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Category — Goklany, Indur

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. [Read more →]

January 25, 2013   9 Comments

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. [Read more →]

January 24, 2013   18 Comments