Imagine we transported someone from the essentially fossil fuel-free environment of three hundred years ago to that of today, which has been fundamentally shaped by coal, oil, and natural gas. And imagine we then took him on a tour of the modern world, good and bad, clean and dirty. What would he think about our environment?
I’ll call our visitor Thomas, in honor of Thomas Newcomen, one of the pioneers of the steam engine, which was invented in 1712, almost exactly three hundred years ago.
Thomas’s reaction would be disbelief that such a clean, healthy environment could exist.
“How is this possible?” he would ask. “The air is so clean. Where I come from, we’re breathing in smoke all day from the fire we need to burn in our furnace.”
“And the water. Everywhere I go, there’s this water that tastes so good, and it’s all safe to drink. On my farm, we get our water from a brook we share with animals, and my kids are always getting sick.”
“And the weather. It isn’t that much different, but you’re so much safer from it. You can move a knob to make it cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cold.”
“And you have to tell me, what happened to all the disease? Where I’m from, we have insects all over the place giving us disease—my neighbor’s son died of malaria—and you don’t seem to have any of that here. What’s your secret?”
I’d tell him that the secret was his invention: a method of transforming a concentrated, stored, plentiful energy source into cheap, plentiful, reliable energy so we could use machines to transform our hazardous natural environment into a far healthier human environment.
Just as every region of the world, in its undeveloped state, is full of climate dangers (excessive cold, excessive heat, lack of rainfall, too much rainfall), so every region of the world is full of other environmental dangers to our health, such as disease-carrying insects, lack of waste-disposal technology, disease-carrying animals, disease-carrying crops, bacteria-filled water, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Nature doesn’t even really give us clean air—because to live we have always needed some sort of fire, and for most of history, we had to breathe in smoke from outdoor fires or, once we got the benefit of true shelter, indoor fires, where the smoke was even worse, but the warmth was worth it.
To conquer these environmental hazards we need to develop a far more sanitary and durable environment. Development is the transformation of a non-human environment into a human-friendly environment using high-energy machines. Development means water-purification systems, irrigation, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetically improved crops, dams, seawalls, heating, air-conditioning, sturdy homes, drained swamps, central power stations, vaccination, pharmaceuticals, and so on.
Of course, development and the fossil fuel energy that powers it carries risks and creates by-products, such as coal smog, that we need to understand and minimize, but these need to be viewed in the context of fossil fuels’ overall benefits, including their environmental benefits. And it turns out that those benefits far, far outweigh the negatives—and technology is getting ever better at minimizing and neutralizing those risks.
How much of a positive difference does fossil fuel energy make to environmental quality? Let’s look at modern trends in three key areas of environmental quality: water, sanitation, and air.
Here’s water quality—measured by the percentage of world population with “access to improved water sources.”
Sources: BP , Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, Historical data workbook; World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data, April 2014. Graph originally appeared in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
We need to transform naturally dangerous or unusable water into usable water—by moving usable water, purifying unusable water, or desalinating seawater. And that takes affordable energy.
If you were to turn on your faucet right now, in all likelihood you could fill a glass with water that you would have no fear of drinking. Consider how that water got to you: It traveled to your home through a complex network of plastic (oil) or copper pipes originating from a massive storage tank made of metal and plastic. Before it ever even got to the distribution tank, your water went through a massive, high-energy treatment plant where it was treated with complex synthetic chemicals to remove toxic substances like arsenic or lead or mercury. Before that, the water would have been disinfected using chlorine, ozone, or ultraviolet light to kill off any potentially harmful biological organisms. And to make all these steps work efficiently, the pH level of the water has to be adjusted, using chemicals like lime or sodium hydroxide.
Natural water is rarely so usable. Most of the undeveloped world has to make do with natural water, and the results are horrifying. Billions of people have to get by using water that might contain high concentrations of heavy metals, dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas (which produces a rotten-egg smell), and countless numbers of waterborne pathogens that still claim millions of lives each year. It’s a major victory for any person who gains access to the kind of water we take for granted every day—a victory that fossil fuels deserve a major part of the credit for.
Historically, the inability to effectively deal with our own bodily waste has been one of the largest threats to human health. To this day it takes an enormous toll on human life throughout the world. For example, cholera is a bacterial disease that is transmitted through the ingestion of food or water contaminated by human fecal matter. The toxin that these bacteria produce inhibits the body’s ability to absorb food and water, which can very quickly cause death through dehydration. Worldwide, over a hundred thousand people get sick from cholera annually. (Think about that when you hear environmentalists talk about “harmony with nature”—i.e., harmony with all our predators, their waste, and our waste.) But cholera has been all but eradicated in the industrialized world.
Here’s the big picture of sanitation—the percent of our world population with access to improved sanitation facilities, according to the World Bank.
Sources: BP, Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, Historical data workbook; World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data, April 2014. Graph originally appeared in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
Note that as recently as 1990, under half the world had “improved sanitation facilities.” The increase to two thirds in only a few decades is a wonderful accomplishment, but a lot more development is necessary to make sure everyone has a decent, sanitary environment.
Part of the way we have solved sanitation problems is through the industrialized world’s ability to thoroughly sanitize any water human beings might consume using high-energy machines. Just as important, we have created entirely separate water systems to deal with sewage. Historically, a person’s sewer tended to be connected, at least in part, to his drinking water. This was rarely intentional, and early civilizations did construct sewer systems to isolate human waste, but natural, unrestricted water flows usually lead to a certain amount of mixing between the human waste and the nearest freshwater source—particularly as more and more people group together.
