Fossil fuels liberated humanity

Indur Goklany:
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.


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.


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.
The world that environmentalist would return us to is one you would not want to live in and probably most of us would not survive.  Perhaps that is their intention, but there is no reason we should bend to their will.  The so called green economy cannot sustain us or transport us.  We need to come to grips with that and learn to adapt to what fuels and sustains us.


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