Skip to content

How We Can Get Clean Energy—Fuel and Human Progress

· 7 min read
How We Can Get Clean Energy—Fuel and Human Progress
Photo by Nicolas HIPPERT on Unsplash

Editor's note: this is the first in a three part series on how we can get clean energy. Part I details Fuel and Human Progress, Part II answers the question "Is Nuclear Power Safe?" and Part III provides an answer to "What Needs to Be Done?"

There are only two ways that modern industrial society can be powered: fossil fuels and nuclear power. The mastery of wind, water, animal, and solar power (via biomass), moved humanity from the Stone Age to the Enlightenment. It enabled global commerce under sail, the creation of metals, ceramics, glass, paper, and numerous other artificial materials (and all the devices and instruments that they enable,) and provided the mechanical energy to liberate the large majority of people—particularly in the West—from enslavement to lives of manual labor. But by the 19th century, these sources of energy were no longer sufficient to sustain the further growth of the very society that they had created.

That society, however, had the tools to give birth to a new one. Equipped with access to global knowledge, printed books, and literate populations wielding that science along with steel tools, drills, and other mechanisms, it was able to invent the technologies required to unleash the power of fossil fuels. Thus liberated from the limitations of pre-industrial energy sources, humanity was able to grow exponentially further in numbers, power, and knowledge—in sum creative capacity—to the point where it was able to discover and invoke the laws of chemistry and electricity. These, in turn, not only allowed the creation of new materials ranging from gasoline, plastics, fiberglass, aluminum, and silicon to uranium, but of scientific instruments unveiling deeper laws of nature, and, with them, new and still vaster powers hidden within the last of these.

As Alex Epstein makes clear in his seminal book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, coal, oil, and gas have been of extraordinary benefit to humanity. Compared to what came before them, they have improved human life in every way, from doubling lifespans and unchaining mobility, to freeing us from living amidst of the unhealthy stench of animal waste. They have come with certain problems of their own, notably air pollution—particularly from coal—but these effluents are far smaller and less obnoxious than the pollution associated with a comparable amount of animal or biomass power.

But they are causing global warming. As a result of fossil fuel combustion global temperatures have risen an average of 1C since 1870. Fossil fuels are also changing the Earth’s atmospheric chemistry, with CO2 enrichment of the atmosphere threatening to change the chemistry of the oceans, with potentially very negative effects on marine life.

Environmental activists concerned about these issues have focused on using carbon taxes or production limitations to increase fuel prices, thereby dissuading people of limited means from using fossil fuels. I believe this campaign to be unethical. The primary problem in the world today is poverty. Energy is a basic good, both in itself, and because food prices, being highly dependent on transport costs, largely track fuel prices. All sales taxes are regressive, but because they target basic goods, and do so on the basis of mass, rather than cost, carbon taxes are ultra-regressive. A $50 discount store dress incorporates the same amount of carbon in its production as a $500 high fashion dress. A conventional sales tax would hit the expensive dress 10 times as hard. A carbon tax would increase the cost of both by the same amount. So really, carbon taxes are just a scam for transferring the tax burden from the rich to the poor.

But whether or not you agree that carbon taxes are unethical, there can be no question that, as a method of reducing carbon emissions, they have been a spectacular failure. In the three decades since the early 1990s, when climate warming alarms first aroused world leaders to action, global CO2 emissions have doubled—just as they did from the 1960s to the 1990s, the 1930s to the 1960s, and 1900 to 1930. This is because energy use is fundamental to living standards, and people, not wishing to be poor, will do whatever it takes to position themselves to be able to use more of it.

Chart, line chart

Description automatically generated
Human living standards have improved in direct proportion to worldwide fossil fuel use.

In 1920, the average global per capita income, in today’s dollars, was $1,000 per year, and the world used one billion metric tons of fossil fuels. Today, those figures have both grown twelvefold, to $12,000 per year and 12 billion tons, respectively. That’s an extraordinary improvement, but an annual income of $12,000 per year, typical of countries like Brazil, is still not that much.

In the United States the average income is $60,000 per year, and we still have a lot of poverty. Furthermore, $12,000 is the average. There are many countries a lot poorer than Brazil. In order to raise the entire world to a decent standard of living, global energy consumption is going to need to at least quintuple—and that requirement does not even account for population growth. We still have another century to go, doubling our energy production every 30 years, to approach the necessary goal.

