Ah, Earth Day, when all headline-seeking celebrities, corporations, and politicians come together to virtue-signal about saving the world. The theme of this year’s celebration is “Invest in Our Planet” — an ironic choice, since the financial goals of the environmentalist movement wouldn’t help the planet but would, instead, hurt so many of the humans living on it.
For a cleaner Earth, we should invest in — not divest from — the fossil fuels that make our modern lives possible.
First, let’s cut through the doom and gloom and kick off Earth Day with some good news. Though you’ll rarely (if ever) hear about it in the news, the state of our planet is exceptional, especially in the United States. America — far from being the ecological bogeyman caricatured by so many in the progressive wing — is a world leader in environmental protection.
Nowhere can our advances be seen more than our air quality. Over the last five decades, we’ve cut harmful air pollution by nearly 80%. Levels of the criteria air pollutants tracked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are now so low they’re nearly indistinguishable from natural levels — so clean, in fact, that even nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns didn’t result in a meaningful air quality improvement. That progress has been made across Republican and Democrat administrations and coincides with marked growth in our economy, population, and even energy use. It’s thanks to the power of free-market innovation and, as ironic as it may seem, thanks to the widespread availability of fossil fuels that America has emerged as a global environmental leader.
Nothing improves quality of life like access to affordable, reliable energy. Energy makes every aspect of our lives easier, from the most fundamental needs like accessing food and clean water to the most complex pursuits like medical research or growing Internet-based businesses. And as quality of life improves, communities gain the benefit of increased capacity to focus on causes like environmental protection.
To illustrate this, think back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which you might have learned about in an undergrad psychology or business class. When basic needs are lacking — food, safety, shelter, sleep — people must devote all their time, energy, and resources just to surviving. But as those needs are met, their physical and mental energy can be spared to gradually move on to higher pursuits. At the top of Maslow’s pyramid is “self-actualization”: the freedom to fulfill one’s entire potential and pursue humanitarian causes.
It makes sense, then, that as developing communities get access to affordable and reliable energy, their environment improves over time — and that rising income aligns with increased respect and concern for the environment. The same holds true for prosperous nations. As energy production grows cheaper and more efficient, people have more time, money, and flexibility to pursue environmental goals.
Without access to affordable, reliable fossil fuels making our modern lives possible, the entire concept of Earth Day would be inconceivable.
The ironic part of this holiday, then? Many green activists this decade are focused on “environmental, social, and governance” (ESG) investing, which urges financial firms to conform to specific narratives on a range of hot-button issues, including climate change. But the ESG movement to push divestment from fossil fuels will worsen lives — and won’t help the environment in the slightest.
Here’s some context. If the United States somehow managed to eliminate all carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 — an impossible goal, but bear with me — global average temperatures would dip by less than two-tenths of a degree by 2100. And even that estimate is generous, since most climate data models have historically overestimated warming.
Even the most boisterous and successful campaign to pull funding from fossil fuel producers wouldn’t move the needle on climate change. What would it accomplish? Exacerbating poverty both here and abroad, destroying lives and livelihoods and potentially making our environment worse, not better. It would give the upper hand to less responsible energy producers overseas to fix energy prices and pollute with abandon and instead of promoting the twin forces of free-market competition and respect for our environment.
This Earth Day, let’s celebrate the role of fossil fuels in promoting the flourishing not just of our planet, but of the billions of human beings, individuals with worth and dignity, who call it home.
Perhaps a better name would be “flourishing fuels.”