Before Thanksgiving weekend slips away, I want to pause to give thanks. Certainly I have many things to be thankful for — family (including a brand new grandson!), friends, reasonably good health, and plenty more. But this year I want to single out a particular thing that makes an enormous contribution to my well-being, productiveness, and enjoyment of life — and to everyone else’s well-being, productiveness, and enjoyment of life as well. I’m speaking of course about man’s control of fire. Or, as we say in up-to-date terminology, the use of fossil fuels.
We don’t know when early people first learned to control and use fire. But just the initial step without doubt brought large immediate benefits: the ability to cook food, and the ability to provide warmth in cold weather. Somewhat later, the use of fire also brought the ability to obtain metals like copper and then iron from rock. And it has been on up from there.
When Aristotle formulated an early theory of physics in the fourth century BC, he divided matter into four forms: earth, air, water and fire. Today, we would say that earth, air and water are forms of matter, but fire is a process — the process by which the elements carbon and hydrogen combine with oxygen, releasing energy and sending carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H20) into the atmosphere. Carbon is indeed the miracle element. Of more than 100 elements, carbon is the only one that is the basis of life. All life on earth forms itself out of CO2, removed from the atmosphere by plants through the process of photosynthesis that is essentially the reverse of fire. Look around you and what you see is mostly carbon-based life forms (plants, animals) or things made from carbon-based life forms (wood, cloth, etc.).
Carbon-based life so appears to dominate the earth’s surface that the surface layer is sometimes referred to as the “biosphere.” But then, what percentage of the earth’s crust and atmosphere consist of carbon and CO2? Remarkably, of the earth’s crust, only 0.15% consists of carbon. Of the atmosphere, only 0.04% consists of CO2. Those tiny parts are what form all life and also make everything go.
Somewhere relatively late in the game people started to figure out that various minerals available in large quantities from the earth’s crust contained carbon, and some hydrogen, that could be burned to provide energy in abundant amounts. Coal, oil, and natural gas. “Fossil fuels.” Chemically, coal, oil and natural gas start as being fundamentally the same thing as wood — principally carbon and some hydrogen that can be burned — but differ from wood mainly in having far fewer impurities, where the term “impurities” refers to things other than carbon and hydrogen, like nitrogen and sulphur. In a burning process, the impurities end up in the atmosphere as pollution — ash, particulates, smog and haze (SO2, NOX). With far less in the way of impurities, the fossil fuels would appear to be greatly superior to wood as an energy source, both because the useful stuff (carbon and hydrogen) is more concentrated, and because the resulting pollution is greatly reduced. Not to zero of course. Nothing in this world is perfectly pure.
It would be impossible to make a list of all the blessings that fossil fuels have brought to us, because there are so many. Most of them you don’t notice or see — which is much of the problem. Here are a handful of random examples:
I just finished the McCullough biography of John Adams. During the 1790s, the the U.S. capital was in Philadelphia. Abigail Adams always moved out of town during the summer months. Why? Because of the unbearable plague of stinging black flies. Go to Philadelphia in the summer today, and you won’t find any meaningful number of stinging black flies. What happened? The flies bred in the horse manure that was all over the streets. When the horses were replaced by automobiles powered by gasoline, the flies disappeared.
In the U.S. and Europe, we heat our homes and cook our food using fossil fuels, mainly oil and natural gas. In the third world, the fuel used is often wood, or even manure, with inadequate ventilation, leading to dangerous indoor air pollution. From Mannucci, et al., “Health Effects of Ambient Air Pollutions in Developing Countries,” 2017: “The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that, in the year 2012, ambient air pollution was responsible for nearly seven million deaths, representing more than 10% of all-cause deaths and more than doubling previous estimates.”
In 1800 the percent of the American labor force engaged in agriculture was 83%. Today, it is about 2%. That difference is entirely attributable to use of fossil fuels to power equipment to mechanize agricultural production. Freeing up some 80% of the labor force to produce other things resulted in a multiplication of the income of the average American.
Today, even members of the lower middle class can afford to travel to Europe. With a little looking, you can find round-trip flights for well under $500. And the travel time is about 7 hours or less. That is entirely a consequence of inexpensive fossil fuels. In the days of wind-powered trans-ocean travel, the trip across the Atlantic took one to three months (you never knew which) and only the wealthy could afford to do it.
I won’t go on about the benefits of such things as electricity and computers. If you think electricity is no big deal, try going without it for a few weeks, or even a few days.
Nobody has remotely begun to figure out how to run an electrical grid for millions of people using only power from the wind and the sun. After years of massive government subsidies and promotion from the great and the good, the International Energy Agency is just out with a report touting that the share of wind and solar in world primary energy production is — get ready for this — 1.1%. The people who believe in tooth fairy economics are demanding (!!!!!) that all fossil fuels be eliminated from the U.S. economy by 2030. Sorry, this will not happen. Actually, fossil fuel production is rapidly growing, as it needs to do to provide for a growing world economy. U.S. production of crude oil recently went back above 10 million barrels per day for the first time since the 1970s.
For some reason, I think that everyone who participates in a fossil-fuel-powered modern economy should be enormously thankful every day for this incredible blessing. Instead, we get endless wailing and gnashing of teeth and demands for atonement for our supposed sins. If you can stand it, check out the latest from the New York Times just today, “U.S. Climate Report Warns of Damaged Environment and Shrinking Economy.” Really, where do these dummies think our economy comes from? It’s just embarrassing.