Acton Commentary

Energy Abundance--Bane or Boon to Human Health?


Recently, on a Chicago public television talk show, a young woman confronted me for my opinion that energy should be cheap and plentiful.

She insisted that air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels was killing more and more Americans each year. To remedy this, higher taxes she recommended that higher taxes be levied on these forms of energy to restrict its use. Her rebuttal to me, “What does extra cost mean when lives are at stake?”

Of course, she was referring to studies “showing” the thousands of “premature” deaths caused by the fine particulate and other pollutants produced by the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting need to produce cleaner electricity, regardless of cost. There have been many of these studies and they always leave one question unanswered:

Premature to what?

When my parents were born, back when horses were the primary transportation devices and candles provided light, living into your early 50’s was considered a gift from God. By the time I was born, you had a better than even shot at getting into your 60’s — I remember wondering, as a kid, if I would see this century. Now we have pushed life expectancies to nearly 80 and are speculating about how long the human body is designed to last, perhaps 120 to 150 years.

Cheap, abundant energy has had a lot to do with our increased life expectancy, just as it did with my survival of a heart attack 18 years ago.

High-octane gasoline got me from my remote home to a hospital within what cardiologists call the “Golden Hour,” a key to surviving such events. The staff of the hospital — hospitals are real energy guzzlers — used yards of plastic tubing, wire, oxygen and costly electronics to save my life. All required great amounts of energy for their production and use. This was also true of the heart-lung machine that took over the job of pumping oxygenated blood during the bypass surgery.

Today, I eat a healthy diet of fresh fruits and vegetables year ‘round. Such luxuries were available only in the summer and fall, when I was a kid. There simply wasn’t the cheap, abundant energy needed to grow, process, refrigerate, freeze and transport fresh food year-round. Soon we will undoubtedly be using energy to irradiate our food to wipe out deadly diseases such as botulism and salmonella. These technological developments strike me as great advances in preserving the dignity of human life. As such they should be applauded, not protested.

Odds are that I will live another 20-odd years in our energy-abundant society. If the young woman whom I met on television lived in the restricted-energy society of the past, which her policy proposals would insure, she, too, might expect to live a bit over 20 years more. The difference: I’ll be in my eighties; she will be in her forties.

Those who think cheap, abundant energy is unhealthy should give the matter another thought…the next time they roll out of bed, well rested because they didn’t have get up in the middle of the night to throw a couple logs on the fire…the next time they get out of a piping hot shower and hit the hair dryer…the next time they polish off that breakfast of fresh juice, fruit, cereal and milk — or maybe it’s just a hot latte as they drive to an air-conditioned workplace…give cheap, abundant energy and its contribution to preserving health and human life another thought.

God forbid that anyone should have to think about it as a pain grows in his or her chest.

Opponents of cheap, abundant energy should reconsider their position as they plan that next vacation to see family and friends…think about jet engines…aluminum airplanes…miles of concrete runways…the trip which will take mere hours instead of perilous days, weeks or even months. Entrepreneurial genius applied to energy sources has been a leading cause of human flourishing, rising standards of health, and poverty alleviating economic development. No small matter, to say the least.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, air and water quality has steadily improved since the early 1970’s. Cleaner energy, properly understood, is an attainable and desirable goal, but I suspect the “clean energy” protestations of environmentalists have more to do with ideology than policy. Dismissive of sound science and respect for dignity of human life, environmental ideology threatens a cost much higher than any posed by the production of cheap and abundant energy.