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Energy & Modernity: Three Industrial Revolutions (Heartland Institute treatise excerpt)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- December 19, 2018

This post reprints Section 3.2.1 of Climate Change Reconsidered II: Fossil Fuels (Summary for Policymakers here.) This is the fifth volume in the Climate Change Reconsidered series published by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC).

This treatise from The Heartland Institute continues a tradition of offering citizens and scholars an alternative view of all issues relating to climate science and climate policy. This brief excerpt (subtitles added) will be joined in the New Year with many other excerpts on specific issues to better disseminate the major findings of this major treatise.


Fossil fuels make possible such transformative technologies as nitrogen fertilizer, concrete, the steam engine and cotton gin, electrification, the internal combustion engine, and the computer and Internet revolution.

Prior to the widespread use of fossil fuels, humans expended nearly as much energy (calories) producing food and finding fuel (primarily wood and dung) to warm their dwellings as their primitive technologies were able to produce. Back-breaking work to provide bare necessities was required from sun-up to sun-down, by children as well as adults, leaving little time for any other activity.

The result was a vicious cycle in which the demands of the immediate present prevented investing the time and capital needed to think about and discover ways to improve productivity and therefore the future (Simon, 1981; Bradley and Fulmer, 2004; Epstein, 2014).

According to Indur Goklany (2012):

“For most of its existence, mankind’s well-being was dictated by disease, the elements and other natural factors, and the occasional con­flict. Virtually everything required – food, fuel, clothing, medicine, transport, mechanical pow­er – was the direct or indirect product of living nature” (p. 2).

Generations of farmers and craftsmen used the same tools and worked the same land as their ancestors. Progress, whether measured by lifespan, population, or per-capita income, was almost nonexistent. The main sources of non-labor power in that era were windmills, waterwheels, and grass-fed horses, none of which could be easily scaled up. Prosperity came slowly to humanity.

According to Angus Maddison (2006):

  • “Over the past millennium, world population rose 22–fold. Per capita income increased 13–fold, world GDP nearly 300–fold. This contrasts sharply with the preceding millennium, when world population grew by only a sixth, and there was no advance in per capita income.
  • “From the year 1000 to 1820 the advance in per capita income was a slow crawl – the world average rose about 50 per cent. Most of the growth went to accommodate a fourfold increase in population.
  • “Since 1820, world development has been much more dynamic. Per capita income rose more than eightfold, population more than fivefold.
  • “Per capita income growth is not the only indicator of welfare. Over the long run, there has been a dramatic increase in life expectation. In the year 1000, the average infant could expect to live about 24 years. A third would die in the first year of life, hunger and epidemic disease would ravage the survivors.
  • “There was an almost imperceptible rise [in life expectancy] up to 1820, mainly in Western Europe. Most of the improvement has occurred since then. Now the average infant can expect to survive 66 years” (p. 19).

Three Industrial Revolutions

The increasing use of fossil fuels was responsible for the astonishing change in human well-being starting around 1800. Richard Gordon (2012, 2016) analyzed economic growth in the United States over the past several hundred years and identified fossil fuels as the power source that drove not one but three Industrial Revolutions.

The first (1750 to 1830) resulted from the invention of the steam engine and cotton gin and proceeded through the development of the early railroads and steamships, although much of the impact of railroads on the American economy came later, between 1850 and 1900.

The Second Industrial Revolution (1870 to 1900) was the most important, with the invention of electricity generation, lights, motors, and the internal combustion engine, and widespread access to running water with indoor plumbing. Both of the first two revolutions required about 100 years for their full effects to percolate through the economy.

During the two decades 1950–70 the benefits of the Second Industrial Revolution were still transforming the economy, including air conditioning, home appliances, and the interstate highway system. After 1970, productivity growth from this second revolution slowed markedly as the new inventions had reached every corner of the country.

The Third Industrial Revolution (1970 to present) is marked by the computer and Internet revolution. Its beginnings can be traced back to around 1960, but it really took off and reached a climax during the dot-com era of the late 1990s. It continues to revolutionize science, medicine, manufacturing, and transportation….

In 2016, 81% of global energy consumption is supplied by fossil fuels (IEA, 2018.). Approximately 63% of electricity worldwide was produced by the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, or natural gas), while nuclear accounted for 20% and all renewable energies (solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydroelectric) combined accounted for the remaining 17% (EIA, n.d.). Wind energy generated 6.3% of electricity and solar generated 1.3%.

Key to the ongoing technological developments of the three Industrial Revolutions was the fact that initial technologies accelerated the generation of ideas that facilitated even better technologies through, among other things, greater accumulation of human capital (via greater populations, time-expanding illumination, and time-saving ma­chinery) and more rapid exchange of ideas and knowl­edge (via greater and faster trade and communi­cations) (Smil, 1994, 2005; Bradley, 2000). The benefits continue to accumulate today as cleaner-burning fossil fuels bring electricity to developing countries and replace wood and dung as sources of indoor heating (Yadama, 2013).

Magnificent Byproducts

Without cheap and reliable energy, there would be less food (and what food we had would be less fresh, less nutritious, and less safe), no indoor plumbing, no air conditioning, no labor-saving home appliances such as washing machines and clothes driers, no agricultural machinery, few hospitals, and no speedy ambulances to take us to a hospital when we need urgent medical care. Sterilizing medical devices would be extremely difficult without electricity. Natural gas is also the fuel stock of plastics; without it, the hospital we might succeed in finding would have no syringes, no tubes, and no bags for plasma.

Indur Goklany (2012) summarized the benefits as follows:

Americans currently have more creature comforts, they work fewer hours in their lifetimes, their work is physically less de­manding, they devote more time to acquiring a better education, they have more options to select a livelihood and live a more fulfilling life, they have greater economic and social freedom, and they have more leisure time and greater ability to enjoy it.

