An Interview with Alex Epstein

With all of the attention being paid to the divestment movement and sustainability initiatives as of late, it is little wonder why Alex Epstein has been so busy. As a leading proponent of industrialism and the founder of the for-profit think-tank, the Center for Industrial Progress, he has made a name for himself as the intellectual counter-weight to the likes of Bill McKibben and the rest of the environmentalist movement.

A philosopher by training, Mr. Epstein can often be found writing position papers on issues relating to industrial policy, debating Occupy Wall Street protestors in Zuccotti Park, and publishing opinion pieces in pages of The Wall Street Jour­nal. When he’s not advancing the cause of industrial capital­ism on the national stage, he frequents college campuses around the country, spearhead­ing opposition to the policies of local environmental groups and reframing the discussion around a more “humanistic” set of principals.

Recently, The Dartmouth Review was fortunate enough to catch up with Mr. Epstein and speak with him about the origins of the Center for Industrial Progress, his inter­est in industrialism, and his perspectives on the divestment movement in its current form. Here is what he had to say:

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): What in your personal experience has led you to choose energy as your topic of interest?

Alex Epstein (AE): I’ve been interested in philosophy since I was a teenager, [and] philosophy is all about methodology – how to think about things properly and ultimately how to think about what’s right and what’s wrong. I was always interested in that as a very practical discipline – you want to think about what’s right and wrong and [use it] to make your life better. Coming out of college, I was interested in applying that to different fields, particularly politics, and didn’t want to go to [graduate] school because I think much of contemporary philosophy is very detached from reality. [However,] I still wanted to be [involved] in philosophy, so I wrote about politics as an important aspect of [it]. I wrote about all sorts of different topics… [until] in my mid-20’s I started researching energy more and more. What fascinated me about it was two things. One, is that it has a special status as an industry because it is the industry that powers every other industry. It [has] a unique role in our life…[and] it has a universal impact. The other [factor] is that I really disagreed with the vast majority of the way I heard people think about energy, particularly the issue of the relationship between energy and the environment. As a philosopher, we’re always interested in problems to solve, interesting things to explain to other people, [and] interesting things that you think are misconceptions and want to correct, [so] I just started writing about it. [Over time], it [became] self-reinforcing because I would become progressively interested in it and… would get better and better feedback on what I was working on. That ultimately led me to start [the] Center for Industrial Progress.

TDR: Can you give us a sense of what the Center for Industrial Progress is and what type of change it seeks to bring about?

AE: The Center for Industrial Progress is really conceived of as ultimately trying to replace environmentalism as a cultural ideal. The idea of environmentalism is that we need to save the planet from human beings. The idea of the Center for Industrial Progress is that we need to improve the planet for human beings. The environmentalist movement, particularly the leadership and [its] intellectuals, [view] man as this fundamentally destructive force, [that] steals resources from nature and destroys our environment. I think the opposite is true, at least under freedom. Man is a resource creator and he makes his environment – including the climate, inciden­tally – a much better place to live in. This idea of man as an environmental destroyer has held a monopoly, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Thus, I thought that there needed to be an institution based on this way of thinking about [the issue] that could focus on the positives of industry, more broadly, but energy in particular. I think once you make that case, it’s pretty clear that the environmentalist approach is fundamen­tally flawed and should be jettisoned.

TDR: To add some color to that, what sort of specific policy recommendations do you think are going to serve that end? For example, would something like the national parks be an idea that you op­pose or are they something that you find go hand-in-hand with your ultimate ideals?

