Peter Thiel, Palmer Luckey, and Alex Epstein discuss Fossil Future
Full video and transcript of the Fossil Future launch event on April 16, 2022
Last year, to celebrate the launch of Fossil Future, Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR and Anduril, hosted me and Peter Thiel for a wide-ranging discussion about the future of energy. Chris Williamson, host of the Modern Wisdom podcast, moderated, and Palmer and I had a follow-up discussion after the event focused on energy and national security.
I am very happy to make the full video of this (amazing) event available to the public for the first time. Additionally, Energy Talking Points premium subscribers have access to the full transcript (with some of my favorite parts highlighted) below.
Please enjoy my discussions with Peter Thiel and Palmer Luckey, and please share this video with anyone who would benefit from it.
Hey, everyone. Welcome to the first book launch event for Fossil Future. Thank you very much for coming. My name is Alex Epstein; I wrote Fossil Future. The genesis of this event for me was, I asked myself a question that every time in my life I ask myself, my life ends up getting a lot better. I wish I asked myself this question a lot more, which is: What if I could have exactly what I wanted right now? In this case, it was, I was thinking, what is the absolute best book launch event I could have?
I was walking with my lovely fiancée, Cassandra, fairly recently, and I was bemoaning the fact that I had this amazing launch event with Peter Thiel in 2014. Unfortunately, the recording got botched. And I was just treating this as a tragedy. Yet, wait a second…I know Peter Thiel still, and he blurbed my first book and blurbed my second book. Maybe he'd be willing to do it.
For me, Peter is an ideal person because he's just always a super-original person, and I feel particularly aligned with him on this point that he's made so many times about how society has progressed in terms of bits, but not in terms of atoms—in terms of our ability to manipulate nature to serve human needs. That’s really been a focus of my work, that an aversion to transforming nature is that the root of so much stagnation and even regression.
Peter is my ideal person and so I emailed him and he very quickly said yes, he would do it, which was thrilling. Then he said, well, we just need to find a venue. Then I thought, what would be my ideal venue? I thought, well, I once met Palmer Luckey, we had a Zoom call for an hour, so I guess I know him. I heard he liked The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and I thought, well, he's got the coolest setup ever, and I'm a huge fan of his because he is somebody who became fantastically rich and successful at a young age—and instead of just doing random things, he decided to do one of the most difficult and noble things in the world, which is start a new defense company to defend this country's future. I just admire so much anybody who does things they don't have to do because they really believe that they're right. Just who Palmer is, plus I knew the venue would be amazing, I thought, wow, this would be amazing. And he was the most responsive person of anyone I reached out to.
He said, “I'd be happy to do it. Just no journalists.” He doesn't like journalists, which, if you've followed my life recently with Washington Post, I don't like journalists either at the moment. So, no journalists here. We got this and then I thought, who would be the perfect person to moderate? I thought through all the podcasts I had been on, and one of the best interviews I'd ever had is with this guy, Chris Williamson, next to me, who's the host of the Modern Wisdom podcast. I highly recommend that podcast.
I just noticed that when I was interviewed on Chris's show, he read my book in advance, he really understood it, and he was neither too friendly toward me nor hostile. He really could ask questions to get the best out of me, he could challenge me when he thought I needed to be challenged. I thought this would be an amazing person to interview me, and happily, Peter Thiel. Thanks so much to Chris for joining, to Peter for joining, and to Palmer for hosting us.
I expected this to be good, but I did not expect that in advance, we would get a two-hour ride on a Navy SEAL boat to an offshore oil rig, which is what Palmer included as part of hosting us. A bunch of my friends got to go and that was just amazing as well. Thank you so much, Palmer, for hosting us. Thanks, everyone, for being here. Let me turn it over to the great Chris Williamson.
Thanks, Alex. We're going to have about 60 minutes of discussion between Alex and Peter, and then we're going to have time for about 30 minutes of questions at the end. If you do have any burning inquiries, you can hold onto them until then, and we'll pass a mic around and you'll be able to ask some questions. I guess first, Alex, your new book, Fossil Future, you're arguing that our use of fossil fuels shouldn't decrease, but actually increase over the coming decades. What's the outline of your argument there?
I feel like [I’m] in a weird position, because what I'm saying in terms of, the world should be using more fossil fuels, not less, is considered the exact opposite of what people think. It's not just a couple degrees different, it's 180 degrees different. Because we’re told that allegedly, the experts think that we need to rapidly eliminate fossil fuel use. And I’m saying, not just slow it down or not just eliminate it more slowly, but we need to actually be increasing it. And I think the structure of the book really captures how I think it's possible that I'm right and that so many people are wrong.
The basic structure of the book is: framework, benefits, side effects.
