Epstein audience offered skewed info on fossil fuels

Alex Epstein sits easily on a chair in the middle of the floor of Rockefeller Hall 200 as his pretty, made-up, high-heeled assistant smiles and passes out papers. Epstein jokes with his audience, even to those who are obviously present only to oppose him. He smilingly assures us that world hunger has been solved.

Such was the atmosphere that Alex Epstein attempted to create last Friday night during  his lecture, titled: “Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet”. However, many members and supporters from the Vassar Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, the local community, and nearby colleges and high schools showed up to send a different message than the one espoused by the Center for Industrial Progress (CIP) founder. When dozens of divestment supporters called out Epstein’s lack of credibility and walked en masse out of the Rockefeller auditorium, Epstein only smiled sardonically and quipped, “Well, that was dramatically done.”

Others have written more knowledgeably of—and can more lucidly explain—Epstein’s lack of qualifications as an “energy researcher,” most notably his only credentials being a philosophy degree from Duke and a fellowship with the Ayn Rand Institute. What I found more disturbing, perhaps, than Epstein’s unfounded, offensive, and strangely static arguments. With points such as: “Fossil fuels have always been the most efficient sources of energy, and therefore always will be” and “Without fossil fuels we would all be poor starving peasant farmers” (these are not direct quotes, though they might as well be), Epstein succeeded in insidiously making his skewed doctrine sound like the right, just, and inevitable way of thinking about fossil fuels and industrial development..

An informal meeting of the Divestment Campaign after Epstein’s lecture engendered an open discourse not only about CIP’s espoused ideology but also about the manner of Epstein’s delivery—that is, how he managed to make unfounded and extremist sentiments superficially appear so reasonable. Among the many subtle and unsettling tactics Epstein used to manipulate his audience, there emerged one in particular that disturbed many Vassar students and allies who were in attendance: Epstein’s establishment of a power dynamic in which he occupied a more valuable and worthy position than anyone else in the room.

Before the start of the formal lecture, Epstein greeted the audience dismissively: “While we’re waiting, does anyone have any questions? I’m bored.” Throughout his presentation, he presented listeners with misleading facts and statistics, and continually structured his lecture with leading questions that required the audience to hear his oh-so-knowledgeable explanation. Most crucially, he maintained his calm, respectful, and slightly satirical demeanor throughout the lecture.

In contemporary society—especially in the American political arena—such level-headedness is esteemed above almost all other forms of expression because of its implied associations: level-headedness equals rationality equals logic equals truth. Alex Epstein, far from espousing the truth, has merely co-opted a corrupt and degrading form of it based on privileged assumptions and specious connections.

These kinds of discussion at least bring to light some of the core principles that the Divestment Campaign wishes to clarify for the Vassar community and readers everywhere: What is the “truth” about divestment? Why is the act of divestment so important for our institution?

Although this lecture was indeed regrettable, we are hopeful that this episode may bring about more immediate awareness to issues of climate change, environmental justice, and ultimately divestment. It has at least served to make members of the community more cognizant of the myths and misunderstandings surrounding divestment and energy alternatives.

In the next few months, the Divestment Campaign will be launching an effort to make information about divestment more available and accessible to the Vassar community. Feel free to ask them some questions—they might be bored.


—Katharine Gripp ‘13 is an English major.

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