The Five Keys to Progress (Part 6): Fossil Fuels

If this is the first post that you have ever read on my blog, I would recommend starting with An Introduction to Progress: Mankind’s Greatest Accomplishment. Then I would recommend reading the first post of this series.

In the previous posts in this series, I argued that the concept of the Five Keys of Progress enables us to better under the history of how nations developed and what policies will work in promoting progress today.

I also argued that to transition from poverty to progress, a society needs to acquire and maintain the five keys to progress:

  1. A highly productive food production and distribution system. This enables societies to overcome geographical constraints to food production so that large numbers of people can focus on solving problems other than getting enough food to eat.
  2. Trade-based cities packed with a large number of free citizens possessing a wide variety of skills. These people innovate new technologies, skills and social organizations and copy the innovations made by others.
  3. Decentralized political, economic, religious and ideological power. Of particular importance are elites being forced into transparent, non-violent competition that undermines their ability to forcibly extract wealth from the masses. This also allows citizens to freely choose among institutions based upon how much they have offer to each individual and society in general.
  4. At least one high value-added industry that exports to the rest of the world. This injects wealth into the city or region, accelerates economic growth and creates markets for smaller local industries and services.

As I wrote in previous posts, a number of societies established four of the five key components of progress. These “Commercial societies” had highly productive agriculture, thriving trade-based cities full of free people with a wide variety of skills and institutions that forced elites to compete against each other peacefully. First emerging in Northern Italy in the 13th Century and then gradually spreading to modern-day Belgium and later Netherlands and southeast England, these Commercial cities were centers of innovation that brought a great deal of progress to their citizens.

The society that was able to progress the most before the Industrial Revolution, the Netherlands achieved its peak around 1670. The Dutch in the 17th Century relied on the following energy sources: burning wood, horsepower, wind-power (in the form of sailing ships and windmills), water-power (in the form of watermills) and peat-power (decayed vegetation). This made the Dutch Republic in 1670 the wealthiest society that had ever existed, but it was still very poor by today’s standards.

The key missing ingredient was widespread use of fossil fuels, which enabled humans to acquire huge amounts of concentrated chemical energy and transform it into useful energy to perform tasks. Most importantly, that energy can be used to innovate new technologies.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain added this fifth and final key to progress. The result was key technological innovations that transformed daily life. The railroad, steamship, steam turbines, automobiles, trucks, airplanes, electric motors, container ships and the electrical grid, are just a few of the thousands of industrial technologies that we take for granted today.

These fossil fuel-based technologies led to a standard of living for a typical person far beyond anything the richest men of the pre-Industrial era could imagine. Before the use of fossil fuels, economic growth and technological innovation mainly benefitted a very small portion of the world’s population. Today, to a large extent because of fossil fuels, economic growth and technological innovation benefits the vast majority of the world’s population.

Fossil fuels are critical to progress and economic growth because of their incredible energy density and the fact that they are affordable, easily stored, transported, reliable, controllable and easy to scale to fit needs. And because of these characteristics their geographical limitations on usage are radically less than virtually all other energy sources.

All of these advantages explain why fossil fuels offer huge advantages over pre-Industrial energy sources such as human-power, animal-power, wind-power and water-power. Human-power and animal-power require food, which was the critical constraint for traditional societies. Humans and animals need food to survive and reproduce and they need far greater amounts of food to increase production beyond subsistence.

Before the Industrial Revolution, society was caught in a “Catch-22.” You need more energy and food to create progress, but the people and animals require to produce that energy require more energy to do so. This is why the delay between the invention of agriculture and the Industrial Revolution. Gradually a few societies overcame those limits by increasing per capita food production and distributing the gains to productive cities.

In addition to being one of Five Keys to Progress, fossil fuels are also critical two of the other keys: highly productive agriculture and export industries. Fossil-fuel-powered tractors, synthetic fertilizers and petroleum bi-products have played a critical role in radically expanding agricultural productivity. And while some industries do not require high amounts of fossil fuel usage beyond electricity, these are mainly industries dominated by rich nations. Manufacturing is critically dependent upon affordable, controllable energy that only fossil fuels can provide.

Quite simply the prosperous world that we live in today would not have been possible without the widespread usage of fossil fuels. The Industrial Revolution in Britain might have been fueled by imported wood and charcoal, but it surely could not have spread to the rest of the world and lasted for centuries without fossil fuels. Without industrial technologies powered by fossil fuels, most nations would still be living at the same standard-of-living as they did in 1500: i.e. desperate poverty for virtually everyone but a few elites and a few lonely commercial cities.

While we have developed other industrial energy sources since the Industrial Revolution (nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind, biomass, geothermal), none of them offer all or even most of the advantages of fossil fuels. In particular, all but nuclear have very serious geographical constraints and much lower energy density, while solar and wind are unavailable during large portions of the day and year.

Proponents of solar and wind are correct in that their prices are falling rapidly, but they do not acknowledge that price is only one of constraints on our ability to replace fossil fuels with an alternate energy source. Indeed all other modern energy sources require vast amounts of fossil fuels to construct in the first place.

One important point is that the use of fossil fuels is far more important than the production of it. Many nations have industrialized without domestic resources of fossil fuels, although domestic coal sources have been very important. Because of industrial transportation technologies and energy companies, anyone can now buy fossil fuels on the market.

And some nations have been seriously hurt by domestic fossil fuel production. While the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Norway have largely benefitted from domestic production, a long list nations such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Kuwait, Venezuela, Mexico have been hurt by such production.

In general, nations which acquired the five keys to progress before discovering coal, petroleum or natural gas have benefitted from their discoveries. Those nations are effectively adding the revenue to an already dynamic and stable political and economic order based upon transparent, non-violent competition between elites.

Nations that discovered fossil fuels before they acquired the five keys to progress have usually experienced the opposite. They rapidly evolve huge government monopolies to extract and distribute fossil fuels. Those monopolies then distribute the wealth to a small group of political and economic elites to maintain power. The last thing these elites want is transparent, non-violent competition between each other. Nor do they want other high value-added industries that create local wealthy that can potentially be used to finance political opposition.

These nations have effectively established a modernized version of what Agrarian elites have been doing for thousands of years: extract wealth from society and use it for their own purposes. The enormous amounts of wealth generated by fossil fuels gives them a new lease on life and enables them to effectively ignore demands from the masses for more freedom and economic growth.

Today virtually every mention of fossil fuels highlights the negative consequences of their use, particularly pollution and climate change. But it is important to realize that fossil fuels, despite their drawbacks, are a key foundation of progress. Fossil fuels power innovation. Fossil fuels power economic growth. Fossil fuels power our education system, our transportation system, our health care system, and our military. Fossil fuels are key to generating all the wealth that pays for every government program we have.  Before we try to eliminate fossil fuels, we need to make sure that we do not also eliminate all the benefits that have come from their use

If you would like to learn more about this and other related topics, read my book From Poverty to Progress.


Michael Magoon is the author of the “From Poverty to Progress” series of books. The first book in the series is already published with many more to follow.

The writings above are under the same copyright as the main book “From Poverty to Progress”
Copyright © 2021 Michael Magoon

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