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So What Exactly Have Fossil Fuels Done For Us?

So What Exactly Have Fossil Fuels Done For Us? thumbnail

It has become popular to demonize fossil fuels. Pop stars, press, politicians and now pontiffs speak with a single voice:

We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition.


In this post I want to take a brief look at what fossil fuels have done for humanity and the environment. I will argue that in the 19th Century, fossil fuels first of all saved the whales from extinction and then through averting whole sale deforestation of the planet’s surface fossil fuels saved multiple ecosystems from destruction and as a consequence averted the extinction of thousands of species.

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 1 Population growth (blue line), right hand scale. Fossil fuel consumption (million tonnes oil equivalent) left hand scale. The exponential growth in population would not have been possible without FF. We all therefore owe the fabric of our society and our very existence to the use of FF over the past century or more.

Related: Why A U.S Shale Slowdown Will Hardly Affect Oil Prices

Energy and Man

Every human being on Earth requires energy to survive (see list on Figure 1). Be it a handful of rice for the poorest Bangladeshi or the excesses of suburban life in the West, everything we do requires energy.
In 2014 86% of that energy came from fossil fuels and 11% from legacy hydro and nuclear power. Only 3% came from alternative sources. Worryingly, in a step back towards 19th century squalor, much of that 3% came from felling and burning forests.

Figure 2 This chart shows per capita productivity (a proxy for income) on the Y-axis and per capita energy consumption on the X-axis. The data for each country represent a time series starting in 1970 and normally progressing with time towards greater income and energy consumption. It is plain to see that there is great disparity in the per capita income and per capita energy consumption between countries.

As a general rule, developing countries are striving to become wealthy like the OECD and hence show year on year growth in income AND energy consumption. See for example China, Turkey, Brazil and Belarus.

To become wealthier and more prosperous, in the common sense, requires us to use more energy.
It is overly simplistic to make the argument that there should be a more equitable distribution of wealth and energy consumption. However, it is certainly rational to propose the reduction of waste and improved energy efficiency in the west. But competition and survival of the fittest is in our genes and makes us who we are. And there are certain benefits that flow from the wealthy to the poor, inoculation against deadly infectious diseases to name but one.

I am not arguing here in favor of greater polarization of wealth but merely making the observation that it is a natural consequence of the socio economic models that appear to have served us well. I would warn against the growing politics of envy.

To become wealthy, the poor need access to clean drinking water, sanitation, food, and housing. All this requires energy and natural resources. The simplest and most economical way to provide this is through coal or gas fired power stations and the construction of electricity grids. To deny the poor access to fossil fuels is to condemn them to poverty forever.

It is fantasy to believe that the poor can be made wealthy (in the sense that the OECD is wealthy) by deployment of expensive and intermittent renewable energy. Like us, they may become wealthy only from using cheap, reliable and predictable energy supplies. This is not to say that there is no place for niche deployment of renewable energy in some developing countries.
Saving the Whales

During the 19th Century, global population doubled from approximately 0.8 to 1.6 billion (Figure 1).

Throughout Europe and North America this coincided with a process of industrialization, urbanization and war. Resource consumption was on the rise and as we shall see in the following section forest timber was a key source of building material and fuel. But neither timber nor coal (at that time) could provide the light required in the cities that were being built and it is this niche that was filled by whale oil.

The production of whale oil grew exponentially from 1815 to 1845 and thereafter declined following a classic “Hubbert curve” (Figure 3). At the same time we know that whales were almost hunted to extinction and this is often held up as an example of over exploitation of a finite resource. Post-peak whale oil production saw prices rise and become volatile suggesting a continued demand for whale oil that could not be met by supply.

But the market situation is made more complex by the fact that just in the nick of time for whales, rock oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in the 1850s. It was found that rock oil could be distilled into a number of fractions and that one of those, kerosene, was ideal as lamp oil.

