The Earth and Civilization Have Been Saved By Fossil Fuels

by | Apr 21, 2024

In his 2022 book Fossil Future, Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress argues that fossil fuels are one of the greatest benefits to human civilization ever and that no viable substitutes exist, at least for now.

Actually, we have been saved by fossil fuels. In his 2022 book Fossil Future, Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress argues that fossil fuels are one of the greatest benefits to human civilization ever and that no viable substitutes exist, at least for now.

I agree, and I will add my own comments as I proceed.

Epstein notes that Earth, absent the benefits of fuel-powered machines and electrical energy created by fossil fuels, is a dangerous place (as noted) characterized by mass poverty, recurring starvation, death from extremely cold or extremely hot temperatures, poor medical care, poor sanitation, exhausting manual labor, bad water, inadequate shelter, devastating natural disasters, and low life expectancy.

The nations that suffer the most today are those that lack such technology. Without fossil fuels, people will keep suffering because they will remain poor and helpless.

Coal, oil, and gas are responsible for almost all the energy created today—about eighty percent. Solar and wind provide only about three percent, though this is gradually increasing. Fossil fuels have allowed humanity, insofar as it has advocated reason, to master nature by following the laws of nature and science, thus enabling the human race to multiply and thrive. Fossils fuels are abundant in nature: plentiful, cheap, and reliable when production and transportation are not opposed by government regulations.

The championed substitutes for fossil fuels today are wind, solar, and batteries. Epstein notes, as have others, the many problems with these sources. Windmills do not work without wind. (I would add that lightning can destroy windmills and windmills can destroy wildlife.) Solar panels do not work without sunlight. Batteries are nowhere near cost-effective enough or efficient enough to store and provide sufficient energy when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining enough.

In practice, solar, wind, and batteries are not currently viable replacements for fossil fuels. They are unreliable, inefficient add-ons to fossil fuels, and they all need large amounts of fossil fuel backup. They also need generous government subsidies, which will increase the costs of energy. Further, solar is heavily dependent on products from China, which could give China, an imperialist dictatorship, economic and political power over us. (There is some evidence that the panicky attempt to convert to these power sources right away is leading to premature shutdowns of fossil fuels plants.) And Russia’s fossil fuels seek to make us dependent on another dangerous dictatorship.

What about pollution? Epstein documents that it has been decreasing for decades, thanks to technology. Further, he identifies the ways that side effects can be mitigated.

What other alternatives are there for power? Epstein favors two: waterpower from dams and nuclear power. Both are safe, dependable, non-polluting and do not take up much land or harm birds and animals. Some people worry about nuclear waste. So far the problem has not been intractable, and it may be that such waste can be recycled. This will require further study. Dams work well but are not possible everywhere, but nuclear power is potentially available everywhere, and it is available 24/7. Beyond that, nuclear power does not take up much land, does not make noise, does not hurt animals, and is safer than oil.

I would like to stress that any country fully powered by nuclear would not be dependent on fuels or technology supplied by other countries, such as Russia, would not need to worry about price fluctuations, cutoffs, or the wrong weather, and could not be blackmailed.

Sadly, nuclear power is roundly opposed by many and especially by environmentalists—not just in the United States, but also around the world. Even as oil prices skyrocket, England, Germany, and the United States have pushed to close their nuclear plants, though some countries are now worried that they are moving too fast and plan to keep their nuclear plants open. France, to its credit, relies on nuclear for seventy percent of its power. (Note: France is now having problems with some reactors, but one can assume that these problems will be resolved.) The anti-nuclear countries are now having second thoughts about this ill-fated choice.

Epstein argues that biomass and geothermal are at least decades away from becoming even significant supplements to fossil fuels, let alone replacements. In the meantime, he does not think fossil fuels will destroy the Earth.

In a free society, people are always free to create and invent new, cheap, and dependable power sources that are better than what we have now. Some companies are exploring hydrogen. Scientists are exploring nuclear fusion (though it has not been proven to work yet). For now, we will need to rely almost totally on the power produced by fossil fuels to even build new power technologies.

A word is in order about global warming. Let me first say that finding the most useful data is extremely difficult because every site (and I looked at many) has its own agenda in terms of what they choose to post. Give it a shot yourself: try finding a year-by-year account of the average global temperature of the Earth. With all the outcry over global warming and climate change, this information should be more easily accessible.

Here is the best information I have been able to find with respect to global warming. The mean world temperature in 1900 was 56.7 F. In 1999, it was 56.9 F., a negligible change. From 2000 to about April of 2022 (22.4 years), the mean world temperature has increased to 59.7 F., an increment of 2.8 degrees F. This could be of concern. Of course, 22 years is much less than 100 years, so we cannot be certain of what the longer-term trend will be. Further, there are disputes about the accuracy of world temperature readings.

Regardless, an increase of 2.8 degrees will not destroy the Earth. Certainly, it is not enough of a change to call for a sudden and drastic end to fossil fuels. We will need fossil fuels for some time. Most importantly, I am convinced that nuclear power would be a much better replacement for fossil fuels than the unreliable trio that is now favored.

Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation Emeritus at the R.H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Behavior, and the Academy of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Society for I/O Psychology), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (OB Division), the J. M. Cattell Award (APS) and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Academy of Management. He, with Gary Latham, has spent over 50 years developing Goal Setting Theory, ranked No. 1 in importance among 73 management theories. He has published over 320 chapters, articles, reviews and notes, and has authored or edited 13 books including (w. Kenner) The Selfish Path to Romance, (w. Latham) New Directions in Goal Setting and Task Performance, and The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators. He is internationally known for his research on motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and other topics. His website is:

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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