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Friday, June 23, 2017

Keep Fracking, But Buy a Brita Filter

Trade-offs exist. Recognize this and work to the optimal situation with minimal negative consequences.

Buy a Brita filter.”

That was my response to somebody on Twitter reacting negatively to a post where I made a point about the economic and personal impact of 70 mining jobs.

Admittedly, the response was more an attempt at ironic humor, but there’s a deeper point here that often gets left out in discussions on environmental trade-offs.

I’ve written before about how I am an advocate of increased fossil fuel consumption (especially clean-burning natural gas) and that, given all of the trade-offs, fossil fuel use is better for human beings and probably better for any reasonable conception of “the environment” than relying on the wind or the sun (turns out, storing sun and wind is hard and hydrocarbons are good for storing energy. Go figure.).* But this level-headed discussion of trade-offs rarely gets anybody anywhere in discussions around environmentalism and the value of the environment in and of itself.

Trade-offs exist. Recognize this and work to the optimal situation with minimal negative consequences.“Buy a Brita filter” was just a jab at somebody wasting my time on social media, but it is imperative to use our resources and access to technology to substantively better our lives. The thing about human beings is that we have the opportunity to harness resources on a scale no other creature on earth can rival.

At times, the process to harness these resources costs us something. We may have to burn minerals to release the energy captured in them. We may need to break apart rock miles underground to access the gases stored in its pores. We may need to open up the earth to find the natural battery that is coal which powers our A/C so we don’t die of heat exhaustion in the summer.

These processes are imperfect and do create secondary negative consequences at times, like increased levels of methane in groundwater or iron ore runoff into local streams.

But the immediate question shouldn’t be, “How do we stop this from happening?” Instead, it should be, “How do we minimize the negative consequences here while maximizing the positive use of resources?” Turns out, largely because of our leveraging fossil fuels over the past several centuries, we can use technologies like water filtration, air filtration, and high-tech research (powered by oil and gas) to minimize the negative impact on human beings.

Trade-offs exist. Recognize this fact and work to the optimal situation with minimal negative consequences.

The Human Imperative

The difficulty with this argument, though, is that it assumes both parties want what is best for people. Often, radical environmentalists operate from a stance that what is best for “the environment” is preferred to what is best for people. Reasonable people who like parks and trees (as I do!) may disagree with me about the extent to which we use fossil fuels, but radical environmentalists view any change in the environment as inherently bad.

Anything we create to preserve ourselves and our kin is derived from nature.In their conception of the world, the burden of proof is on the industrialist to show why he has to mar the earth to retrieve resources. Add in the fuzzy economics around solar and wind being “cheaper” than fossil fuels now (spoiler: they’re not. They are heavily subsidized beyond the point of economic reason.), and you get a position where, somehow, highly inefficient and unclean solar and wind operate as the status quo. Arguing for anything but these Frankensteinian boondoggles requires bending over backward to prove the virtue of fossil fuels.

It is essential for humans to change nature. Today’s level of civilization only exists because ancestors decided to disturb the natural order, cut down trees, and build shacks so that they would not be mauled by animals looking to devour them, or drowned in typhoons and hurricanes. Hospitals, schools, homes, and offices shield billions from death or danger by this “natural state” environmentalists assume is the ideal state. Mining, fracking, and drilling extend this human action — as does the use of harm-reduction tools like water and air filtration.

The environmental imperative also overlooks (or underplays) the fact that humans, too, are part of nature. Anything we create to preserve ourselves and our kin is derived from nature. The line between the natural and the artificial is an arbitrary creation of dogma.

There’s no need to be wantonly destructive of nature, but there’s no reason to condemn millions to suffering and shorter lives when we have the resources to have our cake and eat it too.

*If you do really care about clean, efficient, reliable sources of energy, you’d be an advocate of nuclear energy. It is, by far, the safest source of energy. My hope is that progress around thorium reactors can bring safe nuclear back into vogue.

Republished from the author’s website.

  • Zak Slayback is a venture capital and private equity professional and a small business owner. He is the author of How to Get Ahead (McGraw-Hill, 2019) and wrote the foreword to John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down (New Society Publishers, 2017). He lives in the United States and writes at He is a Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow and FEE alum.