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Fossil Fuels: Humanity’s Liberator (escaping the Malthusian curse via coal, oil, and gas)

[Ed. note: Part II tomorrow by Dr. Goklany will examine how fossil fuels saved nature, not only mankind, given population growth and the increasing demand for energy.]

What was instrumental in powering the grand transformation that began with Industrial Revolution? The answer is fossil fuels that upended a world that was dependent on living nature for virtually its entire well-being–and thus nature’s Malthusian vise.”

For most of history, outside of conflict, human existence was defined by climate, weather, disease, and other natural factors. Virtually everything that humanity depended upon was the recent product of living nature.

What economic historian Edward Wrigley calls “the organic economy” supplied humanity with all its food, fuel, clothing, and skins, and much of its medicine and material products. Living nature also supplied the sustenance for the animals—oxen, horses, donkeys, camels, even elephants—that humans drafted as beasts of burden to transport themselves and their goods, till the soil, and provide mechanical power.

Organic Fuel, Poverty Energy

Food for human beings and feed for animals were then, as now, the direct or indirect product of recent plant photosynthesis. Virtually all fuel was obtained via woody products. Houses were built from logs and other vegetation supplemented by clay, earth, and stones. The few worldly goods humans possessed were also mostly from recent photosynthetic products (e.g., wood, natural fiber, skin, or bone), barring the occasional trinket or luxury good made of some exotic metal or stone.

No wonder that the gods who controlled the weather and rain— Zeus, Jupiter, Indra, Thor—were the mightiest in the pantheons of ancient civilizations.

When climate and weather cooperated, harvests were adequate, hunger was reduced, health improved, more children survived to adulthood, life expectancy increased, and the population grew—until the next epidemic; the next climatic, weather or other natural disaster; or the next war or breakdown of civil order inevitably led to death and disease, disrupted agriculture, or both.

These Malthusian “misery or vice” checks meant that in pre-industrial societies, 30 percent or more of the population died before reaching age 15. Population growth was slight; if populations grew too large, or living standards outstripped subsistence levels for long, these checks brought them back to subsistence levels.

And so age-wise, there was little or no intergenerational progress in the average per­son’s well-being.

Dawn of Progress

The defeat of subsistence living began when mankind developed technologies that would augment or displace the goods received from living nature. Gradually the supply and nutritional quality of food was increased, and population growth rates started to rise, as did living standards and human well-being. The Industrial Revolution accelerated those trends.

With the accumulation of human capital, exchange of ideas, and hard work, mankind started to commandeer more land to meet its needs and develop technologies that, in some cases, amplified Nature’s bounty but, in other cases, bypassed her altogether. These led to higher food production, better health, longer lifespans, and larger populations with better living standards, which then reinforced human capital and the exchange of ideas, which begat yet more and better technologies. Thus was the cycle of progress born and set in motion.

Today, mankind has transcended the Malthusian checks. Population and well-being soared, and our unprecedented well-being continues to improve.

Fossil Fuels, Prosperity Energy

What was instrumental in powering the grand transformation that began with Industrial Revolution? The answer is fossil fuels that upended a world that was dependent on living nature for virtually its entire well-being–and thus nature’s Malthusian vise.

Specifically, fossil fuels have helped give us—and not just the rich amongst us—illumination, which expands our time; machines that preserve our level of energy; better health and longer life expectancies; faster and more voluminous trade in goods and ideas; more rapid communications within a wider network; and a much larger population.

Fossil fuels today are responsible for at least 60 percent of mankind’s food. They also provide 81 percent of mankind’s energy supply, while nature supplies only 10 percent.

Sixty percent of the fiber used globally for clothing and other textiles are synthetic, coming mainly from fossil fuels. Much (thirty percent) of the remaining—so-called natural fiber, relies heavily on fossil fuel–based fertilizers and pesticides.

With respect to materials, although global estimates are unavailable, nature provides only 5 percent of U.S. materials (by weight). But even this 5 percent, just like the remaining 95 percent, cannot be processed, transported and used without energy inputs.

Seen another way, humanity sans coal, oil, or natural gas would be unable to feed itself, and what food there was would be costlier. There would be more hunger. There would be insufficient energy and materials available to sustain the economy at more than a fraction of its current level. Public health would suffer, living standards would plummet, human well-being would be drastically diminished, and the population would crash.

In the absence of the technologies that depend directly or indirectly on fossil fuels, humanity would have had to expand cropland by another 150 percent to meet the current demand for food. Even more land would have had to be annexed to satisfy existing requirements for energy, materials, clothing, and other textiles using nature’s products.

Not only have these fossil fuel–dependent technologies ensured that humanity’s progress and well-being are no longer hostage to nature’s whims, but they saved nature herself from being devastated by the demands of a rapidly expanding and increasingly voracious human population.

Progress today depends on technological change; economic development; trade in goods, services and ideas; and human capital. But technology is the product of ideas, and fossil fuels have been vital for the generation of ideas.

 

Conclusion

Until the last quarter of a millennium, mankind depended on living nature for all its food and clothing, most of its energy, and much of its material and medicines. She dictated mankind’s numbers, well-being, and living standards.

Nature was never constant. She would smile on some, but not on others. Her smiles, always temporary, would inevitably be replaced by frowns. Her Malthusian checks—hunger, famine, disease, or conflict—ensured that there was little or no progress in the human condition. Many people did not even survive into their 20s, populations grew very slowly, and living standards were generally constrained to subsistence levels.

