Green New Deal Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (affectionately, “AOC”) calls for an end to fossil fuels by 2035. Her desire to protect the earth for future generations is understandable, even laudable. But what she doesn’t seem to appreciate is that humans are here on earth with lives to live, and in using the resources the earth provides there will always be some level of impact on the planet. There is a balance between the interests of both humans and the earth that must be considered. As Thomas Sowell has famously noted, there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. The question is how do we protect the earth and the climate while also promoting human flourishing? AOC seems to ignore the latter.
An unassailable fact is fossil fuels have lifted billions of people out of poverty. Since fossil fuels are dense, readily available forms of energy that require a small footprint in terms of the resources required to extract the energy, they have been relied upon for decades to reliably power our world in a cost-effective and efficient manner, with abundance for decades to come. Consequently, fossil fuels power the machines that harvest our food, carry products across vast ocean spaces, and mine the minerals that make up the everyday conveniences billions of people enjoy, such as automobiles, smartphones, laptop computers, televisions — and of course the automobiles we use every day for personal transportation.
AOC seeks the elimination of fossil fuels because she believes they can be replaced by wind and solar power in short order. But that is a utopian dream. The manufacture of solar panels and windmills requires heavy, diesel-powered equipment to mine for the raw materials. And once acquired, energy-intensive processes are required to produce the final products. Also, the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow, so neither solar nor wind can provide readily available energy any time of the day or night as with fossil fuels. Even with battery storage, until there is a massive breakthrough in efficiency for wind and solar, together they could at best produce a fraction of the energy needs of the world. It is quixotic to suggest a world running exclusively on renewable energy anytime in the next decade.
It’s instructive to review how we got to our age of abundance. The industrial revolution, which began over two hundred years ago, ushered in a new era of machines that supplanted production by hand, resulting in dramatically increased productivity and economic growth. Since then, billions of people in the general population have enjoyed an ever-increasing standard of living, all thanks to the power of fossil fuels. What the average American, and indeed all the western world, now takes for granted were luxuries that were inaccessible to even the wealthiest people of one hundred years ago. Surely, if we adopt the policies promoted by AOC, we will lose over 200 years of progress. I imagine very few people, including AOC, would want to go back to how Americans lived in 1823.
Let’s now imagine a day in the life of AOC without fossil fuels. When she rises in the morning, there is no heat from a reliable natural gas powered furnace, but instead, heat comes from a wood stove that ironically generates more CO2 than natural gas and spews particulates into the air that are especially harmful to those with asthma or other respiratory disorders. She won’t be able to enjoy a hot shower without boiling water herself, as she now won’t have access to a natural gas-powered water heater. She wouldn’t be able to brush her teeth with an advanced electric toothbrush since plastics are products of petroleum (though of course there is no battery since the metals must be mined with diesel-powered trucks). And since even regular toothbrushes are made from plastic, her only option would be a toothbrush made of animal hair and bone.
If AOC would like a cup of coffee, her choices will be limited. Coffee would become an expensive luxury, as there won’t be any bunker fuel-powered cargo ships or diesel-powered trucks to deliver the beans to her local grocery store in an economical manner. And even if she could somehow get the beans, to brew the coffee she’d have to roast them over a fire, grind them with a manual grinder, and boil them in a kettle on a woodfire stove, producing a bitter brew. It won’t be Starbucks, but it will do the job. This will take a couple of hours at least, so she’ll have to get up very early to prepare coffee. Hopefully she’ll enjoy breakfast consisting only of what can be stored on a shelf or in an ice box, since she won’t have an electric refrigerator.
When it’s time to head out for a day of work at the Capitol, there won’t be any electric vehicles, Tesla or otherwise, to whisk her away in high style. They won’t exist because there won’t be any diesel-powered machines to mine minerals for the battery or the electric motor, and there won’t be any plastics to make the door panels, bumpers, dashboard, headlights, mirrors and seats, or many of the other parts in modern cars that make them lighter, with improved fuel economy. AOC will have to satisfy herself with a luxury horse-drawn carriage. Hopefully she’ll be prepared for a chilly ride to work with no heat during the cold Washington D.C. winters. Adding to her discomfort, she will ride on crumbling roads that can no longer be repaired since asphalt is a petroleum product.
Finally arriving at her office for a day of work at the Capitol, since there won’t be any electricity, she’ll have no choice but to read legislation by candlelight (note: even oil lamps, which were around prior to the industrial revolution, will not be an option since oil exploration has been banned as part of the Green New Deal). Due to a lack of plastics, she won’t have access to a laptop computer or a monitor. And, of course, she won’t have access to Twitter to launch her regular screeds against fossil fuels. And no Facebook either to keep up with her friends and uninformed constituents who voted for her, evidently unaware they would one day lose all the luxuries they once knew but are now no longer available or affordable in everyday life.
Happily, landline phones may still be around, even though any new ones produced will be prohibitively expensive since they can now only be made with metal parts mined by relatively primitive tools. Cell phones will have gone out of existence due to ceased chip production. And without fossil fuel-powered trucks, it will be difficult to continue maintenance of our communications infrastructure. But fortunately, AOC is a Congresswoman, so she may have access to conveniences ordinary Americans can no longer afford.
When lunchtime rolls around and she wants a meal, gone will be the abundance of food selections from around the world she once enjoyed at the Capitol’s House Restaurant or local eateries. But again, as a Congresswoman, while her options are less than before, she will still have greater access than her constituents. Being a politician has always had its benefits.
After a long day at work, AOC heads to the market to get fresh food for dinner. There will be no more relaxing with a glass of low-cost wine from Napa Valley, eating a meal with plastic utensils delivered by Door Dash while streaming An Inconvenient Truth on Apple TV. She will have to go through the labor-intensive process of preparing a meal the old-fashioned way: by hand. And of course, there won’t be a dishwasher, so she will have to clean the dishes herself. Afterward she can while away the remaining hours of her long day curling up to a good book read by candlelight. Perhaps she had a Kindle e-reader at some point, but alas, it has run out of charge and is no longer of any use, so printed books are her only option.
AOC finally turns in at night after a very long and tiring day devoid of modern conveniences. Perchance, she will wake up in the morning from the dream world she has created and realize that everything in life, again, is about tradeoffs. Abandoning fossil fuels would virtually end human progress and productivity. Over time, renewable energy (which, again, can currently only be manufactured using fossil fuels) and other “clean” forms of energy, such as hydrogen, will be able to take on more of our energy needs. But it will be decades or more before these alternatives can realistically replace most fossil fuels. In the meantime, the global population will continue to increase at least for the next few decades, and poorer countries will certainly look to fossil fuels for economic progress in the same manner as developed countries.
In conclusion, instead of denigrating fossil fuels, AOC and her ilk should instead be thankful for the convenience and lifestyle they are able to enjoy daily in a modern world powered by fossil fuels. Natural gas is abundant, burns relatively cleanly, and can deliver base and peak load energy on demand – it currently provides 32% of all energy produced in America. Petroleum provides 36% of our energy, but it also has thousands of other uses, so even if we were to transition all transportation to run on electricity, petroleum would still be critical in manufacturing a plethora of transportation and other modern products. Nuclear energy is the cleanest and most efficient, providing reliable base load power and zero greenhouse gases. Instead of banning fossil fuels, we should emphasize cleaner forms of fossil fuels and carbon-free nuclear energy while we transition to renewables in the long term at a sustainable pace.