The most important part is the first section on framework. A framework is a starting structure. Just like a building has a starting structure, so our thoughts have a starting structure. In particular, when we're thinking, there are three things that are operative that we don't always reflect on: what are our methods, what are our assumptions, and what are our values? My basic premise is that the way we think about energy is caused by a method and assumption and a value that are completely indefensible, and yet are utilized widely because people haven't examined them.
I'll just say them very quickly, but I think they'll come up more.
The method that we use with regard to fossil fuels is: we don't look at the benefits and we what I call catastrophize the side effects.
An example of this is agriculture. Take one of the leading thinkers in our society on this issue, Michael Mann, the climate scientist and activist. He has a whole book on climate and he talks about agriculture, which is a crucial area. But when he talks about agriculture, he only talks about how rising CO2 might impact agriculture negatively, and that's a fine thing to talk about. But he does not once mention the fact that modern agriculture depends on natural gas-derived fertilizer and oil-based machines. And without those, eight billion people literally could not live at the level we do today.
This is a catastrophic thinking failure to only look at negative side effects, and I would argue catastrophize. If you look at the history of predictions about fossil fuels, you have all these doomsday predictions. It's not just fossil fuels are going to cause some challenge, but the world is going to end. We see that, and we see the ignoring of the benefits. And What I say the proper method is, is we should look carefully at the benefits and the side effects.
The second thing is assumptions. When we have all this catastrophizing, there's a question of, why do we always assume that the world is going to end with fossil fuels or with something else? And I think the root is a false assumption that I call “the delicate nurture assumption,” and this is the idea that nature is this delicate, nurturing thing that is naturally stable, naturally sufficient—it gives us enough resources—and it's naturally safe. Then our impact just totally screws it up. Human impact just wrecks nature and then everything crumbles.
I think we see this with climate. We expect we're going to increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It's not just going to warm things and have some adverse consequences, but the world is going to end and it's going to burn, et cetera. And I think this comes from this delicate nurture assumption. I think we need to recognize nature is not a “delicate nurturer.” It's “wild potential.” It is naturally dynamic, it's naturally deficient, and it's naturally dangerous.
Then the third thing I think going on in energy is values. When we're looking at the world, there's always this question of, “By what standard are we measuring, whether the world is getting better or worse?” I think the dominant standard today is we're measuring it as: human impact is bad—how much are we eliminating our impact? For example, the number one moral metric today is eliminating CO2 emissions. That's the obsession of every company, every government, et cetera. It's not maximizing human flourishing, which I think should be the focus. And you see this bizarre thing of we're obsessed with every little molecule of CO2, and yet nobody cares at all about three billion people using less electricity than a typical American refrigerator.
So I think that when I’m looking at the world, I’m looking at it from a human flourishing perspective. And I don't assume human impact is bad, and I don't to assume that it's going to destroy us. I think human impact is fundamentally very good and it makes the world better.
I think it's this basic framework of looking at what I call the full context, benefits, and side effects, instead of just looking at negative side-effects and ignoring benefits, and having this view that the world is wild potential, not this delicate nurturer. And then viewing the goal as advancing human flourishing, not eliminating human impact. I think that is the reason why I disagree and I believe 90% of differences over this issue are philosophical.
And I believe that if you really look at the world from a pro-human, full context perspective, it is obvious that the world needs more fossil fuels, because energy is crucial, fossil fuels are the only way of providing it to billions of people for the foreseeable future, and billions more people need vastly more energy. And actually, what we find is more energy makes our climate safe.
We can talk about the side-effects, but the key thing I want to stress is, when you use a pro-human framework, it's actually obvious that the world needs more fossil fuels. When I go into benefits and side-effects, it's really based on that framework. But once you have the right framework established, I think it's very straightforward.
Just to touch on something there, Alex. Why would there be an anti-human framework? What's the reason that there's a bias against that?
That is a really interesting and deep question.
How much time do you have?
Well, I would actually like to know. Why don't you start on that, Peter? I would like to know what you have to say about that.
That's a hard question though. Let's see. Well, maybe this is something we should discuss more of, but it is one of the ... It's a phenomenal book, by the way. I read it over the last two days and just a crazy level of detail on all the different arguments. It feels extremely just rooted in somehow, reality. And the question I kept thinking in the back of my mind that I don't have a perfect answer to is: why this argument isn't obvious to people, why the discussion is so non-reality based, why we can't even do a cost-benefit calculation. Why do we have a debate where we only talk about the costs and not about the benefits?
I can come up with counts of history of how this has gotten deranged, but it's somewhat of a mysterious question where: We should be using more fossil fuels. We should be using a lot more energy, generally. We should be having an economy that’s growing, in which there’s more prosperity and more human flourishing. And then it's always hard to know exactly where we are in these things, and I always believe in the power of human agency. But at the same time, it feels like we're not exactly winning this debate in a crushing way. And so there is something very odd about the merits of the argument versus the insanity of the politics.