April 19, 2019 Reading Time: 4 minutes

From roughly the 1960s to the mid-2000s, the American environmentalist movement aggressively espoused a concept known as “peak oil” as its primary justification for reducing fossil fuel use. According to peak-oil theory, the finite nature of the world’s petroleum reserves necessarily implies that a maximum aggregate rate of oil extraction for the world will be reached at some future point. After that point, oil production will enter into a decline.

In the abstract, peak-oil theory simply makes a series of mathematical claims about the long-term course of a finite or nonrenewable resource’s uses. In the hands of environmentalist activists, it became an instant cause for alarm. Oil’s nonrenewable nature meant that a resource-depletion event was imminent and that the failure to aggressively adopt “clean” fuel alternatives would lead to a catastrophic collapse of the global energy sector and thus the global economy.

These apocalyptic claims were commonplace at the time of the first Earth Day event in 1970, when environmentalists confidently predicted a complete exhaustion of the world’s oil supply by the year 2000. In subsequent years the environmentalist movement en masse adopted the logic of the famously failed Malthusian doomsayer Paul Ehrlich to suggest an imminent death spiral in the oil-based-energy market, setting a deadline for the global conversion away from fossil fuels.

Humans must reduce fossil fuel consumption, they said, or else face a resource-depletion catastrophe. To avert the crisis, they conveniently pointed to the heavy hand of government. We must adopt a familiar package of subsidies for wind and solar energy, enact gasoline taxes to decrease consumption, and use heavy regulatory interventions to restrict fuel use in cars and energy use in household appliances. Do these things, and only these things, and an oil-depletion catastrophe will be averted.

Except it never played out as predicted.

There was no energy collapse in 2000, and there’s no sign of one coming in the foreseeable future. Instead, a combination of new oil-source discoveries, better oil-extraction technologies such as hydraulic fracking, and technological improvements in fuel efficiency have kept the energy sector remarkably stable — so stable, in fact, that the once-“obvious” case for emergency government action to avoid an imminent oil depletion is no longer seriously discussed.

The environmentalists did not change their desired policies though. They simply modified their rationale for the same thing to almost exactly the opposite justification.

Instead of “peak oil” and an imminent resource depletion, the new buzzword of the moment is “carbon sequestration.” This new idea holds that if existing fossil fuel sources, as well as those that have yet to be discovered, are actually extracted and expended, it will release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, causing global warming to accelerate at a catastrophic pace. Therefore, to avert catastrophe, we must intentionally sequester fossil fuels by keeping them in the ground and out of human use.

Note that the desired government interventions did not meaningfully change. The same environmental activists still want aggressive subsidies for solar and wind energy. They still want to decrease oil consumption through punitive taxes — now called a “carbon tax.” They still want regulatory interventions to force reduced reliance on fossil fuels. And they still insist these policies must be adopted immediately and without question, or else the new catastrophe of the moment will become reality.

The only meaningful difference in the environmentalist position is the completely inverted rationale. Thirty years ago, these policies were intended to prevent us from running out of fossil fuels. Now it’s a case of having too much fossil fuel for the environment to handle.

In making this observation, note that I take no position on the underlying climate science and in fact I’m content to defer to experts in that subject. Rather, my primary concern is with the use of that science as a supposed rationale for the hasty enactment of dubious policies without giving due consideration to their costs or even their effectiveness at resolving the claimed threat.

A Minimum Wage Parallel

It is noteworthy that arguments for restricting fossil fuels on carbon-sequestration grounds only attained prominence after advances in fuel-extraction technology and engine efficiency invalidated the previous resource-depletion argument. Such patterns are strongly suggestive that environmentalism is an axiomatic political belief that’s constantly in search of its own retrofitted justification.

To environmental activists, it does not matter whether fossil fuels are running out or they are so abundant that we need to keep them in the ground to prevent climate change. The song changes, but the dance remains the same.

Nor are such rhetorical sleights of hand unique to environmentalism. Consider the longstanding progressive political hobby horse known as the minimum wage. Minimum wages first became a popular policy almost a century ago and for very dubious reasons.

Progressive-era economists, who often exhibited strong ideological affinities for what were then all-white organized labor unions, originally proposed the minimum wage as a conscious strategy to price African Americans, immigrants, and other minorities out of the market for skilled labor. Progressives still advance the same minimum wage policies today, only now they present them as programs to “help” the very same minority groups that their forebears sought to punish and exclude.

The minimum wage debate is associated with a vast economic literature, but recent empirical evidence shows that they do indeed have the predicted disemployment effects for low-skilled workers and others on the periphery of the labor market. More revealing though is that the progressive advocates of minimum wages never changed their policy stance — they simply swapped their rationale to better fit the times. Perhaps aware of the inconsistency, a few progressive theorists with neo-eugenicist inclinations have even attempted to reconcile the earlier racial iteration of the policy with its modern version by arguing that both service the axiomatically sacrosanct collective interest of labor.

Note that neither example implies that we should avoid serious discussion of the associated policies. To the contrary, carbon taxes and minimum wages are both influential policy ideas whose effects remain subject to study and scrutiny.

The primary advocates of each, however, have displayed a clear willingness to casually swap rationales for their favored policies to better fit the mood of the moment. It would appear that both examples are strongly held policy beliefs in constant search of their own justification, rather than responses to observable conditions that warrant attention.

Phillip W. Magness

Phil Magness

Phillip W. Magness works at the Independent Institute. He was formerly the Senior Research Faculty and F.A. Hayek Chair in Economics and Economic History at the American Institute for Economic Research. He holds a PhD and MPP from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, and a BA from the University of St. Thomas (Houston). Prior to joining AIER, Dr. Magness spent over a decade teaching public policy, economics, and international trade at institutions including American University, George Mason University, and Berry College. Magness’s work encompasses the economic history of the United States and Atlantic world, with specializations in the economic dimensions of slavery and racial discrimination, the history of taxation, and measurements of economic inequality over time. He also maintains an active research interest in higher education policy and the history of economic thought. His work has appeared in scholarly outlets including the Journal of Political Economy, the Economic Journal, Economic Inquiry, and the Journal of Business Ethics. In addition to his scholarship, Magness’s popular writings have appeared in numerous venues including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, Politico, Reason, National Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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