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Applause for Fossil Fuels

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One of the best books that I’ve read lately is Alex Epstein’s 2014 volume, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels [2].  (My colleague Bryan Caplan shares my enthusiastic assessment [3].)

This short piece of mine in today’s Wall Street Journal is in the same spirit as Alex’s scholarship [4].  A slice:

Richard Branson [5]Arianna Huffington [6] and several other business icons recently called on world leaders to commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Such a commitment, they vow, would “drive innovation, grow jobs, build prosperity and secure a better world.”

This isn’t merely impractical; it’s nonsensical. Fossil fuels are the bedrock of modernity, generating cheap energy and widespread wealth. Environmental crusaders who would do away with these fuels fail to acknowledge the stark results in a world forced to rely solely on renewable energy.

Altogether, renewable energy sources—including wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal and biomass—generate one-tenth of the energy Americans demand. Without fossil fuels to fill that 90% gap, the economy would collapse, commodity supplies would dwindle, jobs would disappear, and households would remain cold, dark and haunted by hunger.

Like Alex (and other sensible people) I energetically applaud entrepreneurial experimentation with other energy sources – just as I applaud entrepreneurial experimentation to ‘transform’ transportation, or food production, or telecommunications, or hair-braiding, or whatever.

The world was made modern and the masses made rich by orgies of innovation and the resulting, on-going process of creative destruction.  But the only such entrepreneurial experiments that are likely to work to enrich the masses are experiments done in competition with the status quo and with other entrepreneurial experiments – experiments driven not by politics (that is, not by romantic passions fueled with other-people’s-money, and not by the greedy lust for special privileges) but by the visions of individuals who each risks his or her own money and efforts in the quest to profit from generating new products or processes that are voluntarily accepted by consumers and input suppliers as the best among all bargains currently available.

Do I believe that fossil fuels are perfect?  Not at all.  Do I believe that intellectual and political elites overestimate the scope and significance of these imperfections?  Yes, absolutely.  And do I believe that these same elites underestimate the ability of humans to adapt through the market to these imperfections?  Yes again.  Finally, do I believe that these elites enormously overestimate the ability of political institutions to deal well with whatever problems are caused by fossil-fuel use and to out-perform the competitive entrepreneurial market at potentially finding acceptable alternatives to fossil fuels?  Yes, without question.

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