AE: Well [embedded in] the question there is an assumption on the false premise, which is the wrong view of the environment. [When] deciding anything in life… you have [to] decide by what standard [you are] valuing something as good or bad. With [the] environment, when you are deciding whether something is environmentally good or environ­mentally bad, you have to decide what aspect of environment [you are] looking at. [Are you] looking at it primarily from the perspective of polar bears? Is polar bear well-being something that would satisfy you? Is it the mosquito environment? As a humanist, my view is no, it’s the human environment that should be the standard, which means that anything like national parks or mosquitos, for that matter, gets judged in relation to human well-being. [Since] human well-being is an individual phenomenon, the only way to achieve that is to have essentially the American policy, which is to have [a system in which] every individual has a right to his own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. In practice, this, above all else, means the right to property. You have the right to develop your own land, you have the right to live on it as you choose, and you have the right not to be interfered with by others. That’s really the fundamental principal that governs human well-being and if individuals do that, they can develop the parts of nature that are in their interest to develop and they can preserve those that are in their interest to preserve. It’s the best of all worlds, unless you hold the view that there is something wrong with developing nature, which is really the core of the so-called environmentalist movement. It views the environment as a God that has value over and above the value of human beings. It finds a way to oppose every kind of development from the chemical DDT, which [has] saved a billion lives, to fossil fuel energy, which keeps 7 billion people alive today.

TDR: How exactly would you define “industrial prog­ress,” and what exactly do you think it looks like in the 21st Century?

AE: Well, it’s not an all-encompassing ideal. The all-en­compassing ideal would be human-happiness, including the survival part of it. The issue is that [industrial progress] is the aspect of human survival and happiness that is, I think, least appreciated and least understood. [It is also] the most demonized. Industrial progress is really just the progressive development of nature that [is responsible for] improving hu­man life [via the use of technology]. If you think about how we’re taught to regard technology, generally we’re taught that technology is good. At least we are now. Interestingly, the environmentalist movement used to be overtly anti-technology, but now, because digital technology has been so successful and permeates our lives in so many ways, people are attached to it and now it has become politically incorrect to demonize technology. But, it still is being demonized, just in a different form. The idea that we need to minimize our footprint and that we should minimize our impact on nature – that’s an anti-technology idea. Technology is finding different ways to reshape the world around us [and] improve human life. It is really the highly physical development [of] technology that is least appreciated, and that’s why I started [the Center for Industrial Progress]. In a different world, if computers are the most demonized, there’d be a reason to start the “Center for Digital Progress.” There still is, but in terms of where I think most destructive forces are, I think it’s in the domain that I’ve chosen.

TDR: As you describe it, the environmental movement has developed this borderline self-hatred and views human­ity in the most negative of terms. What do you think is behind this worldview?

AE: I think it’s important [to recognize] that this isn’t abnormal historically. Man has, the majority of the time, adopted ideas that are antithetical to life, and even in periods where he had ample evidence to the contrary, in fact, especially in periods where he had evidence to the contrary. You have a 19th Century that established this incredible system called capitalism based on property rights and this unbelievable sys­tem that created everything from massive amounts of wealth to peace. Yet, because of certain factors, we had a century full of butchery, where socialists of different forms, whether it’s the Communists or the National Socialists, butchered people by the tens of millions. That’s instructive: it tells us that anti-human ideologies are not new. They are something that happen routinely. It’s important for everyone to know that, because they really have to be on guard against this kind of thing and it’s their responsibility as citizens to critically examine the ideas you’re fed and not assume that your genera­tion is somehow special and is incapable of adopting deadly ideas. That is baseless vanity, unless you know that the ideas your generation is adopting [are somehow informed by the] mistakes of the past. In terms of understanding that, I think the best source I know of is the book For the New Intellectual by Ayn Rand, and her first essay in particular, which explains the history of philosophy and explains how anti-man ideas have spread for a long time. There [are] a lot [of] different elements to it, but you can see in terms of medieval religion, and you can see in terms of 19th Century and 20th Century collectivism, [and] you can see it in terms of 20th and 21st Century environmentalism. Perhaps what is most alarming about environmentalism is that [it is] the most explicit about human beings being bad. I think ultimately if you’re a col­lectivist, you act as if the group is superior to the individual. But because there is no such thing as a group, it is ultimately an anti-human perspective and will lead to this non-existent entity called society harming individuals. [This is] an anti-man view, but it is much more obviously anti-man to say, we are against this man-made chemical DDT, and [the] biggest claim that we can make, which isn’t even really true, is that it harms bird egg shells, and there­fore we’re going to ignore the hundreds of millions of lives that it has saved. [The environmentalists] are overtly anti-man. They’ve described man as a cancer, they talk about population reductions by billions, by five times, by ten times, by twenty times even. If I were to give one explanation it’s the absence of a positive. It’s the absence of a proper man-loving philosophy, which means a philosophy that truly understands human nature and embraces it.