Regardless of all the global warming festivals, UN proclamations, and street antics of extinction movement activists, world energy use is likely to double by 2050. Unless something better is made available, that energy is going to need to be provided by fossil fuels.

Biden's war on fuel

The Biden administration approach to this situation has been to try to suppress North American oil and gas production. As Marc Thiessen wrote in the Washington Post on February 24th:

He [Biden] prioritized climate change over energy independence and launched a policy of energy disarmament. Biden rejoined the Paris agreement and canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, which by itself would have transported 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas — far more than the 538,000 barrels we import every day from Russia). He suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and sought to deliver on his campaign promise to ban all “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.” And he made clear his intention to tax and regulate the fossil fuel industry out of business, promising that his administration would “end fossil fuel."

The effect of these policies is to drive up the price of fossil fuels, making the Russian and Saudi oil industries more lucrative, taxing the populations of the US, Europe, Japan, and most other Western nations, to enrich our enemies. It is a policy to increase funding for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, except for the depressing effect on global economic growth of higher oil prices, this policy will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions, as, contrary to the beliefs of Democratic Party thinktanks, neither Russian nor OPEC oil is carbon free.

There is, however, an alternative energy source that is far more abundant than fossil fuels, and which causes neither carbon emissions nor conventional air pollution. This is nuclear power.

Nuclear power is proof of a fundamental economic fact, to wit: There is no such thing as natural resources. There are only natural raw materials. It is human creativity that transforms raw materials into resources.

Fossil fuels are also proof of this statement. In Napoleon’s time, no warlord contemplating territorial conquest would have considered oil or gas as significant resources of a target nation, or as vital resources of his own. Fossil fuels only became resources once we understood their potentials, developed technology to acquire them and transform them into attractive forms, and invented machines that could make good use of the product. But this change occurred well outside of living memory, so we now take it for granted that oil is a natural resource.

Nuclear power, however, makes the case more clearly. It is a technology born from scientific understanding of forces and phenomena invisible to the naked eye, offering energy in quantities vastly exceeding anything available from fossil fuels. The amount of nuclear energy in a kilogram of uranium is equivalent to that obtained by burning two million kilograms of oil. Ordinary granite typically contains five parts per million uranium, giving it 10 times the energy content of an equal amount of oil! Think about that. With the help of God, Moses reportedly drew water out of a rock. With the help of science, we can draw fire from rocks.

It is important to be clear on this point: The fire does not come from the rock. It comes from thought. That was also true of powers offered by fossil fuels, sails, and domesticated horses, for that matter. None of them existed before thought, either. But nuclear power is fire created purely from thought. It is dramatic proof of the unlimited power of the free human mind. Moreover, this fire comes without smoke.

Now, one would think that environmentalists, concerned about “the existential crisis of climate change,” would support nuclear energy. But of course, they do not. In fact they seem to hate it with a passion—even exceeding their animus towards fossil fuels and all other technologies. Many people are understandably baffled by this. But the reason for it is simple. The environmentalists hate nuclear energy because it would solve a problem they need to have.

The Biden administration, unfortunately, is beholden to environmentalist organizations for a significant chunk of its electoral funding and support. So it cannot cross them. Thus in February 2022, even as Putin was gearing up his fossil fuel funded invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved to curtail the duration of the operating licenses of several nuclear power plants.

This is not the way the free world ought to be dealing with either the long-term problem of growing carbon emissions or the more immediate threat posed by Russia or other petrotyrannies.

Why are we making ourselves the captive customers of our enemies when we hold in our hands a far cleaner and vastly more abundant source of energy than anything they can provide?

The answer is terror. We have been scared out of liberating ourselves by those claiming that nuclear power is too dangerous to use. In the next part of this series we shall examine their scare stories and show that they contain no truth whatsoever.

Editor's Note: Part II in this three part series deals with the question "Is Nuclear Power Safe?" and Part III provides an answer to "What Needs to Be Done?"

Robert Zubrin

Robert Zubrin is an aerospace engineer. His latest book, The New World on Mars: What We Can Create on the Red Planet was published in February 2024 by Diversion Books.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette