Alex Epstein is the founder and director of the Center for Industrial Progress and a principal at Master Resource, a free market energy blog. I recently had the privilege of speaking with him about his work, industrial progress, his "occupation" of "Occupy Wall Street," and his plans for the future. —JL
Joshua Lipana: What is your background, and why did you start the Center for Industrial Progress?
Alex Epstein: I’ve always been interested in science in the broadest sense of the word: gaining a systematic, logical understanding of the world. As a kid, math and science were my favorite subjects, and I developed the conviction that all problems are solvable with scientific thinking. In high school, I was exposed to more and more controversy about political issues, and I decided that I would learn what the logical position on these was. When people told me that these issues were all subjective, I rejected that because I thought that all problems had an objective solution. So I started looking for thinkers in the humanities who focused on facts and logic—Thomas Sowell was a particular favorite of mine. As I read various books on politics, economics, and philosophy, my interest in the physical sciences gave way to a much stronger interest in the humanities, or, as I prefer to call it, the science of human action.
While I have been influenced by many thinkers, nothing compared to what I learned from reading Ayn Rand. I was completely blown away by Atlas Shrugged, which was the first work of hers that I read. I felt like she looked at the world with x-ray vision, and could understand the fundamental causes of problems—and solutions—when everyone else could just see symptoms. I’ve been studying her works intensely since I was 18, and the more I read the more I realize how profound and precise her insights are.
In college I studied a combination of philosophy and computer science. After coming out of college I knew I wanted two things; I wanted to be an intellectual for a living, but I did not want to go to grad school or work at a University. So I became a freelance writer right out of college and after a little over two years I accepted an offer from the Ayn Rand Institute to write full-time, applying philosophy to business issues. That was a great opportunity for me, since I got to do the kind of work I was interested with lots of intellectual support.
Somewhere about mid-way through my work at the Institute I got obsessed with the issue of energy. I studied the history of energy, particularly of oil, and I was struck by a) how much the entire economy depends on energy and b) how much energy production and policy depends on the right philosophy, particularly the right philosophy of industry and environment.
So much of what’s gone wrong in energy in the last 40 years is due to the idea that it’s somehow wrong or tainted for man to transform nature on a large scale. And so much of what has gone right in American industrial history is that this country used to have a philosophy that embraced the transformation of nature through energy and industry—that is, embraced industrial progress. The more I read and talked to experts in the field, the more I saw an opportunity to use my knowledge of philosophy, and in particular Ayn Rand’s philosophy, to change the way people think about energy, industry, and environment.
It was heartening and a little surprising to me how open people in energy policy have been to the idea of examining the philosophical issues in the field—or, as Dr. Robert Bradley calls it, “the debate behind the debate.” Another thing I’ve been heartened by is that people respond very positively to my enthusiasm for energy, which is definitely an outgrowth of my philosophy. I feel more excited about new developments in energy—say, the shale gas revolution—than I do about the latest iPhone. And I really love my iPhone.
The energy industry is producing the most amazing products and it should never be on the defensive about what it is doing. Producing oil, producing coal, producing gas, these are fundamentally things that have doubled the human life expectancy and we should be over the moon about what they have done for our lives.
The more I engaged with intellectuals in energy policy, and the more I engaged with the public on energy issues, the more I became convinced that this was an issue that would benefit from a dedicated, laser-focused think-tank. So I decided to start one. My number one conviction with the think-tank was that its essential focus had to be positive—it needed to offer a positive ideal that people can embrace in place of environmentalism. Thus, the Center for Industrial Progress was born.
My second conviction about CIP was that it should, as much as possible, mirror the practices of a competitive business. As a result, a major priority of mine has been researching best practices for making an impact. I spend a lot of time talking to CEOs, think-tank leaders, media leaders, etc about what works and what doesn’t. And as the Director of CIP, I try to measure the impact of everything we do, so we can get the best results possible.
JL: What are some of the highlights in industrial progress over the last 200 years?
AE: First of all, let’s be clear on what industrial progress is. Industrial progress is the progressive transformation of nature through energy, industry, and technology. It encompasses drilling for oil or creating an iPod. Its most prominent impact is to reshape the world around us to something that’s completely unrecognizable from what it used to be.
Unfortunately, our educational system teaches people that “the environment” is this separate, intrinsically valuable thing that human beings ruin through industry. We’re taught that minimizing environmental impact is the ideal. In fact, the environment we should be concerned about is the human environment, and we should think in terms of how we can maximize our positive impact on the human environment. By default, nature is an extremely hostile place to live, which is why average human life expectancy throughout history is thirty.
In terms of key developments, there are many, but the overall one is just how amazing energy and industry has made our lives. Once you understand that, you can appreciate certain key developments. In energy production, there is the coal-powered steam engine and what that did to human life, and the oil-powered internal combustion engine and what that did to human life, and then the ability to turn energy into electricity, and what that did to human life. All of these made possible the agricultural revolution, the rise of the automobile, the rise of the computer—all revolutions that required massive amounts of cheap, plentiful, and reliable energy.
JL: What are the primary obstacles to industrial progress?
AE: There are two key obstacles to industrial progress: one is a lack of a positive and the other is a negative, in large part made possible by the lack of the positive.
The lack of a positive is the lack of a clearly fleshed-out pro-industrial philosophy that embraces the progressive transformation of nature through energy and technology. Such a philosophy, among other things, would define the proper political policies under which that transformation should take place—namely policies based on individual rights—and it would morally embrace industrialization.
Without the right industrial philosophy, people don’t value industrial progress sufficiently, and don’t know what policies will nourish that value.
Being clear on the positive is indispensable. For instance in oil, you can see throughout history that it is really important that property rights should be based on the principle that the creator of the value in the resource should own it. In a course I gave in 2008, the Triumph and Tragedy of the Oil Industry, I explained how the wrong philosophy of rights has undercut the oil industry from the beginning.
In electricity, you need the right view of competition, otherwise you end up with today’s government monopolized grid.
Unless we have a clear idea of what policy should be, positively, and why, the positive isn’t going to happen, and when the wrong view has a lot of advocates with very clear policy ideas, they’re going to take over. And that’s what happened to the anti-industrial movement, which at various stages has been called the conservation movement and the environmentalist movement. There’s a lot of good literature from Ayn Rand, ARI, and TOS about this movement so I won’t elaborate too much here, but basically making policy based on the idea that untouched nature is intrinsically valuable and that nature should be protected from man leads to the very common phenomenon, which I wrote about in the Industrial Manifesto: Every company who wants to do anything industrial—anything involving any transformation of nature—is met with an endless labyrinth of obstacles.
Again, a huge part of the solution is offering a positive alternative, including in policy, which is why a big focus of ours at CIP will be to roll out energy policy prescriptions.
JL: You recently debated Ryan Rittenhouse of Greenpeace. Where can people see the video of that? And how would you evaluate the debate?
AE: The debate is in post-production and going to be released soon, and I’d rather let people draw their own conclusions about it. I’ll only say that I think the debate shows a clear contrast between the two views. I think Ryan does a good job of representing the serious environmentalist view and I do my best to represent my own view. I hope it comes off very clearly that there is a real choice to be made in terms of what approach we should embrace so I encourage people to watch the debate. There’s a version on the Internet now of the debate but it’s not complete, and the version that’s about to come out is a lot better in quality.
JL: You also recently, as you put it, “Occupied the Occupy Wall Street” demonstrators with your colleague Dr. Eric Dennis, and spoke with some environmentalists there [see video here]. What was the takeaway from this event?
AE: I encourage people to watch it. There is a lot to say about Occupy Wall Street. I think, in general, the whole premise of defining a movement as being against the most successful people in society is incredibly corrupt. It’s not that everyone in “the 1%” is deserving—we don’t have a fully free market by a long shot, we have a mixed-economy and there are plenty of undeserving people in the 1%. But the way you deal with that is by going against the people in Washington making the country a mixed economy. Go after the people who gave bailouts, don’t go against the whole of Wall Street, when most of these people did not even receive bailouts.
It was revealing when Eric, a Wall Street executive himself, talked to a guy who said the 1% don’t produce anything. Eric brought up the most obvious example of why that is not true, which is Steve Jobs, the guy didn’t hesitate to say “to hell with Steve Jobs,” “Steve Jobs didn’t produce anything”—and this was probably the most intellectual guy we met that day. That really captures the essence of what it means to attack the 1% for being the 1%.
And in the realm of energy, the same way they attack the successful as such in the broader economy, they attack anything that’s prominent in this field. They attack fracking—an amazing technology—and they have no idea what fracking is, yet they hate fracking. They heard some story about why it’s bad, and that’s enough for them to advocate a ban.
The alternatives they give for the current sources of energy are usually non-existent; one girl talked about a perpetual battery that Duracell had a patent on. The common thing is they attack an actual value in favor of some non-existent utopia, and in reality their non-existent utopia would just be carnage. They have no idea how a solar panel even works, but they have no hesitation with saying we should destroy coal plants, natural gas, oil, nuclear, for whatever made up utopia they favor. They think “someone will figure it out, I mean someone figured it out so far” which shows their education. This goes back to the whole transformation of nature issue—they don’t regard that as an achievement that had certain preconditions, and that has certain requirements to maintain and improve. It’s a given that we have iPhones and plenty of food whenever we need it, the only issue is attacking “bad things” and getting rid of them, not realizing that the “bad things” they attack are the core foundation of what they’re taking for granted.
JL: Not everybody embraces environmentalism as religiously as those OWS protesters. How do you convince the less committed environmentalists to question their beliefs and check their premises?
AE: The mission of the Center for Industrial Progress is to promote industrial progress as a new ideal for our culture, and the reason I put it that way is because I want it to be a fundamentally positive thing, advocating the positive value of industrialization and certain positive policies that America needs to adopt, rather than just being against environmentalism. Obviously I’m against environmentalism, but I try to emphasize that this is because it stops the good things from happening. That’s how I position myself and the organization and that’s how I try to deal with it with people. I show them that the fuels environmentalists oppose are crucial, and yet they want to ban them. And if you look at the full context, it’s not because of economics, it’s not because of science, what is it? You have some basic discomfort with man transforming nature, well that’s an issue you really need to think about and I’ll argue you need to change your position on. So people will see their premises and why it matters and why it needs to be changed as they come up in practical issues.
JL: What are your future plans for CIP, and how can people support your efforts?
AE: As I mentioned, CIP has a very clear goal of getting Americans to embrace industrial progress as a cultural ideal, and we’re committed to finding and implementing the best way to do that through all of our works.
Our business model for doing this is a hybrid of customer-driven and donor-driven.
I’ll start with customer-driven. It’s very important for us to find ways monetize our activities whenever possible. For instance, there is a significant market for public speaking out there, and there’s no reason why really good speeches on industrial progress—properly positioned—can’t succeed in that market, and if we can’t succeed in that market that means we’re doing something wrong and we need to learn and get better.
In case it doesn’t go without saying, CIP will only accept money to promote its own ideas—to accept money to promote someone else’s agenda would defeat our whole reason for existing.
The second aspect of our business model is donor-driven. Our ultimate goal with the organization is to maximize impact. And there are many high-impact things we can do that don’t get a financial return but do get a cultural return.
For example, we are starting up a program to train people, especially young people and people with industry experience, to become effective advocates of industrial progress. I’ve been finding a lot of talent over the last few months, and I think there will be a huge payoff in training them and having them do original articles for our blog, “Industrial Progress Report.” But doing it right takes a lot of my time, and my partner Dr. Eric Dennis’s time, and the time of other teachers we’ll bring in, and that’s where donors are invaluable.
Another example of this is that I blog about energy and philosophy at MasterResource, the leading free-market energy blog. The head of MasterResource, Dr. Robert Bradley (CEO of the Institute for Energy Research) appointed me as one of the few Principal bloggers there, which is a great opportunity to impact the energy debate—if I can devote sufficient time to it. Again, donors are invaluable here.
In all our activities, customer-driven or donor-driven, the unifying thing is making a high impact, so we continually measure and optimize for results. That’s the bottom line and I think that mentality is going to make a lot of exciting things possible going forward.
For more information on contributing to CIP, financially or otherwise, go to www.industrialprogress.net and click on “Donate.” And if anyone has any specific questions about CIP, feel free to email me at [email protected].
JL: Thank you very much for your time, Alex.
AE: My pleasure.
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Image of New York City: Creative Commons by Javier Gil