Goklany’s research shows these trends are also evident in other industrialized nations (Goklany, 2007).

Fossil fuels made possible the growth of America’s largest cities. H. L. Platt (1991) observed,

Although generally ignored by scholars, energy fuels constitute a natural resource that has had a major impact on regional economies, including the growth of their urban centers. With the shift from wood to coal, the Midwest’s virtually unlimited supply of that fuel became crucial to maintaining transportation rates on a par with or lower than those in cities farther east. Vast fields of bituminous (soft) coal throughout Illinois would allow Chicago’s commerce and manufacturing to develop in step with those of its counterparts in the East. In contrast, regions of relative coal scarcity such as the Southwest would lag behind in manufacturing while high transportation rates added an extra tax on their commerce (p. 7).

Platt emphasizes the role played by coal in attracting industry to the Chicago area:

The importance of this natural resource to the growth of the industrial cities of the Midwest cannot be overstressed. A “glut” of cheap coal would act as a magnet attracting a wide array of energy-intensive industries to locate and flourish in Chicago, the transportation hub of the region. … And it was these very energy-intensive industries that represented the vanguard of the industrial revolution. The rise of big business and the jobs it created were in large part responsible for the city’s phenomenal growth in the late nineteenth century (Ibid., pp. 7, 9).

Calling Chicago “the city that coal built,” Platt wrote: “Whereas the region’s grain, hogs, and timber fed the growth of the first city, its abundance of cheap coal fueled the second wave of industrial development.” Coal-gas-powered gas lamps, inaugurated in 1850, were 12 to 14 times more powerful than the standard candle or oil lamp. Gas streetlamps made nightlife possible, improved safety for travelers and protection against muggers, and lowered the odds of accidental fires. Safe indoor lighting came within reach of the non-rich for the first time in history. The same story can be told of all the world’s cities.

Mobility Too

Fossil fuels also made possible a vast expansion of human mobility (Rae, 1965; Lomasky, 1997; O’Toole, 2001; Cox, 2006). O’Toole (2009) described eight “transportation revolutions,” only one of which could have occurred without fossil fuels. They were, in chronological order, steamboats, canals, roads across mountains, railroads, horse-powered streetcars, automobiles, superhighways, and jetliners (Ibid., pp. 8–20).

Fossil fuels were essential to creating the steel and powering the factories used to create streetcars, so even horse-powered streetcars would have been rare without fossil fuels. Increased mobility produced major economic benefits as employers were able to draw workers from a larger area and workers were able to choose among a larger number of potential employers without having to relocate their families.

O’Toole cites research in France that found for every 10% increase in travel speeds, the pool of workers available to employers increased by 15%. He noted, “This gives employers access to more highly skilled workers, which in turn increases worker productivity by 3%.” Research in California, he says, found “doubling the distance workers can commute to work increases productivity by 25%,” citing Prud’homme and Lee (1999) and Cervero (2001) (Ibid., p. 5).

Paul Collier (2007) explained how global economic development today depends on the continued availability of fossil fuel-powered transportation. Some of the poorest countries in the world are landlocked and face high transportation costs, preventing them from being able to participate in the global economy. He mentions Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Malawi, and Uganda. For these countries, “air freight offers a potential lifeline into European markets. The key export products are likely to be high-value horticulture…” (p. 180).

He further observes that coastal resource-poor countries are unable to access international markets because they lack ports and airports to compete with China and other first-movers. “Breaking out of limbo,” he says, requires “big-push aid” for “raising export infrastructure up to globally competitive levels” (p. 182). More than aid, they need affordable and reliable fossil fuels to build and utilize this infrastructure.


Lead chapter authors were Roger Bezdek, Ph.D., Craig Idso, Ph.D, with contributions from Joseph L. Bast and Howard Hayden, Ph.D. Chapter reviewers were David Archibald, Timothy Ball, Ph.D., Barry Brill, OPE, JP, H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., Ian D. Clark, Ph.D., Weihong Cui, Donn Dears, David Deming, Ph.D., Terry W. Donze, Paul Driessen, J.D., John Droz, Jr., Vivian Richard Forbes, Lee C. Gerhard, Ph.D., Steve Goreham, Pierre Gosselin, Kesten Green, Ph.D., Mary Hutzler, Hans Konrad Johnsen, Ph.D., Joseph Leimkuhler, Bryan Leyland, Alan Moran, Ph.D., Robert Murphy, Ph.D., Tom V. Segalstad, Ph.D., Peter Stilbs, Ph.D., Richard J. Trzupek, Fritz Vahrenholt, Ph.D., Gösta Walin, Ph.D.


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Bradley Jr., R.L. 2000. Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability. Washington, DC: American Legislative Exchange Council.

Bradley Jr., R.L. and Fulmer, R.W. 2004. Energy: The Master Resource. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing.

Cervero, R. 2001. Efficient urbanization: economic performance and the shape of the metropolis. Urban Studies 38 (1): 1651–71.

Collier, P. 2007. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Cox, W. 2006. War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.

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  1. Joseph Bast  

    Thanks for posting this, Rob! Your work is frequently quoted in this new volume, and you were the original inspiration for much of it. Had Julian Simon not passed away so young, I truly believe the debate over climate change and energy policy would be very different than it is today.


  2. Nick O'Dell  

    But the anti-fossil fuel doomsays will counter that that is the past. WE are the future, and by 2050 all fossil fuel use will be consigned to the dustbin of history. Which brings us to the choice of renewable energy to meet our CURRENT needs. Cover Arizona with solar panels, or Illinois with wind turbines. Make your choice.


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