Energy companies, particularly those producing fossil fuels—oil, natural gas, coal—are under attack by the environmentalists and their sympathizers in the media. It is one thing to criticize companies such as BP, deservedly, for lax safety procedures or lacking emergency preparedness that lead to disastrous pollution.

But it is entirely different to attack these companies precisely because they produce fossil fuels—which are beneficial to us all. We need fossil fuels for heating our homes; producing our food; powering our cars, buses, and trains; as raw materials of plastics and synthetic fibers in our clothes; for electricity for lighting and powering all the information technology we use, from cell phones to computers.

Attacking energy companies because they produce energy—and us because we consume it—is what journalist and environmentalist Andrew Nikiforuk does in his book, Energy of Slaves: Oil and The New Servitude. His basic argument is that by consuming more energy, made possible by the continual increase in hydrocarbon production, people in industrialized countries (in North America in particular) have become dependent on it—hence the “servitude” to energy—while at the same time treating their fossil-fuel powered devices and equipment as slaves.

We will run out of fossil fuels, Nikiforuk claims and argues that our inequitable production and consumption of energy is unethical: those in India, China, and Africa consume only a fraction of what we in the industrial countries do. His solution: we ought to eat more slowly (and less), travel only locally, and enjoy only recreation and entertainment that requires no or minimal use of fossil fuels. Barefoot walking in the nude in your neighborhood, anyone?

What’s wrong with Nikiforuk’s argument? First, his claim that we will run out of fossil fuels. Similar predictions have been made ever since Thomas Malthus created his scarcity scenarios, all been proven wrong by human ingenuity and continual discovery of new resources. It is human ingenuity that has made possible the exploitation of energy trapped in the bituminous oil sands in Alberta, Canada, and in shale gas across North America, as well as new discoveries of rich sources of both natural gas and oil.

We will not run out of fossil fuels due to “overconsumption” in the foreseeable future. And when the need for alternative sources of energy increases, it is human ingenuity that will find ways of developing and exploiting them.

But Nikiforuk’s second argument that our consumption of fossil fuels is unethical because it is inequitable, is more dangerous—dangerous because of its anti-human, altruistic premise. He makes spurious claims that it is in our self-interest to consume as little energy as possible. He argues, for example, that Americans are less happy now than in the past because they consume more energy, and that we will be caught in a dark, cold world when we run out energy due to “overconsumption.”

However, Nikiforuk’s standard of value is not human survival and flourishing. He wants us to sacrifice our enjoyment and comfort for the sake of others: people who do not yet exist, those in the developing world who have not yet learned to create and harness energy, or even non-humans: robots and machinery.

This argument from altruism is based on the false premise that creating values, such as energy, constitutes exploitation of others and that we are not entitled to the products we create. This mistaken premise does not recognize that creating more values  (and the incentive of owning the products of that creation) that benefits all human life—not only of that of the producers but also of consumers and everybody around the world who is participating in the chain of value creation, from employees to supplies to middlemen.

Production and consumption of energy are not immoral but profoundly moral activities—if human life is the standard by which any action or choice is evaluated. There is no human life that is not benefited by the rational production and consumption of energy, which allow us to save labor and allocate our time and energy to other productive or recreational activities.  Production and consumption of energy do not enslave us but liberate us instead.

For more information of the benefits of fossil fuels and their moral defense, please see the website of the Center for Industrial Progress: http://industrialprogress.net/

Originally posted 1 October 2012

2 COMMENTS

  1. In his old age Malthus was backing away from his dire predictions, as he realized the power of human creativity.

    (His late writings are mixed, apparently trying to be a mugwump rather than strongly rejected his earlier decades of alarmism.)

    The book The Doomsday Myth may be instructive, it chronicles many cases of resource shortages that did not occur, even in the face of government force.

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