HOW good is the fossil fuel industry at winning hearts and minds?
Not very good, according to Alex Epstein, president/founder of the Center for Industrial Progress. He was the featured speaker on the opening day of International Liquid Terminals Association’s 37th Annual International Operating Conference held June 12 and 13 in Houston, Texas.
In his speech, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” he said that in order to get approval, you need to persuade certain people. So the better you are at persuading people, the better you are at neutralizing attackers and turning non-supporters into supporters and supporters into champions.
He said the fossil fuel industry has done a woeful job of persuasion, largely because it has taken the wrong approach.
“Obviously, it’s very hard to do it, because if it was easy, it would have already been done,” he said. “The industry has many smart people who have worked hard. Many billions of dollars have been spent. API (American Petroleum Institute) just dropped $5 million on one Super Bowl commercial. Lots of people are thinking about it, and yet it’s not working as well as it might. As a whole industry, there is a lot that can be improved.
“I actually come from the profession that is regarded as the most useless profession in society: philosopher. Nobody in here has said, ‘I have a problem. I know how to solve it. I‘ll call a philosopher.’ But this is actually a problem that requires a philosopher. The reason it hasn’t been solved is because people haven’t realized that the core problem is a wrong philosophy, a wrong framework for thinking about and talking about energy. The solution is going to be the right framework for thinking about and talking about energy.”
His idea is to reframe every energy conversation around the goal of humans flourishing.
There are three parts:
• Our conversations are framed around a wrong, anti-human moral goal: minimizing human impact.
“Think about the state of today’s debate over fossil fuels,” he said. “The debate is extremely uneven. In a usual debate, you have both sides aggressively proposing their own solutions and finding problems with the solutions of other people. But this is not how it works in the fossil fuel industry. In general, the other side proposes all of the legislation and does all the attacking and goes on the offensive, and then the industry just goes on the defensive.
“When there is this barrage of attacks and we feel we’re on the defense all the time, it’s important to ask, ‘Are we dealing with a hydra?’ A hydra is this mythical monster out of ancient Greece. It is distinctive because it has many deadly heads and each one of the heads is scary. The temptation is to deal with the head directly, to sequentially chop off the first head and then the second head and the third head. With fossil fuels, it’s tempting to fight this piece of legislation and this lawsuit and this fracking ban. But what happens when you try to cut off the first deadly head of a hydra? It grows back.
“So a hydra problem is one you can’t solve sequentially. You have to identify, ‘What is the heart of the hydra? Is there something that all of these attacks have in common that we can get at?’ And that will either kill the rest of the heads or make them easier to deal with. We can’t solve it sequentially. We have to solve it fundamentally. There is some secret sauce, and in fossil fuels it’s actually right there in the open if we look for philosophy and ideas. They all use the same moral argument: ‘We need to get off fossil fuels and replace them with green energy.’ As long as that argument dominates, they will have the upper hand.
“There are two basic solutions. One is to agree with the imposing framework and leave the industry. Because if it’s really true that what you’re doing is evil, you should not do it. It’s not good for you and it’s not good for the world. But if you suspect that there’s something very wrong with this framework, then the thing we have to do is question this framework.
“The framework says the evil is fossil fuels and the ideal is green energy. Why is green energy the ideal? Where did that come from? We just assume, ‘Oh, green is great.’ But we shouldn’t assume that it’s good until we really investigate whether it’s good. It’s also leading us to oppose nuclear power and hydroelectric power. We’ve got this ideal that excludes everything that actually works to give us energy, so we should really question this.
“So what does green mean? Green means minimizing the human impact on nature. If we had wanted to be as green as possible and minimize human impact on nature, should we have turned a patch of dirt and trees into New York City? What about children? I’m the oldest of four children. So I was born in 1980. When my parents made the decision to have their first child, well, if the Sierra Club and Greenpeace were giving them advice in terms of minimizing the impact on nature, would they have given the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to me? If you want to minimize the impact on nature, should you self-replicate one or more times? No, that’s the worst thing you can possibly do. You create one and they can create another.
