A free-market energy blog
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Nature, Not Only Mankind, Saved by Fossil Fuels

“[F]ossil-fuel-dependent technologies that stretched living nature’s natural productivity and dis­placed some of its products not only per­mitted humanity to escape the Malthusian vise, but saved nature itself from being over­whelmed by humanity’s demands.”

The collective demand for land to meet humanity’s demands for food, fuel, and oth­er products of living nature is—and always has been—the single most important threat to ecosystems and biodiversity. Yet fossil-fuel-dependent technologies have kept that de­mand for land in check.

This positive aspect of the impact of fossil fuels on the environ­ment has been ignored in most popular narratives, which instead emphasize fossil fuels’ potential detrimental effects, including air, water, and solid-waste pollution, as well as any climate change associated with the use and production of these fuels. Because of this oversight, and thus lacking balance, these studies generally conclude that fossil fuels have been an environmental disaster.

Agricultural Advances: Less Land, More Habitat

To obtain a notion of the magnitude of the environmental benefits of fossil fuels, consider just the effect of fertilizers and pes­ticides on the amount of habitat saved from conversion to cropland because fossil fuels were used to meet current food demands. The Haber-Bosch process, by itself, is re­sponsible for feeding 48 percent of global population and pesticides have reduced losses from pests for a range of food-relat­ed crops by 26–40 percent.

Together, these two sets of technologies might therefore be responsible for feeding approximately 60 percent of the world’s population, assuming that pesticides that are not manufactured with significant fossil fuel inputs would be half as effective as those that require fossil fuels. Therefore, had fossil fuels not been used, the world would have needed to in­crease the global amount of cropland by an additional 150 percent.

This means that to maintain the current level of food production, at least another 2.3 billion hectares of habitat would have had to be converted to cropland. This is equivalent to the total land area of the United States, Canada, and India combined. Considering the threats posed to ecosystems and biodi­versity from the existing conversion of 1.5 billion hectares of habitat to cropland, the effect of increasing that to 3.8 billion hect­ares is inestimable.

The above calculation underestimates the additional habitat that would have to be converted to cropland because it assumes that the additional 2 billion hectares of crop­land would be as productive as the current 1.5 billion hectares—an unlikely proposition since the most productive areas are probably already under cultivation.

Moreover, even if the same level of produc­tion could have been maintained, eschewing the use of today’s first-best technologies to produce fertilizers or pesticides would nec­essarily have meant higher food prices. That would have added to the 925 million people that the Food and Agriculture Organiza­tion (FAO) estimates are already chronically hungry worldwide. Thus, fossil fuels have averted a disaster for both humanity and the rest of nature.

Eco-Benefits I: Less Animal Power

The movement away from wood, human and animal power, and other renewable en­ergy sources to fossil fuels has also resulted in substantial environmental benefits.

An estimated 27 percent of the land harvested in the United States for crops in 1910, for ex­ample, was devoted to feeding the 27.5 mil­lion horses and mules used on and off the farm. Had the horse and mule population in the United States expanded in proportion to the human population and crop yields stayed constant, an additional 319 million additional acres would have been needed in 1988 just to feed the additional livestock. This would have exceeded the amount of cropland that was harvested in 1988 (about 297 million acres).

In fact, phasing out animal power has been among the major reasons why the extent of cropland planted in the United States has not expanded since 1910, despite government subsidies to over-cultivate crops. Clearly, fossil fuel–based substitutes for animal power have substan­tially reduced pressures on habitat and eco­­systems in the United States over what they would otherwise have been. This should also be true for much of the rest of the rest of the world today.

Eco-Benefits II: Less Renewables

The above estimates understate the re­duction in habitat conversion that is the result of fossil fuel’s virtual phase-out of animal power in much of the world because the assumption that it would grow in proportion to the human population ignores the fact that energy use has, in fact, grown much more rapidly.

Thus, they do not include estimates of the additional land that would have to be commandeered if fossil fuels were to be replaced by renewable sources of energy and materials using current technologies had energy use stayed constant.

Historian Edward Anthony Wrigley es­timates that replacing coal in England and Wales in 1850 with wood would have re­quired harvesting 150 percent of all their land. Because fossil fuel energy use is much higher today, the situation would be even worse now, if that is conceivable.

