Grateful For Fossil Fuels

We’re nothing here at YSDA if not iconoclastic.

So, today, as writers across the land go on and on about what they’re grateful for –family, friends, football (though not so much in Wisconsin this year) — let us stop and give thanks for coal, oil and natural gas. I’m mostly serious.

Virtually all of the progress mankind has made in our whole sorry existence has come in the last 200 years or so. Up until then, for about 200,000 years, we just kind of hung around, suffering and waiting to die, hoping that death would come as soon as possible. Fossil fuels changed all that.

Coal fueled the industrial revolution, which in turn made everybody much, much wealthier. Later, petroleum made things even better. In the long view, life expectancy skyrocketed, disease plummeted, education and knowledge exploded, wars became much less frequent and technology made everything easier.

It’s a beautiful thing.

When I was born in 1959, computers were owned by the government and major corporations and they were stored in warehouses. In my iPad I carry around a personal library and access to libraries around the state, instant access to information from millions of sources (some credible), the ability to communicate with just about anybody in the world, hundreds of TV channels, incredibly accurate maps and real time sattelite images and a computer chess game that lets me win about once every 10 games.

All of that made possible by fossil fuels.

Now, of course, those fuels got us here, but not without cost. Global climate change is a huge problem. We’ll figure it out just as we did air and water pollution, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. Ironically, the knowledge revolution powered by fossil fuels will eventually work to solve the problems created by them.

Some day, maybe a century from now, we’ll create a museum of fossil fuels that will give them their rightful place as the wonder drug that transformed humanity, the bridge that brought us from squalor to wealth. Time brings perspective.

To use an analogy appropriate for the day, fossil fuels will be like your rich, but obnoxious uncle. He’s holding forth at the Thanksgiving table about kids today and taxes and Matt LeFleur’s play calling. (He’s right about Matt LeFleur.) But eventually he’ll die and leave you a nice slice of his fortune and then you’ll tend to overlook his less attractive qualities.

I’m grateful for a lot of things, but when I think about it, pretty much all of them (including my existence since the planet’s carrying capacity for human beings increased exponentially) were made possible when we started burning coal.

I offer this today as a conversation starter for your Thanksgiving table. Your uncle might even be astonished that he agrees with you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

One thought on “Grateful For Fossil Fuels

  1. I would argue that being thankful for what fossil fuels have done for us in the past is the default position of probably all scientists and most climate activists. However, it’s not fossil fuels that are needed so much as energy itself.

    If there is a fault in this post, it’s that it doesn’t go far enough! Be thankful for CO2 (but not too much, mind you!)! Without CO2 the Earth would be one big ball of ice and advanced forms of life would have been impossible. Specifically, the mean temperature on the planet right now is about 60 F; without CO2, the temperature would be around 0 F, below freezing.

    It was 200 years ago that Joseph Fourier (he, of the famed Fourier series) knew that the Earth was far warmer than it should be due to radiation from the Sun. However, he thought the extra heat came from background radiation from the stars in the sky. About 20 years later the French physicist Claude Pouillet hypothesized that it was carbon dioxide and water vapor that kept the planet from radiating like a blackbody, but he had no experimental evidence to back up his reasoning. Twenty years after that, John Tyndall provided that experimental data in the laboratory. By the end of the 19th century Svante Arrhenius did the first calculation to show (more or less) precisely how CO2 and water vapor account for the present temperature of the planet.

    So next Thanksgiving tell your crazy uncle at the dining room table, not only are you grateful for what fossil fuels has done for us in the past, but that you’re also thankful for CO2, without which only very primitive life would have been possible. And then follow that up by saying that now it’s time to get off fossil fuels, stop emitting carbon dioxide and move on to more advanced energy sources that won’t keep warming the planet. Cause that warming thing … that’s been known for close to 200 years already.


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