“Minimizing impact is an anti-human goal because humans survive via impact. We survive by doing things like reducing energy, building terminals, building cities. And so to have an idea that says the ideal world is the one that would exist if human beings never existed—which is what minimizing impact is—that is a deeply anti-human view and we should have nothing to do with it. With this whole framework, it’s no wonder there’s opposition to your industry, because it leads to opposition to any significant productivity. And the more significant the productivity, the more significant the evil in there. I think we should have the framework where productivity is good.”
• Our conversations should be framed around the right, pro-human moral goal: maximizing human flourishing.
“I like the term human flourishing because it indicates the full flowering of human beings in terms of our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Having kids? That’s great. Human beings are productive. We’re capable of producing more than we consume. In general, the more people in the world in free countries is an incredible force for good. Are we pro-human or are we anti-human?
“If you’re pro-human, you have to reject this idea of being green. You might ask, ‘How does this relate to the environment?’ Well, then ask this: ‘Does having clean air and clean water promote human flourishing?’ Yes. So if we’re on the human flourishing framework, a good environment for human beings is one of the things we care about. There’s not a conflict between the idea of human flourishing and a good environment because a good environment is for human flourishing.
“But I don’t talk about the environment. This is really important. I talk about our environment—the human environment. Because the environment is always the environment of something, so I’m not obsessed with the mosquito environment or the polar bear environment. I’m concerned about human beings’ surroundings. So I want the environment to be as good as possible for us as long as that doesn’t conflict with lots and lots of other things being good. If you say, ‘I’m for human flourishing,’ don’t allow people to act like, ‘Oh, well, you have to counterbalance that with the environment.’ No, our environment is part of human flourishing.”
• By framing every conversation around human flourishing, we can make an incredibly persuasive case for fossil fuel.
“This is what I discovered in my research starting 10 years ago: If you look at the energy issue from the human perspective, you conclude we should be using more fossil fuels, not less. I didn’t come from the energy industry. I’m not from Houston or West Virginia. I was born in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a super-liberal suburb of the Washington, DC, area, which is not a pro-fossil-fuel hotbed. I was exposed to all these negative arguments all my life. Because I had a pro-human philosophy, once I looked at the issue and got the facts, I came to very strong conclusions.
Epstein said there are two magic framing questions:
• Pro-human: Would you agree that the best decision about fossil fuels is the one that leads to the best outcome for human beings now and in the future?
“That’s not the way we’re taught to think, but most people will agree to it if you ask them,” he said.
• Whole-picture: Would you agree that to determine the best decision, we need to look carefully at the whole picture—the positives and negatives of all alternatives?
“Which means we’re going to look carefully at the positive and negatives of all the alternatives,” he said. “So we’re not just going to look at the positives of green energy and the negatives of fossil fuels, or vice versa. If somebody says, ‘rising sea levels,’ we need to be clear: Is that two feet in a hundred years or 20 feet in 20 years?”
He said these are his “essential findings”:
• “Positive: The fossil fuel industry is uniquely able to provide cheap, plentiful, reliable energy for billions of people.”
• “Negative: The supposed negative impacts of fossil fuel use are either wildly exaggerated, technologically manageable, or even positive.”
• “Access to CPR energy is fundamental to human productivity and human flourishing.”
• “The fossil fuel industry is uniquely resource-efficient at producing CPR energy.”
• “Human beings don’t deplete energy resources—we create energy resources from energy non-resources.”
• “Nature doesn’t give us ample clean water—we need to create it using energy.”
• “Technology makes it possible to increase energy production and decrease pollution.”
• “Additional atmospheric CO2 has a significant fertilizing effect on most plants and crops.”
• “The greenhouse effect of CO2 (and other greenhouse
gasses) is a diminishing, logarithmic effect.”
• “Climate is naturally variable, volatile, and vicious; any human change to date is trivial compared to natural climate change.”
• “Nature doesn’t give us a safe climate we make dangerous; it gives us a dangerous climate we make safe.” ♦