“[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.
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.