Figure 3 The production of whale oil in the 19th Century follows a classic Hubbert curve with production dwindling as the stock of whales in the oceans was depleted. Chart source Ugo Bardi.

This represents one of the great energy substitutions of human society. It was to be short-lived since electric lighting would soon take over from kerosene where the electricity was provided by combusting coal.

Note that I use the term substitution and not transition since there was a direct substitution of one energy source for the other and whales ceased to be a part of Man’s energy supply mix. Without the discovery and use of rock oil it seems likely that whales would have become extinct in the 19th Century.

Saving The Forests

Prior to the mid nineteenth Century the main fuel source used by Man was forest wood (Figure 4). Wood (biomass) continues to be an important fuel today throughout the developing world.

Figure 4 The development of Man’s energy supplies has seen the sequential addition of coal, oil, gas, hydro and nuclear to the energy mix. In discussing energy transition, it is wrong to assume that a new energy source replaces what went before. The main pattern is one of addition, not substitution or replacement. Data from Vaclav Smil and BP as compiled by Rembrandt Koppelaar.

Population growth and progressive industrialization throughout Europe led to wholesale deforestation of the Continent (Figure 5). And then in the mid-nineteenth Century we learned how to burn and mine coal on a grand scale powering the industrial revolution. We can but speculate what might have occurred had this not happened. It seems likely that Europeans would have spread themselves around the globe plundering resources on an even greater scale than took place at that time.

Figure 5 Data on deforestation is hard to find. This slide from a surprisingly interesting presentation by Sir Mark Walport shows the impact of 2500 years of felling trees in Europe. It was to a large extent the quest for natural resources that sent Europeans around the World in the centuries that followed and that sent Adolf Hitler East in 1941. Our current system of international trade and financial deficits may be imperfect but it seems preferable to the system of plunder that it replaced.

What did happen is that we learned to use coal, then oil and natural gas and ultimately nuclear power. Harnessing the power of fossil fuels provided Man with energy slaves to do work on our behalf. It led directly to the progressive development of the highly sophisticated society we live in today where, life expectancy, health and comfort far exceed levels of 100 years ago for billions of souls. It allowed us to achieve this whilst largely abolishing slavery and ending our dependency on forest wood as a fuel.

When fossil fuel runs scarce in a country this can cause great harm to the environment as we saw in Indonesia in 2003. Indonesia was once a member of OPEC and exported oil. But owing to population growth, increased prosperity and then a down turn in oil production, Indonesia found itself facing oil imports. Donning a Green cloak, Indonesia turned to biofuels in the form of palm nut oil, and set about burning virgin rain forest and Orangutans to make way for the plantations.

Those who fail to see the staggering benefits brought to Man through using fossil fuels are blinded by dogma. Those who argue that fossil fuels should be phased out are making an argument to end prosperity for all.

The Population Paradox

Whilst I argue here, and many others have argued before me, that fossil fuels have enabled the human race to flourish, we have been so successful in doing so that over 7 billion souls on planet Earth is now viewed by many as the greatest threat to our continued existence.

It is certainly true that there are a multitude of problems that are not evenly distributed about the Earth. These include water shortages, food shortages and malnutrition, air and water pollution, deforestation, social and civil unrest, spreading conflict, displaced persons, infectious diseases and their spread.

These are all problems caused by too many people combined with inadequate social, political and economic structures to deal with a rapidly changing world. While certain aspects of air pollution in China and plastics pollution of ocean gyres may be attributed directly to fossil fuels, by and large fossil fuels are the solution to these problems, not their cause. For example creating clean water supplies and sanitation requires energy as does food production. It is a lack of energy and other resources that lies at the heart of many of the major issues that cause real hardship around the world. It is therefore a mark of extraordinary ignorance and stupidity to believe that withholding these resources may lead to solutions.

