On Friday March 29, the Moderate, Independent, Conservative, Alliance (MICA) sponsored a lecture entitled “Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet” by the president of the Center for Industrial Progress (CIP) Alex Epstein. The lecture discussed how fossil fuels improve people’s quality of life and should not be abandoned. Epstein acts as both president and founder of CIP, a for-profit think-tank dealing with energy issues. The Wall Street Journal and Forbes have featured articles by Epstein, and he has published 10 books.
MICA began organizing the event in February, as the Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign struggled to get their divestment proposal noticed by the Board of Trustees and the Vassar Student Association (VSA). According to Julian Hassan ’14, an organizer and contact person for the event, MICA hoped to challenge the prevalent narrative about divestment. “You would only be able to do JYA via Skype, and you wouldn’t be able to attend Vassar if you lived far away,” Hassan wrote in an emailed statement, “Presumably, all classes would be over Skype, too, if you even had time for class after a back-breaking day at the farm in order to feed your family. Most Vassarions would hate this, and this is what is meant by Vassar Loves Fossil Fuels.”
Central to Epstein’s lecture was fossil fuels’ improvement of human life. He specifically noted the necessity of fossil fuels in transporting food. He stated that, along with the controversial policy of genetically engineering crops, fossil fuels have largely solved world hunger because the average person is better fed than in previous years.
Epstein explained, “If it turns out that we start getting rid of oil and there is not something as good, that means people will starve, that means people will die. And if we make the mistake of getting involved in that, that means we are complicit.”
Almost halfway through the lecture an audience member stood up and read the following: “We at Vassar believe that it is important to understand that though we may benefit from fossil fuels, we must hold ourselves, the industry, and the government responsible for the destruction, intimidation, and injustices of fossil fuel usage across the world. The divestment debate is not about whether we enjoy the benefits of fossil fuels, but rather that we understand the real, human and environmental costs of continuing to support a corrupt, poisonous, and exploitative unsustainable systems.”
The speaker continued, “Alex Epstein has no standing as a climate or energy researcher. In fact the Center for Industrial Progress is a for-profit group that releases none of its donor information. By his own confession he takes money from corporate and industrial interests.” Roughly one-third of attendees followed the Divestment Campaign to Josselyn House.
Following the interruption, the lecture discussed the history of energy sources. Epstein noted that ethanol and electricity (through batteries), alongside fossil fuels, were considered the forerunners of energy policies in the early 20th century, but both failed to dominate the energy market due to structural issues. Manufacturers found that batteries were too heavy for common usage while ethanol failed to produce ample power for cost in comparison to fossil fuels. Epstein told the audience that similar problems still plague these technologies, making fossil fuel the best energy option.
Epstein’s historical discussion also highlighted the three forms of what Epstein considered, the cheapest and highest-quality producers of electricity: fossil fuels, nuclear and hydroelectric energy. The speaker said that these energies are advanced enough to use, and that, despite working with fossil fuels, he supports the safe use of any of these energies.
The lecture also challenged the supposition that fossil fuels have direly negative impacts. Epstein said, “What struck me is that we used dramatically more fossil fuels in the 20th century…and yet these metrics [GDP per capita, life expectancy, CO2 emissions] kept getting better and better.” Citing graphs published in Cato Policy Analysis, Epstein argued the quality of life has drastically improved from burning fossil fuels.
Acknowledging the byproducts of the Greenhouse Effect, Epstein argued that the benefits of using fossil fuels negate damages from the Greenhouse Effect. He argued that limiting the usage of fossil fuels would leave humans in greater danger of harm from the environment.
Epstein admitted that he does not believe that fossil fuel is intrinsically better than other form of energy, but that our advanced understanding this form of energy makes it the best option for the foreseeable future. Epstein explained, “[When] I say I love fossil fuels, that’s only in a sense of I love energy and that this is providing the positives [for human life].”
Though the lecture has ended, the divestment debate will continue at Vassar. While the Divestment Campaign’s proposal is being considered for the June Board of Trustees meeting agenda, MICA plans to continue such events in support of fossil fuel use, “MICA is planning similar events in the near future. Because of the fact that the student divestment campaign and Occupy Wall Street have joined forces, conservatives need to unite the anti-divestment campaign with a free market revolution.”