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August 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-3


Geothermal Energy: Important Potential in the U.S. and Iowa


Fossil Fuel Benefits and Historical Context



Kathleen White, Director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment, who is also former Chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and an officer of the Lower Colorado River Authority, recently released a paper on the history and economic benefits of fossil fuels to mankind.[4] 


Fossil Fuels:  The Moral Case, tracks the economic benefits to all people resulting from the efficient use of energy from fossil fuels.  She documents the significant changes and improvements in human existence over the last 200 years – all fueled by innovative uses of oil and coal.[5]  This paper brings a reasoned, historical perspective to the energy source debate.  Fossil fuels are not evil, our use of them is not inherently wasteful, and they will remain critical to the world economy for many hundreds of years.


The paper starts with a comparison of life today, for your normal family, compared to life in 1814, as crafted by Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist.  That life was short and tough.  The father dies of pneumonia, the baby dies of smallpox, the sister becomes “chattel of a drunken husband,” the mother’s teeth rot and fall out.  They mostly eat gruel, with little meat, fruit, or salad.  There are no candles, only light from a smoky wood fire.  Education is basic, with no arts or music.  Only the father has travelled to the “city,” while the rest have gone no farther than 15 miles from home.  A jacket costs a month’s wages.  There are lice in the clothing and the children sleep on straw mattresses on the floor. 


This is a life lived by only the poorest of the poor in developing world countries today.  And even most of them have cell phones, powered by electricity.


Ridley then elaborates that since the 1800s:


…real incomes have risen more than nine times.  Taking a shorter perspective, in 2005, compared to 1955, the average (female) on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer.  She was less likely to die as a result of war, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding, famine, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, small pox, scurvy, or polio.  She was less likely, at any given age, to get cancer, heart disease, or stroke.  She was more likely to be literate and to have finished school.  She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush-toilet, a refrigerator, and a bicycle.  All this during a half century when the world population more than doubled.[6]


This economic progress has all been driven by the efficient and cost effective use of fossil fuels.  Arguably the world is a better place than it was 200 years ago and people in poverty are certainly not concerned about the environmental impact of their actions if they’re just trying to stay alive and feed their children.  As White and Ridley both persuasively argue, the greatest beneficiaries of the industrial revolution and efficient use of fossil fuels were those in “abject” poverty. 


Prior to the late 1700s (interestingly also the era of the birth of the United States) neither income per capita nor life expectancy of humans had increased since the earliest recorded history.  The poor village family continued to live as they always had.  There was little change occurring and little change expected in their lives and futures.  The industrial revolution, powered by fossil fuels, changed this trajectory. 


This ability to manage and control power has been critical to economic development for hundreds of millions of people.  Refrigerators, heating systems, air conditioners, and heart machines must work – 24/7 – and clearly help people to live safely and productively.  Yet over-reacting global warming alarmists would have us return to the 1800s and before by refusing to recognize the universal benefits of fossil and nuclear fuel use.


As a result, a 2006 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimates that over 50 gigawatts (GWe) of coal-fired electricity capacity in the U.S. and another 40 GWe of nuclear capacity will be removed from use in the next 15-25 years.[7]  This will have a significant negative economic impact on all citizens.  MIT, certainly not a group of climate change deniers or tea party extremists, characterize this impact as resulting in “severe reductions in the services that energy provides to all Americans.”[8]


Severe reductions in the U.S. and de-industrialization in Germany, two of the world’s leading economies.  Maybe we should re-think our current hysteria-driven approach to energy generation and use.




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