The problem of course is that we have become too successful at resolving these issues for many and that inevitably leads to more, not less people and a compounding of the very problems that we are attempting to resolve. Population controls are a subject ducked by virtually all OECD political leaders and organizations. Over population and poverty lies at the heart of many of the major issues confronting humanity and yet no one is prepared to confront this issue. It is certainly an extremely difficult issue to confront and not easily solved.

My own view is that natural evolutionary forces will see global population peak this century followed by decline. That is what the UN central forecast shows. This may happen via the spread of prosperity in some parts and by the spread of deprivation, disease, hunger and war in others. But what is widely viewed as a population problem, will resolve itself in response to various pressures.

A falling global population will present a whole new set of problems for humanity that we will address when the time comes. There will be a growing acceptance that economic growth, welfare, free healthcare and pensions were all temporary aberrations made possible by abundant and cheap fossil fuels. As those resources run scarce this century, humanity will struggle to maintain the living standards of the past. There is no need to artificially create a major trauma for humanity today by forced withdrawal from the fossil fuels era upon which virtually all of our prosperity is based.

An argument can be made for leaving some fossil fuels for future generations but that is not the argument being made by Green anti-capitalists.

Past Energy Transitions

Finally, a quick note about past energy transitions as illustrated in Figure 4. Let me repeat what Pope Francis had to say:

We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas needs to be progressively replaced without delay.

The first key observation from Figure 4 is that energy transition is via addition not substitution. In 150 years we have not replaced any of our major sources of energy with another at the system level. At the smaller scale oil fired power generation may have been replaced by coal and then by natural gas, but that merely freed up some oil or coal for use elsewhere.

The second key observation is that “energy transition” has normally followed thermodynamic and economic laws where the new offered advantages over the old. It is therefore in my opinion sheer folly to believe and to propose that fossil fuel based technologies can be replaced en-mass by much less environment wrecking, more expensive renewable energy flows.

Figure 6 Millions visit the gold-plated Vatican every year, arriving in jet aircraft from all over the world, consuming vast amounts of oil and according to Pope Francis creating risks to the stability of Earth’s atmosphere.

By Euan Mearns

29 Comments on "So What Exactly Have Fossil Fuels Done For Us?"

  1. Kenz300 on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 7:40 am 

    Quote from above —- ” The Population Paradox

    Whilst I argue here, and many others have argued before me, that fossil fuels have enabled the human race to flourish, we have been so successful in doing so that over 7 billion souls on planet Earth is now viewed by many as the greatest threat to our continued existence.”

    Endless population growth leads to more poverty, suffering and despair.

    Birth Control Permanent Methods: Learn About Effectiveness


    Renewables to Beat Fossil Fuels With $3.7 Trillion Solar Boom – Renewable Energy World


    A 9-Minute Guide to Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change : Biofuels Digest

  2. GregT on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 8:10 am 

    We either voluntarily end our use of fossil fuels and deal with the consequences, or fossil fuels will end us all, permanently.

    Our current standards of living are not sustainable.

  3. Rodster on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 9:35 am 

    “There is no need to artificially create a major trauma for humanity today by forced withdrawal from the fossil fuels era upon which virtually all of our prosperity is based.”

    And there in lies the problem, selfishness while we ruin the planet with industrialization and kill off as many species as we can because they are in our way.

    So in essence it’s like the fracking CEO who loves the idea of his company making money from fracking but NOT in HIS backyard.

    “Pack your shit folks, you’re going away” – George Carlin

  4. Rodster on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 9:39 am 

    “We either voluntarily end our use of fossil fuels and deal with the consequences, or fossil fuels will end us all, permanently.”

    That’s why I think that G7 meeting was a lot of BS. The system that was created that we live in today was built around CHEAP and plentiful oil. There is NO substitute that can replace it. So it’s either you collapse the system voluntarily or it will collapse on it’s own.

    My bet is it will collapse on it’s own when we are introduced to that Wile E. Coyote moment.

