We are often taught that nature provides us with what we need to survive, and that our responsibility is to use this bounty in a “sustainable” way. But the truth is that nature doesn’t give us the wealth we need to survive: we have to create it—and, thanks in large part to the fossil fuel industry, we have created so much wealth that human life has never been so secure.
There was a time when human beings survived by consuming what we found in nature: it was a time when we scraped by as hunter-gathers, living in constant fear of storms, drought, and disease, lucky to make it past age thirty. It was only once we started altering nature, as with the agricultural revolution, that human life began to improve.
Today, we develop and modify nature beyond the impoverished limitations of our ancestors—above all by using fossil fuels to power machines that do much of our work for us. The results have been that, for over a century, massive utilization of fossil fuels has continually enhanced the production of food, clothing, shelter, and every other material value that raises our standard of living far beyond what undeveloped nature provides us.
Viewing nature as a “mother,” who provides for all of our needs so long as we don’t mess things up stops us from recognizing the path that has led us from the cave to the modern world.
The fact is that when it comes to satisfying humanity’s basic needs, almost nothing is given, as almost everything must be created and produced. The arrangements of elements that make up the planet are not organized by natural processes to optimally support human life. Instead, work is required to transform the planet from an environment of scarcity to one rich with food, clothing, and shelter. The ability to do this work is made possible primarily by the fossil fuel industries―coal, oil and natural gas.
For instance, prior to the invention and widespread use of the petroleum lubricants and fuels that feed the mechanized-agricultural industry, hunger, malnutrition, and famine, were a tragic norm. Fortunately for those living today, diesel powered machines till, plant, and harvest food crops that are nourished and protected by petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels, sums it up this way: “Fossil Fuels are the Food of Food”.
Fossil fuel technologies also enhance the cultivation of cotton, hemp, flax and wool―materials used to make clothing. These fibers can be woven together with polyesters, nylons, rubbers and plastics―ingenious materials invented by the petrochemical industry―to create the limitless variety of apparel that costume and protect us from the burning sun, killing cold, cutting wind, and soaking rain.
When layers of clothing are insufficient barriers from the unpredictable violence of nature, we turn to the safety and shelter of our energy- and material-intensive buildings. Weather conditions outside can be uninhabitable, yet within our shelters, climate control systems give us the power to create a hospitable environment by altering room humidity and temperature. Inside, additional health and comfort is achieved through petrochemical creations such as rugs, carpet, laminate, and vinyl on our floors, oil based paint on our walls, and the plastic covering the wires in our walls. Flowing through these wires is electricity—usually generated by coal or natural gas—which powers a myriad of modern appliances such as refrigerators and computers.
Too often when we discuss the use of fossil fuels, we focus solely on negative side effects—real and imagined—without accounting for the massively positive role these fuels have played, and can continue to play, in improving human life. That biased way of looking at the issue is encouraged by those who ignore the facts of human history and treat the planet as something that automatically takes care of us rather than something we have to improve through productive activity if we want to thrive.
The fossil fuel industries have not disrupted or destroyed the earth’s capacity to support human life; instead, these industries have improved the planet by making human beings dramatically more productive. We can debate the future impact of fossil fuels—but not if we ignore the truth about the past.