A prominent pro-fossil fuel author, who has argued for the “moral case” for fossil fuels, has a track record of disparaging writings about what he views as “inferior” cultures.
Alex Epstein, a self-styled “philosopher” and director of the for-profit Center for Industrial Progress, has long championed the use of fossil fuels as morally virtuous, and the shift to renewable energy as “immoral” because it would punish the “incredibly life-giving oil and gas industry.”
He is influential within the oil and gas industry, and among Republican politicians, who have picked up on his talking points, and promoted his work. He has testified before Congress on invitation from Republican lawmakers, who praise and parrot his arguments in favor of more fossil fuels.
But in recently unearthed writings from his time in college, published by the watchdog group Documented, Epstein made disparaging statements about non-western cultures and Martin Luther King, Jr., and argued that an increase in “Black crime” can be connected to King’s campaign for economic justice.
In an article from February 2000 in the Duke Review, a student newspaper at Duke University, Epstein argued that Martin Luther King, Jr. did not deserve a federal holiday over other historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Christopher Columbus. Epstein stated:
“Black crime has increased steadily since King’s time, and seven out of ten black children born today have parents that are not married. Could it be that there is a reason behind all these problems, a reason having to do with ideas? Since a culture is just the dominant ideas accepted by a certain group of people, a culture yielding bad results is based on bad ideas. I submit that because of the bad ideas he promoted, Dr. King is responsible for a great part of the destruction that has occurred in America today, especially among black Americans, the group he supposedly saved.”
In another piece, he rejected the economic legacy of slavery and also dismissed the existence of institutional racism today. “While blacks in the pre-Civil War period were shackled by slavery, blacks today are not. Nor are they forcibly held back by legal segregation or Jim Crow laws. They are free to work hard, earn money, and succeed, as many do.”
Scholars have debunked the notion that the racial wealth gap is connected to individual hard work, and by extension, as implied by Epstein, some deficiency within the Black community.
The Washington Post reported on some of these writings by Epstein, and in anticipation of the publication, Epstein called on his Twitter followers to join him in demanding the Post fire the reporter, Maxine Joselow.
When DeSmog asked if he stood by his old writings, Epstein said he was “sad to learn that you are planning to assist Documented in their attempted smear/cancel campaign against me by publishing another ad hominem hit-piece on me.”
He pointed to the video that he made in anticipation of the Washington Post article, an attempt to pre-emptively refute the coverage.
In the video defending his past comments, Epstein largely stood by his views, arguing that they are not racist, that they are merely ideas that can be debated. He said the Post, by publishing his old writings, was attempting to smear him and “ruin my life.”
To the specific content, Epstein largely agreed with his old statements, although he sought to explain some of the arguments that he made when he was younger. He still believes that Martin Luther King’s support of economic redistribution and his affiliation with the Communist movement was “destructive.” But he said that assertion was “not remotely racist,” arguing that “these are bad things that he was involved in that had very detrimental effects on black individuals. That was my view.”
But he added that his views have evolved on King. In his earlier writing, “what I was not sufficiently acknowledging was just how amazing King was culturally in just making racism disreputable and how helpful that was economically and in other ways,” he said.
In a more recent exchange on reddit in 2016, when asked about his views on the Black Lives Matter movement, Epstein said: “That’s a big topic, so I’ll just say this: if you’re concerned about the deaths and mistreatment of innocent blacks you need to look carefully at what the major causes are. That includes injustices by white policemen against blacks and also the scourge of black on black crime. I don’t hear the latter mentioned very often. It should be. In general political correctness prevents us from having honest debates.”
In his college writings, Epstein also made some staggering claims about the superiority of western culture. “Locke, Aristotle, and Newton have had no equivalents in Africa or Asia, and the advancements in those areas have been almost exclusively due to Western influence,” he wrote in a 1999 piece for the Duke Review. “To see the results, just compare New York to Chad. No benefit can be gained by focusing an education on anti-reason cultures, their only academic merit lies in contrasting them to Western civilization as models of inferiority.”
In his updated video in response to the Post, he said: “I do think Western culture is overall superior and certainly in terms of government historically, because it’s really the birth of modern freedom. But I do think there’s something valid in almost any culture.” He repeatedly argued that his statements on the superiority of western culture should not be equated with race or racism, saying that “culture is about ideas.”
As the Post notes about Epstein’s “moral case” for fossil fuels: “The question of how much fossil fuels developing nations can use has emerged as a flash point in global climate negotiations … The defense of fossil fuels Epstein has helped inject into this debate has previously been dismissed by critics as ethnocentric and paternalistic.”
Meanwhile, it is important to note that the industry-backed campaign to promote fossil fuels as the answer to energy poverty around the world is an intentional PR strategy. Coal giant Peabody launched its “Advanced Energy for Life” campaign nearly a decade ago, which cites statistics on the billions of people around the world without access to adequate energy. The goal, however, was to defeat federal regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S., and deflect the conversation away from the perils of climate change.
In addition, there is a history of white supremacy among people in the oil and gas industry. And the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has documented the strategies and tactics used by the industry to manipulate and deceive communities of color.
Epstein’s mantra for the “moral case” for fossil fuels echoes that of major oil, gas, and coal companies. The “moral case” framing has also been employed by petrochemical billionaire Charles Koch to promote capitalism, before Epstein used the same phrasing in his 2014 book about fossil fuels.
Epstein also gets paid by fossil fuel interests, although he won’t reveal specifically which companies he works with. In a May 2021 public appearance with Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) following a Congressional hearing, he said: “I love the Koch brothers. I would be proud to get money from them. I don’t happen to have a financial relationship with them. Certainly not right now.”
According to the website of the Center for Industrial Progress, Epstein has delivered speeches to “employees and leaders at dozens of Fortune 500 energy companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Phillips 66, Valero, Enbridge, and TransCanada.”
He has partnered with Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization, to give free copies of his upcoming book on fossil fuels to educators and students. He also revealed on Twitter that big donors have planned to buy his book in bulk.
When asked about his financial connections to the fossil fuel industry by DeSmog, Epstein wrote in reply: “I proudly work with and accept contributions from fossil fuel companies/executives and other companies/executives that support energy freedom policies. By contract, no company or person has any editorial influence over me and/or my projects.”