  5. Dredd on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 10:34 am 

    “Poison is our best friend. Thank you for murdering us Oil-Qaeda,” – Euan Mearns (paraphrased)

  6. gdubya on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 10:54 am 

    I can’t figure out this article. Oil is good, it allows humanity to exceed the carrying capacity of the earth, and anything we do to reduce its use will reduce human quality of life. It has saves the forests, the whales and the slaves.
    But if we keep using it we are likely to make the planet uninhabitable for trees, molusks, fish, mammals and birds.

  7. Davy on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 11:05 am 

    Rod, there are no options. The important point is not that our prosperity rest on fossil fuels it does no doubt. The key is our very survival. Those of us who bark and crow against fossil fuels have no viable options to offer. We are angry at the status quo and global leadership but without real solutions.

    We can either collapse with or without fossil fuels. I would advocate an immediate crisis implemented by fossil fuel restrictions and let the chips fall as they will because that is all we can do. This process cannot be managed. We can only manage the resulting outcomes we will have little control over. The odds of this happening are zero but I am offering it.

    The crowing and barking over AGW climate change is fine but don’t say we can quit fossil fuels and be fine. Basically when you say quit fossil fuels you are condemning a significant portion of the global population to a death that will come in a realatively short time by starvation, exposure, and lack of security.

    The biggest lies are from both the greens and the browns. Greens want a modern life just as much as the browns. Browns are wrong claiming growth and progress can go on well beyond this century. Greens are right about the dangers wrong on any solutions. AltE is both dirty and fossils fuel defendant. AltE will never scale and never scale in time.

    If you are going to crow and bark against fossil fuels tell people that leaving fossils fuel will be medicine nearly as bad as the disease. Trying to save a climate that is likely fried already is only achieve by billions of deaths and quickly.

    The best thing humans could do is either voluntarily die by the billions or we destroy most of ourselves by war. That is the unpleasant truth to all this. There are no solutions to a predicament of a population as large as ours consuming as much as we do.

    Even a slow reduction of population and consumption will likely not work because of the system dynamics. Once a collapse gathers spead humans will become a garden variety locust equivalent.

    Let’s leave fossil fuels but be honest about the results or let’s stay with fossil fuels and be honest about those results. Neither one has a happy ending. Fossils fuel option just makes it harder to mitigate the results but buys us more immediate comfort while it last a classic trade off with a hell of a hangover.

    The human species and natures ecosystem will not have a happy ending. That is just the reality of life we should except that like grownups and quit the denial of death and embrace hospice type policies and action for the large excess deaths over births that is in the pipeline.

  8. Rodster on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 11:16 am 

    “Planetary Meltdown From Formerly Frozen Methane, If You Are Not Alarmed, You Should Be”

  9. Joe Clarkson on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 12:16 pm 

    Davy, Your comment, “Trying to save a climate that is likely fried already…”, may be true but is probably too pessimistic. The odds of positive feedbacks leading to a step change to a much warmer world do go up with every year of BAU, but if carbon emissions stopped soon we would probably be OK.

    This is why the most hopeful event would be an immediate collapse, the sooner the better. If it’s going to happen sometime (it will), then the sooner it happens the fewer who will die of starvation or war. For those who survive collapse, the world will be more livable than if warming is even more amplified by continued fossil fuel use.

    My fear leads me, like most people, to want to put off the day of reckoning, but common sense indicates that it is something that would be best if it happened very soon. I’m 67; I hope to live to see it.

  10. Northwest Resident on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 12:34 pm 

    Joe — My thoughts exactly, and the thoughts of others expressed on this forum. And as I have often speculated and as others have routinely disagreed with, I suspect that certain elements of the military, intelligence service(s), financial powers that be and their lackey politicians are also thinking along those same lines.

  11. Davy on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 1:22 pm 

    Joe, show we some real optimism and I will bow before you and kiss your feet even if they are dirty. Watch Ape Man’s feed and listen closely to what the dangers are then listen to the silly solutions: .

