NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity

January 9, 2013

Nature has always kept humanity in check. Mankind's growth has been limited by nature in ways such as diseases, crop failure, natural disasters or conflicts. If the population were to get too big and use too many resources, something would happen to curb the population back to a normal balance, says Indur Goklany, author of "The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet."

Now, however, technology has rapidly advanced to enable the growth of larger populations without compromising nature's security.

  • Food supplies as well as better nutrition have given way to population growth.
  • Most of the technologies that improve food quality and standard of living use fossil fuels.
  • Without the use of fossil fuels, global cropland would have to increase by 150 percent to meet current food demand.
  • If that were the case, many habitats and ecosystems would be compromised.

The use of fossil fuels to create technology and transport goods and services has been the primary reason why humans have had to depend on less of nature's resources. For example, 40 percent to 60 percent of crop yields can be attributed to the creation and use of different fertilizers.

More importantly, fossil fuels have been critical in advancing the production of knowledge and ideas. Trade and communication have flourished since the industrial revolution, which has given way to increased contact and collaboration among people all over the world. As a result, the world benefited from the transfer of knowledge and increase in human capital.

Some argue that the use of fossil fuels has a net negative effect on the environment. However, there are several factors to consider. First, the use of many renewable sources is often land-intensive and would require a massive conversion of land. Second, any damage from pollution to the air or water is likely reversible and can be curbed with future technological advances whereas land cultivation is irreversible.

Similarly, technological advances can reduce the human population's sensitivity to climate and weather, including extreme weather events. Crops, livestock and human populations have adapted through technology to mitigate the impact of events such as droughts and floods. Even the impacts associated with global warming can be mitigated.

Source: Indur M. Goklany, "Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity," Cato Institute, December 20, 2012.


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