Because habitat is critical for maintain­ing and conserving species and ecosystems, these environmental benefits of fossil fuel– dependent technologies most likely have outweighed their environmental costs re­sulting from their emissions of air, water, and solid waste.

Wealth and Environmental Reversal

In addition, the environmental damages from converting habitat to cropland is like­ly to be more lasting and less easily reversed than the damages from air, water, and solid-waste pollution. As the experience of the in­dustrialized world indicates, these damages from fossil fuel combustion can be reversed at relatively reasonable cost. Moreover, if the environmental transition hypothesis is valid, because of the wealth generated from the economic surpluses from the use of fossil fuels, the probability of such reversals is in­creased.

This hypothesis postulates that initially societies opt for economic and technological development over environmental quality be­cause it enables them to escape from poverty and improve their quality of life by making both needs and wants (e.g., food, education, health, homes, comfort, leisure, and material goods) more affordable.

But once basic needs are met, over time members of society per­ceive that environmental deterioration com­promises their quality of life and they start to address their environmental problems. Being wealthier and having access to greater human capital, they are now better able to afford and employ cleaner technologies.

Consequently, environmental deterioration can be halted and then reversed. Under this hypothesis, technological change and economic develop­ment may initially be the causes of negative environmental effects, but eventually they work together to effect an “environmental transition,” after which technological change and economic development become the solu­tions to reducing these effects.

Anthropogenic Climate Change

Finally, note that despite claims that car­bon-induced climate change would be det­rimental to human well-being, there is no empirical evidence that higher carbon emis­sions have reduced global well-being or liv­ing standards in aggregate. In fact, hu­man well-being and living standards have gone up remarkably even as these emissions have increased by orders of magnitude.

Claims that global warming may already be responsible for killing over 150,000 people per year are based on a study whose very au­thors acknowledge that their methodology did not “accord with the canons of empiri­cal science [because] it would not provide the timely information needed to inform current policy decisions on [greenhouse gas] emission abatement, so as to offset possible health consequences in the future.” That is, the authors sacrificed scientific quality to a policy agenda.

Empirical data also falsify other claims regarding the alleged grisly consequences of global warming, that is, that deaths and economic damages from extreme weather events will escalate, malaria will expand, or crop yields will decline and increase hunger. Specifically, empirical data show:

· Global death rates from extreme weather events declined by 98 percent since the 1920s, while economic dam­ages corrected for population growth and wealth have not increased;

· Malaria death rates were reduced by 26 percent from 2000 to 2010; and

· Global crop yields increased by 160 percent since 1961.

Conclusion

Notwithstanding their flaws, fossil-fuel-dependent technologies that stretched living nature’s natural productivity and dis­placed some of its products not only per­mitted humanity to escape the Malthusian vise, but saved nature itself from being over­whelmed by humanity’s demands.

—————

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), pp. 17–19. Documentation is contained therein.

9 comments

1 Marie-Jane { 01.25.13 at 8:33 am }

A daily dose of common sense: Master Resource.

2 rbradley { 01.25.13 at 9:29 am }

Thanks Marie-Jane.

The author of this piece is one of the very top scholars in the Julian Simon tradition. Readers should have his book, The Improving State of the World.

Goklany also won the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award in 2007.

3 rbradley { 01.25.13 at 9:51 am }

Just ran into this quotation that goes with this post made by Matt Ridley in his 2012 Julian Simon Award lecture:

“And by the way, have you noticed something about fossil fuels – we are the only creatures that use them. What this means is that when you use oil, coal or gas, you are not competing with other species. When you use timber, or crops or tide, or hydro or even wind, you are. There is absolutely no doubt that the world’s policy of encouraging the use of bio-energy, whether in the form of timber or ethanol, is bad for wildlife – it competes with wildlife for land, or wood or food.”

4 Eddie Devere { 01.25.13 at 10:41 am }

Indur,
Good points about how fossil fuels have been the environmentally-friendly source of energy for the last few centuries (compared with biomass-based fuel sources.)