    Joe, I want to be optimistic. I love life. Life is so good now in so many ways but I am wired to face reality and reality is telling me we are done like a cooked brat. It’s over and now we must prepare for the funerals, dig the graves, and console the grieving. Let’s make life less painful where we can and I would focus locally because the pain and suffering are going to be too great to take on at a global scale now like we see on TV. Forget the global charities start thinking local.

    I will do my part through sacrifice if there is a crisis and crisis mitigation. In the mean time I doom, prep, and practice relative sacrifice. I do less with less for spiritual reasons. I feel pain for what is happening to nature. Yet, I am not stupid if we are going to have a rape of the commons by 7BIL people what does it matter. I will turn the A/C off in my 40’x12’ cabin if others do. I will drive much less if others do. Currently I am practicing relative sacrifice which means I am engaging in actions of less. I shower less, never waste food, no unnecessary driving, and no useless consumption. But dramatic sacrifices are going to have to wait until others do.

    Joe, please give me a reason to believe. Can you do that for me? I have seen nothing out of the best minds globally but a bunch of useless fantasy in technology that got us to where we are. The only solution is the death of billions and quickly. This could be done by allowing a mass NUK war. That is a solution but who is going to play God and push the red button? (Just a side note is that red button a big button or small one. I have always been curious about the doomsday button.) That solution might work if a group could be set up to survive the nuclear winter and go back to a destroyed landscape facing a runaway climate change anyway. Maybe 10,000 could survive somewhere.

    Hell I don’t know Joe but I do know EVERYTHING I am hearing out of the officials on this subject is a joke as far as solutions. The science on the conditions is rock solid it is the solutions that are a joke. Until I hear some reality based solutions I am going to spit in the face of these people that are offering nothing more than hopium that is nothing more than opium.

  12. Marty on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 1:35 pm 

    Take a tiny step toward improving your environment and reducing air pollution. TRY to ban gas leaf blowers in your community.

  13. Davy on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 1:40 pm 

    Marty, we should quit driving one day a week or something. That would make a difference. The car culture is what is killing us not the lawn culture.

    I do admit when I used to live in a town and the bastards would start running the leaf blowers at 7am I felt like going postal.

  14. Northwest Resident on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 1:49 pm 

    Here in the Pacific Northwest, we had a really mild winter. Now we are experiencing a massive heat wave which is far above average for this time of year. My bees are so hot that they’re all crawling out of their hives and hanging out in the relatively cool evening air, once the sun stops shining directly on their hives. Weird. If this is the new “normal”, that’s BAD. If this is just a trend toward even hotter, which it probably is, then even here in the cool and damp Pacific Northwest we are going to be having some serious and downright deadly problems. I may have to expand my root cellar into a living quarters for part of the year!!

  15. Marty on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 1:52 pm 

    Davy, My point is how DIFFICULT it is to get the seemingly tiniest change accomplished.

  16. Northwest Resident on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 2:08 pm 

    Marty — I guess we all know that nothing really changes on a significant scale UNTIL a severe crisis strikes. Which is why the best possible thing that could happen to planet earth and all life on it (except human) would be for total economic collapse to happen sooner rather than later. BAU is a monstrous resource destroyer and pollution emitter. Humans created it. Humans will have to live (or not) without it.

  17. Davy on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 3:31 pm 

    So true Marty, thanks for the clarification. In any case I hate the noise making leaf blowers but I will have to admit to hypocrisy because I have a backpack blower for blowing grass debris off my field mowing equipment. But at least that is just a 2 min operation. I have heard leaf blowers run for an hour and a half back when I lived in the small town of Hermann, Mo.

  18. zoidberg on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 4:21 pm 

    Double down on FF and hope it buys enough time for fusion or safer and cheaper fission energy, or some more esoteric source we have yet to harness. If the climate is already wrecked due to FF use what other choice is there?