TDR: Do you think it’s fair to say that this recent uptick in divestment and other environmentally oriented movements is the most recent iteration of the millennials’ leeriness toward capitalism?

AE: Environmentalism historically emerged as part of the anti-capitalist movement. [Ayn Rand] described as it was happening in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As the evidence of Communism’s failure and evil mounted, the Left [shifted the focus of its criticism], and instead of abandoning its hostil­ity toward capitalism, it found a new outlet for it. There are various iterations of this change, such as the “affluent society argument” whereby they claimed society produced too much. [Eventually], however, they really settled on this idea that it’s just spoiling our environment. Instead of [acknowledging] that capitalism has made our environment a lot better and that we need to sure up the holes, the anti-capitalists were able to pretend that they were actually the champions of our environment. That is completely unjustified. If you look at the socialist countries, they have the worst environments. If you look at the third world countries that won’t adopt capitalism, they have the worst environments. But [the Left] was able to successfully take people’s legitimate concerns with this issue and use it to oppose capitalism. If you look at the constant of the Left, it has always found a way to oppose capitalism and therefore freedom, and there’s this kaleidoscope of justifications, but the object of hatred never shifts and is never really questioned. That’s the sign of a religious dogma.

TDR: It seems when you talk to environmentalists and divestment advocates on campus their fervor overwhelms a lot of the facts. How do you as a hu­manist combat that and what do you recommend that people on the ground at college campuses do to assist in those efforts?

AE: There are really two aspects to fervor. One is a le­gitimate element [and] one is completely illegitimate. The first is that the environmentalist side has done a much better job of connecting their ideas to people’s values, whereas the pro-fossil fuel side hasn’t done a very good job of connecting what they stand for to human life. In that respect, I think the Center for Industrial Progress is a leader in showing people the incredibly positive connec­tion between industry, including the energy industry, life, and the environment. The second aspect of the fervor you mentioned is the dogma or the faith of it. That is scary, because it comes from a combination of utter ignorance about energy… the environment, and propaganda. The worst part of the propaganda is not the particular tenets of the propaganda or the idea that we’re creating a giant blanket of CO2 and turning the world into a furnace; [it is instead] the propaganda coupled with the idea that mouthing [it] and accepting it unthinkingly is the height of intellectual virtue. Thus, you get this bizarre spec­tacle of people that can’t even explain to you what the Greenhouse effect is. They don’t know anything about the history of weather and the fact that man’s climate has become much safer as we’ve used more energy. People who don’t even have the most rudimentary understanding of the issues have this unbelievable smugness [and be­lieve] that they represent the height of scientific thinking because these political paeans have been passed to them under the name of science. In the same way, another conclusion might be given the endorsement of the Pope or Mohammad or an equivalent authority. It’s a disturb­ing trend where they have coopted values and they’ve coopted science. I experience this a lot because I speak on a lot of college campuses. I’ve spoken at the best ones and they are some of worst in terms of this combination of profound ignorance, militant pseudo-certainty, and condescension. That’s not true of all students – in fact I’ve found many students are open to what I have to say and I do my best to explain myself and come across as reasonable – but it’s remarkable to me the combination of ignorance and… arrogance. When you have that and when it’s connected to values, the person becomes blind. They don’t even know there is such a thing as seeing, and they think everyone else is blind. It’s not a good situation. The positive is that I think one can make a lot of headway by just educating people and by generally pointing out that maybe before taking a position on this, [it would be a good idea to] actually understand what the Greenhouse effect is, or maybe before being anti-nuclear power, you should understand what radiation is, how it works, and when it’s dangerous. People who are more intellectually honest will admit when they are voicing an opinion that they don’t really have a basis for and they’ll be interested in an honest presentation that respects them and doesn’t ask them to take anything on faith. At [the Center for Industrial Progress] and in my own work, that’s what I’m always trying to do. Just give people the full context that has caused us to come to these conclusions. In my experience, that’s the best way to get other people to come to the conclusions.

TDR: Thank you very much for your time and insight!