil technologies are at the top of that list.

AJ: What do you say to the people who think these sources of energy should be conserved or rationed?

AE: Any time someone says that I’m not allowed to use as much of something as I can earn, my basic reaction is, you know, “go jump in a lake.” It helps to step back and use common sense about things like this.

The point I’m about to make is not as obvious as the other points, it’s a more fundamental point. Most of what I’m about to say is from Ayn Rand. Life is a challenge, and by default nature gives us a lot of threats, and not very many resources. That’s the starting point of every environmental issue. Nature is generally conceived of as a safe and environmentally wonderful place, with plenty of natural resources. The problem [in this view] is that we’re gobbling up those “resources” at such a rate that it’s disturbing the delicate, safe balance of nature.

Instead, we are using our minds to take non-resources – raw materials that nobody has found a use for – and turn them into resources. We discovered that there is potential value in oil and we use science and technology to exploit it. That’s the pattern for every resource, even clean water. You need to do quite a bit to ensure that water is clean, it’s not an automatic thing.

…we need to use intelligence to deal with the incredibly threatening natural climate. So the starting point when thinking about resources and environmental threats is to realize that you’re research poor and threat rich by default. You need to realize that where we are is a huge achievement of the human mind and then if we break that down a huge part of that achievement is energy. If you realize that energy is a big part of it that means that fossil fuel energy technology is a big part of it.

We’ve undeniably improved our environment – made it incomparably more livable – and in order to continue to do so we need to be free to use our minds to develop more energy and more technology. If you look at things in that context, then the whole climate change thing seems pretty stupid. If you take a very scientific view and ask “Okay, how much?” without assuming it is somehow wrong for mankind to impact things, because you understand how these systems work: everything in the system affects [the climate]. So the question is: “Are we causing a truly problematic change?” and there is nothing resembling that. There’s a degree celsius of average warming. It’s a tiny thing we can’t even notice without scientific instruments. The idea that somehow our direction should be to restrict, clamp down on, eliminate the thing that’s made us super safe from the climate, in the name of these unremarkable changes, is a joke.

I don’t start from the idea that catastrophic global warming is the most important issue, and then try reason my way out of that. I start from asking, “What is the role of climate in life?” and then look at claims about warming in that context. The best metric you can have to evaluate claims of catastrophe is measuring the extent to which there has been a catastrophe, by looking at climate related deaths. In the last 80 years, climate related deaths have gone down by 98%. The only answer to that would be some argument that the trend was going to reverse, backed by reliable, proven models. But modeling climate is incredibly difficult, and the people who do it are not capable of doing it any more than we are capable of landing a space shuttle on Pluto. Recently, it’s been more widely publicized that the models are failures because statistically significant warming [that the models predict] has not happened for the last 15 years. But since the amount of warming is so small, not much hinges on whether it stopped warming or not, because the amounts aren’t close to what we would need to worry about.

AJ: So you don’t buy the argument that, yes, fine, we’re living high on the hog now, but the warming we’re going to cause will cause droughts, making suitable farmland diminish, leading to mass famine, which will dramatically increase the number of climate related deaths?

AE: Drought related deaths are down by 98.98%, so you tell me what’s more important: technology, or these allegedly scary climate fluctuations. If you believe that climate is in effect our mother, and that that’s the thing we should be most concerned about, then you should be very glad that somehow she’s gotten 98.98% less likely to kill you.

This is a primitive debate. If we look at the basic facts about life and climate, this debate is being driven by a primitive philosophy which says that the thing that matters in life is nature. Nature is what’s going to determine whether we are successful or not. But no, nature is the backdrop. The thing that determines whether we are successful or not is whether we are free to apply human ingenuity to every aspect of dealing with nature – to turn nature’s raw materials into natural resources. Really the issue is the freedom to use fossil fuels, that’s the only thing I’m fighting for. I have this campaign, “I love fossil fuels,” because it’s important when something is under attack to value the people who actually produce the best product in a crucial area of life, but there’s no clause in there [that says I only advocate fossil fuels]. The main thing is that there be freedom of competition. So what I’m arguing for is fossil fuel freedom, and nuclear freedom, and hydro freedom, and solar and wind freedom. It’s a very pro-ingenuity view.

Authors note:

If the fundamental ideas in this interview interest you, you may find it valuable to attend a lecture and Q&A entitled “Rethinking Selfishness: Ayn Rand’s New Conception of Egoism.” Dr. Onkar Ghate, a senior fellow from the Ayn Rand Institute will speak on Thursday, October 24th at 7:00 pm in room 290 of the Law School.

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