Today, sewage is not only kept separate from clean water sources, but it is also extensively treated to render its most dangerous elements harmless so that it can be disposed of safely, in some cases used as a fertilizer or even, thanks to the latest technology, turned into drinking water. The technology of sewage treatment is another advance made possible by industrialization, and it is yet another energy-intensive process for transforming our environment.
Want a more sanitary environment for people around the globe? We need more cheap, reliable energy from fossil fuels.
Most of us have had the experience of sitting around a campfire when the wind changes direction and blows the smoke into our faces right as we take a breath. The resulting experience is unpleasant: a few sharp coughs, along with some stinging of the eyes and throat. For us, it’s a temporary annoyance. For billions of people around the world, it is an everyday experience.
Imagine if the only way you could avoid the danger of cold—historically, cold is a far bigger killer than warmth—was to light a fire in your house every day of the year. You could do things to reduce the amount of smoke you breathed in by using a chimney and opening windows (though at the expense of letting cold in), but the fact remains that you would be breathing in an enormous amount of smoke every day. For many people today, that’s the choice: breathing in smoky air, or going cold.
Today the idea of using a fire to routinely heat our dwellings is foreign to most of us. Modern homes are heated with advanced furnaces that heat air within a machine and then send the warm air to various locations in the house. The heating is usually done either via clean-burning natural gas, in which case the furnace has an exhaust system to remove any waste from the combustion, or with electrical heating elements powered by mostly faraway smokestacks (which themselves minimize air pollution by diluting and dispersing particulates higher in the air).
The combination of sophisticated machines and cheap, reliable energy has made the heating of homes such a trivial issue that most of us have never considered its connection to cleaning up the air we breathe every day. And yet natural-gas furnaces enable us to enjoy all the benefits of having a warm place to live with none of the downsides of smoky, toxic air that our ancestors would have endured for the same privilege.
All of these benefits apply, not just in heating our homes, but in cooking our food. Indoor pollution from primitive cooking methods is a major global problem, and using fossil fuels can help solve it.
We need to consider all these air-cleaning benefits when we consider the air pollution risks of fossil fuels.
And technology is making these risks ever smaller. Stories of rampant smog in Chinese cities bring fears that the situation will inevitably get worse there and in any other country that industrializes. Fortunately, our experience in the United States illustrates that things can progressively get better.
Here again is a graph of the air pollution trends in the United States over the last half century. In the image are total emissions of what the EPA classifies as six major pollutants that can come from fossil fuels. Notice the dramatic downward trend in emissions— even though we were using more fossil fuel than ever.
Source: U.S. EPA National Emissions Inventory Air Pollutant Emissions Trends Data. Graph originally appeared in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
How was this achieved? Above all, by using anti-pollution technology to get as many of the positive effects of fossil fuels and as few of the negative effects as possible.
The Big Picture
The overall impact of fossil fuels on environmental quality is tremendously positive. And more fundamentally, its impact on human health is tremendously positive. Fossil fuels don’t only help us transform our environment for the better, but they help us transform ourselves for the better through health technology.
Let’s look at some major global health trends: infant mortality, mortality under five, malnutrition, and life expectancy.
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data, April 2014. Graph originally appeared in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
Every one of these graphs represents a collection of real people, many of whom have been recently empowered by energy and many of whom who are suffering every day for lack of it.
World life expectancy at birth has gone up from sixty-three in 1980 to seventy in 2012. The child mortality rate on the planet went down from 115 to 47 per 1,000 live births. Infant mortality declined from 80 to 35 per 1,000 live births in the same time period. The incidence of tuberculosis, an infectious disease that particularly threatens poor people with little access to modern medicine, has declined from 147 per 100,000 population in 1990, when the World Bank’s record begins, to 122 in 2012. Malnutrition, defined by the percentage of children under five with significantly below average weight or height for their age, has been constantly decreasing at a significant rate since 1990. Access to electricity and improved water sources, which are basic indicators for human well-being, hygiene, and health in general, went up as well.
Developing countries in the sub-Saharan and East Asian region have been particularly impressive; East Asian developing countries now have an average life expectancy at birth of seventy-three years. There is much credit to be given to industrial-scale energy, primarily fossil fuels. Without a large amount of affordable energy, the vast majority of the people whose lives were drastically improved in recent decades would still sit in the dark mourning their dead children and friends, if they were ever born in the first place.
Many energy-intensive technologies influence our overall health in a positive way. Food production, modern medicine, and sanitation require cheap, plentiful, reliable energy to make them available and affordable to as many people as possible.
All of this is part of the big picture of fossil fuels’ impact on our lives, health, and environment health hazards of nature. Like all forms of energy, they have risks and by-products, but they also give us the energy and resources to minimize, neutralize, or even reverse those harms. More broadly, if health is our concern, fossil fuels underlie the food and medical care systems that have created the longest life expectancy in history.
In looking at the impact of fossil fuels on environmental quality, we see that an alleged negative is in fact a tremendous positive.
We have a choice to make. Will we use fossil fuels to maximize human well-being in all areas of life, including our environment? Or will we continue to see fossil fuels only through negative glasses, blind to the tremendous benefits that have come so far, and the tremendous ones that can come in the future?