Though, I’d like to point out an error in the quote by Matt Ridley that Robert Bradley posted. (I’m a big fan of The Rational Optimist, so this is only to point out an error that I’ve seen repeated a few times on this website by other authors.)
Humans are not the only species to derive useful work from fossil fuels.
As we saw from the Gulf oil spill, there are a number of bacteria and fungi that use petroleum as a fuel source. For example, there are colonies of species that live on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and feed off of natural gas that seeps from the seafloor.
http://www.nurp.noaa.gov/Spotlight/deepsea.htm
Likewise, there are a number of bacteria that use coal deposits as a fuel. Larger animals that eat these bacteria/fungi are therefore also dependent on fossil fuels.

There are a lot of good reasons to use fossil fuels, so I don’t think that we need to make up false narratives to make fossil fuels look better than they already are. There are plenty of energy sources in the world, so it doesn’t matter if we were to compete with other species. The question should always be: what is the rate of return on investment in using a certain energy source after accounting for externalities?

5 Kathy Hamilton { 01.25.13 at 10:43 am }

re “the authors sacrificed scientific quality to a policy agenda” under the sub-heading Anthropogenic Climate Change:

This trait distinguishes all such political Agendas and lends credence to their public labelling as Crusades. Their common marketing strategy fools some of the people some of the time, but never all of the people all of the times it is re-cycled and re-used for the same reasons.

I noticed a couple of related comments, posted back to recent articles on the Junk Science.com site, that other readers here might find enlightening – assuming this blog’s editors won’t mind some traffic re-routing:

http://junkscience.com/2013/01/18/public-health-at-harvard/

http://junkscience.com/2013/01/21/the-danger-of-making-science-political/comment-page-1/#comment-90554

6 Why Does The Left Hate Fossil Fuel? | Power To The People { 01.25.13 at 6:20 pm }

[...] The use of Fossil Fuels have provided a standard of living for billions of people once enjoyed only by Kings. DiCaprio jets around the world to save the world from Fossil Fuel. Daryl Hannah puts her body in front of a Keystone Pipeline pipe to protest its development than gets on a jet for another protest against fossil fuel or maybe goes back to her multi million dollar home in Los Angeles. Barbara Streisand gives millions to anti fossil fuel activists while living a life of luxury in her multi million dollar mansion in Malibu. Their grandiose life style is all due to the money their fans spend to see them perform. So why are they using their celebrity status and money to deny their adoring fans a decent lifestyle made possible by fossil fuel? Why the betrayal? Why the hypocrisy? Their success allows them to live a life of luxury that would not be possible without the power Fossil Fuel provides. If they are successful in their war against Fossil Fuel, their wealth will make them immune from the hard ships their fans will be forced to endure due to the “sky rocketing” costs of fossil fuel. [...]

7 Nature, Not Only Mankind, Saved by Fossil Fuels | EPA Abuse { 01.26.13 at 4:43 pm }

[...] Read more at MasterResource.org. By Indur Goklany. [...]

8 Mike Mellor { 01.31.13 at 8:09 am }

Dr Patrick Moore, formerly of Greenpeace, opines that plastic is one of the most beneficial materials ever discovered. Its manufacture has lower environmental impact than steel and the low cost means a higher standard of living as we are now able to afford more and better appliances. Cars could be made more cheaply with plastic body panels and they would be easier to repair, except that consumer preference demands steel.

Fossil fuel emissions remain a problem. As the world population expands and electricity reaches more people, coal emissions will increase exponentially. If the money being wasted on wind power was spent instead as subsidies to coal-power operators to clean up their emissions, there wouldn’t be a problem anymore.

9 Jerry Summers { 07.29.13 at 2:08 pm }

Despite many of your contributors and readers being scientists, I am assuming there may be a few of them that believe as I do, that the earth and all in it were created and not the result of random accident. If so, you may also observe that fossil and fossil fuels are not being formed today except under catastrophic conditions in which animals and plant life are captured quickly (before abundant scavengers can consume them) under heat and pressure. In the cataclysm of Noah, all fossil fuels (and other energy sources yet undiscovered) were provided by God in bountiful quantity for man’s full time on the earth. We actually are burning our God-rejecting ancestors and ancient forests (now fossil fuels) in our cars and homes.

Leave a Comment