  19. Davy on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 4:27 pm 

    Zoid I recommend a big Jim Jones anniversary concert all across the globe with the special purple Kool Aid he served up. They could even spike it with some LSD so the end would be an especially wild trip. That is a choice similar to continued FF use but more festive.

  20. Northwest Resident on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 4:33 pm 

    Davy — So you’re thinking a wild ride to the other side is the “hot” ticket? Better than a long slow roast to “toast” if you ask me. Unfortunately, not many people will have the choice.

  21. zoidberg on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 4:41 pm 

    And when the globing warming theory turns out to be misrepresented the double down theory will appear to be inspired genius.

    Oh wait following peak oil requires unquestioning faith in climate change. Ooommm its getting hotter ooommm.

    I’ll see myself out….

  22. Davy on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 5:19 pm 

    NR this is a valid doom and prep subject and that is tools to end suffering. Mouthing a gun is pretty messy but effective. Pills are unreliable. Helium, pills, and alcohol would probably do it. In the movies the spies bite the cyanide tablets but I am not sure if those are legal. I always thought a massive heroine injection would be the ticket. I have never tried the stuff but it looks like fun in the movies. I say fun because this may be the last fun you have.

    I have a 50 bottle of different bourbon collections. I don’t drink or do drugs but I am thinking I will drink myself to death if the end is near. Remember “leaving Las Vegas”. I will keep my trusty 45 near by if needed.

    You folks may laugh about the above or think it in distaste but this is the shit ahead we may have to deal with. All these unpleasantries have been bred out of us by fossil fuels allowing political correctness and moral actions. That shit is likely to be over when the excess deaths over births starts.

  23. apneaman on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 5:19 pm 

    Good riddance zoid you fucking shit for brains.

  24. redpill on Wed, 24th Jun 2015 8:09 pm 

    “Oh wait following peak oil requires unquestioning faith in climate change.”

    Zoid, you pulled that out of your hind-quarters. Unless of course your view is fuck the grandkids if it means I can maintain my lifestyle till I flatline.

    And that’s my big fear, that so many see “climate change” as something for future generations to deal with.

  25. GregT on Thu, 25th Jun 2015 8:34 am 

    Historical average rainfall in Vancouver BC for the month of June, ~ 75mm. Rainfall so far this June, 3.75mm. We’re heading into a heatwave again this weekend. Temperatures in the interior are expected to break more all time records and exceed 40*C. Temperatures that high are not usually seen until August. The climate has already changed, and the Earth is just starting to warm up.

  26. Davy on Thu, 25th Jun 2015 9:21 am 

    Greg, I keep detailed rainfall records for the farm. This is the wettest June for my records back 4 years. It has been a cold winter, cool spring, and still decent temps. The past few days have been very hot but starting tomorrow there will be another cool pattern set up.

  27. Kenz300 on Thu, 25th Jun 2015 9:58 am 

    Climate Change will impact everyone…….. we need to deal with the cause……

    Renewable Energy Responsible for First Ever Carbon Emissions Stabilization – Renewable Energy World

  28. Apneaman on Fri, 26th Jun 2015 6:05 pm 

    EPA’s New Fracking Study: A Close Look at the Numbers Buried in the Fine Print

    When EPA’s long-awaited draft assessment on fracking and drinking water supplies was released, the oil and gas industry triumphantly focused on a headline-making sentence: “We did not find evidence of widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

    But for fracking’s backers, a sense of victory may prove to be fleeting.

    EPA’s draft assessment made one thing clear: fracking has repeatedly contaminated drinking water supplies (a fact that the industry has long aggressively denied).

  29. Kenz300 on Sat, 27th Jun 2015 9:44 am 

    It is time to speed up the transition to safer, cleaner and cheaper alternative energy sources like wind and solar. The world needs to stop building any more coal fired power plant and start shutting down the oldest ones.

    A 9-Minute Guide to Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change : Biofuels Digest

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