Although they did not initiate the cycle of progress and are imperfect, fossil fuels are critical for maintaining the current level of progress. Ancient na­ture’s bequest to humanity allowed mankind’s dependence on fickle nature to decline and thus become less vulnerable to weather, climate, disease, and other sources of natural disasters. The Malthusian bonds that held mankind and its well-being in check started to stretch, until they were burst asunder.

It may be possible to replace fossil fuels in the future. Nuclear energy is waiting in the wings. Renewable energies, as their high subsidies and mandates attest, are unable to sustain themselves today. Perhaps, with help from fossil fuels, new ideas will foster technologies that will enable a natural transition away from such fuels.

Progress today depends on technological change; economic development; trade in goods, services and ideas; and human capital. But technology is the product of ideas, and fossil fuels have been vital for the generation of ideas.

————-

This post is taken from Indur Goklany, Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity   (Cato Policy Analysis No. 715: December 19, 2012).

Other MasterResource posts in this genre include:

A Moral Defense of the Oil Industry (Epstein)

Progressive Energy vs. Renewable Energy (Epstein)

How Capitalism Makes Catastrophes Non-Catastrophic (Epstein)

Appreciating the Master Resource (Bradley)

Population, Consumption, Carbon Emissions, and Human Well-Being in the Age of Industrialization: Part IV (Goklany)

18 comments

1 Ed Reid { 01.24.13 at 11:37 am }

I continue to be both amazed and fascinated by the number of people who appear to be ready to abandon fossil fuel use in the absence of any reasonable alternative. I am also increasingly frustrated by the government focus on incentives for massive installations of technologies which have demonstrated their inability to replace fossil fuels at the expense of RDD&D on technologies which might have the potential to do so.

2 Kathy Hamilton { 01.24.13 at 2:23 pm }

Wonderful piece. Unfortunately, global implementation of “Sustainable Development” by UN “member states” that signed agreement to Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration and legally-binding “sister” Conventions in 1992 will reverse this former societal advancement within “developed nations” and put them back into that “Malthusian vice” – with the massive wealth transfers they are committed to providing for the “developing nations” doing nothing to alleviate the poverty of recipient populations.

3 Rob Ricket { 01.26.13 at 12:19 pm }

Interesting read. However, it seems unlikely that human population would have expanded to current levels in a non- hydrocarbon based economy. That is to say, the limitations in productive capacity would effectively check population growth. Accordingly, statistical comps assuming population congruence between a hydrocarbon and non-hydrocarbon based planet are rather meaningless.

A more effective tack would be an examination of the increased potential for scientific breakthroughs in an expanding population.

4 Indur M. Goklany { 01.26.13 at 8:03 pm }

True, the population would be lower — perhaps more like what it was in the 1850-1900 time frame. That is, it would be about a quarter (or less) of what it is today. That means 3 out of every 4 living today would not be alive — perhaps never even lived. In other words, your chances of being alive today would be lower than 1 in 4 (assuming equal probability for all) and, if you were, there’s a good chance that your closest 3 friends wouldn’t be.

Regarding “scientific breakthroughs”, there is quite a bit about innovation and technological change in the paper.

5 Desperately trying to derail Canadian oil sands - Capitol Hill Outsider { 01.27.13 at 3:46 pm }

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6 Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup | Watts Up With That? { 01.28.13 at 6:03 am }
7 Radical Enviromentalists Step Up attack on Keystone Pipeline, Jobs, Oil at US Action News { 01.28.13 at 7:54 am }

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8 Radical activists are desperately trying to derail Canadian oil sands | NetRight Daily { 01.28.13 at 9:58 am }

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9 Desperately trying to derail Canadian oil sands : WesternFront America { 01.28.13 at 11:27 am }

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10 juninho { 01.28.13 at 4:13 pm }

The discovery of Fossil fuels helped Save the Whales. Whale oil was used to fuel lamps before the discovery of kerosne. There’s no doubt whales would have been hunted to extinction otherwise…

Also, don’t underestimate Fossil fuels role in the abolishment of slavery. Here is a wonderful article explaining it:
http://oilsandstruth.org/slavery-and-fossil-fuels

11 Indur M. Goklany { 01.28.13 at 8:35 pm }

juninho
While one can make a plausible case that fossil fuels (FF) and FF-powered technologies should have reduced the opportunity cost of foregoing human labor to perform a wide variety of tasks, which would then undermine economic justifications for the continuation of slavery, the corvée, and indentured service, the link you provided, unfortunately, doesn’t do that. In fact, it argues that, just as the profit motive was behind the opposition to abolition (of slavery), so is it behind opposition to global warming controls. [I use the term "argues" very liberally. It's really an assertion.]

In the longer paper, I do make the argument that FF and FF-technologies reduced the relative cost of forgoing child labor, and getting women (and some men) out of a life of drudgery doing such wonderful household tasks of doing the laundry, fetching water, etc., and finishing just in time to go to bed as dusk turned to night (sarc on).

12 juninho { 01.28.13 at 10:43 pm }

Whoops, my bad, I meant to link to this webpage which contains an excerpt from Matt Ridley’s book “The Rational Optimist” which is profiled on this very webpage…

http://www.globalwarming.org/2011/11/17/matt-ridley-how-fossil-fuels-helped-end-slavery/

Forget the previous link…

13 Desperately trying to derail Canadian oil sands | EPA Abuse { 01.29.13 at 4:34 pm }

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14 Desperately trying to derail Canadian oil sands { 01.29.13 at 5:23 pm }

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