Issues & Insights
Walter J. Hussey Collection, National Museum of American History

What If We Went Back To A Fossil-Fuel-Free Society Like The 1800s?

The following was first published by the Committee for A Constructive Tomorrow.

The transformation to a fossil-fuel-free, all-electric economy would take the world back to living conditions in the 1800’s by ridding the world of crude oil, coal and natural gas usage and result in:

  • The pre-1800s, when the world had no fuels other than wood, dung, and crop waste, and used animals for transport.
  • A food crisis in which billions will die. Fossil fuels are used to plant, harvest, process, refrigerate, deliver, and cook food for most of the 8 billion people living on earth. And for the plastic to keep it safe and fresh a lot longer.
  • A forest and wildlife crisis as billions go back to using wood as their primary cooking and home heating fuel. Cutting down forests. The air would be far dirtier because of burning wood for fuel.
  • There would be no products that are based on oil derivatives manufactured from crude oil, coal, and natural gas! Such as life-saving medical equipment, plastics, many chemicals that make our lives better, and just about everything we take to be modern, such as cell phones.
  • The elimination of all of today’s militaries and space programs as the world reverts to when civilization existed without oil.
  • Eliminate the need for airports that now accommodate more than 20,000 commercial aircraft and more than 50,000 military aircraft.
  • Eliminate the needs for major shipping ports that accommodate military and cruise ships.
  • Eliminate the more than 50,000 merchant ships, that are moving products around the world that are made with the oil derivatives manufactured from crude oil, coal and natural gas!

Cloudy days, nights, and evenings for solar, and wind droughts, are the death of a continuous supply of electricity. Without fossil fuels there will be no “continuous” reliable electricity to support communications, hospitals, electronics, manufacturing, air conditioning, refrigeration, or heating, etc.

In a world policymakers want to be dominated by wind turbines and solar panels to generate occasional electricity whenever the wind blows or the sun shines, there will be nothing to “electrify” as there will be nothing that needs electricity. We cannot manufacture anything without fossil fuels, and they are the raw materials of everything we take for granted.

In the 1800s nothing needed electricity. There was none.

Today’s policymakers do not understand that everything that needs electricity is made with petrochemicals manufactured from crude oil, coal, or natural gas from the light bulb to the iPhone, defibrillator, computers, spacecraft, and medications. Thus, renewables of wind turbines and solar panels are not displacing the need for fossil fuels.

Interestingly, all the components of wind turbines and solar panels are also based on fossil fuels derivatives for manufacture. Thus, in a fossil-free society, we’re back in the 1800s. Life was short and hard for the common man!

A few impacts on today’s humanity of a fossil-fuel-free society are that it would:

  • Drastically reduce the homeless population as all the tents and sleeping bags utilized by the homeless are all made from fossil fuels!
  • Drastically reduce the unfunded pension liabilities associated with current longevity, as few people would live beyond their 40s!
  • A smaller number of colleges would be needed because there would be no need for doctors for hospitals, or engineers for infrastructure development, that are all based on the components made from fossil fuels!
  • A significant loss of lives of the 8 billion on this planet from diseases, starvation, and weather-related fatalities, without the food, medications, and products that are all based on the components made from fossil fuels!

We should be careful with what we wish for. The proverb “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” tells us that:

  1. You can’t rid the world of fossil fuels and,
  2. Continue to enjoy the products and fuels that are currently made with the derivatives manufactured with fossil fuels.

Just as food is fuel for our bodies, fossil fuels are food for our way of life. They provide the energy and products we need for prosperous lives. No sane person would cut off their main food supply without lining up for a new food supply first, unless they wanted to starve to death. Do those that want to end fossil fuels want our way of live and civilization to starve to death?

We want a bright future for our kids and grandkids, don’t you? Fossil fuels provide the energy needed.

Ronald Stein is an engineer, senior policy adviser on energy literacy for the Heartland Institute and CFACT, and co-author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated book “Clean Energy Exploitations.”

Frank Lasee is an energy policy and climate expert. He served in the Wisconsin Senate, representing an energy intensive district. It had two nuclear power plants, a coal plant, a natural gas plant, biodigesters and wind towers. He is now president of Truth in Energy and Climate, that is dedicated to providing facts about energy and climate.

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  • Know any Amish?

    They manage to do without most of the convenience aspects of fossil fuels. They do use kerosene though, and some are fond of batteries for running DC systems, even some charged by solar arrays. Staunch advocates of horse-and-buggy transportation 24/7/365 their lifestyle is a reflection of what pretty much everyone alive before 1890 had to make do with. Life was simpler, less frantic, maybe a lot shorter too and uncomfortable?

    Perhaps there’s something in the middle between how the Amish live in this century and what the rest of the First World (after all, there are peoples elsewhere on this planet that still live a subsistence existence without benefit of an addiction to fossil fuels) take for granted?

    Always a bell curve when humans are involved, mayhap there’s some of us who could learn to back off a bit from an excessively energy-wasteful habit?

    Likely as not their numbers aren’t going to make much of a dent….

  • So, if we get rid of fossil fuels, does that mean we go back to whale oil to light our homes? Greenpeace better hope not, because it was widely-available, affordable petroleum products that save the great whales from extinction. There’s always some fly in the ointment.

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