Throughout human history, fossil fuels have played a critical role in satisfying the energy needs of global civilizations. The use of energy throughout human history has been tied to all phases of global development. The simplified and accepted scientific definition of energy is the capacity of a system to perform work. Energy has been needed to power global civilizations since the beginning of recorded time. Today, energy is essential for powering cars, homes, machinery, and even entire cities. In addition to there being many forms of energy, there are many different ways that energy can be produced and stored. A flowing river holds kinetic energy, a piece of coal holds chemical energy, while a computer battery can store energy electrochemically. Furthermore, atomic energy, thermal energy, electromagnetic energy, and the electrical energy provided by modern power plants are just a few different classifications of energy (Meehan, 2017). Most of the energy that is used to power modern civilizations has been derived from chemical energy found within fossil fuels.
Despite the growing threat of global warming, fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas, are being consumed in ever-great quantities with each passing year. Fossil fuels are mainly utilized by and through social, economic, and technological systems. While a relatively small amount of coal, oil, and natural gas are consumed on an individual basis through heating, cooking, and powering cars, most fossil fuels are consumed indirectly through the manufacturing of materials like cement, steel, and plastics, or as fuel for industry and electricity production (Pirani, 2018). However, the attractiveness of fossil fuels, particularly in regards to coal and petroleum, have lost their appeal as energy sources for many developed nations seeking to reduce carbon emissions. For example, natural gas has started to replace coal’s dominance with the global power sector, and zero-carbon electric vehicles (EVs) are replacing petroleum-based internal combustion engines.
In a 2008 speech focused on renewable energy, former Vice President Al Gore made a claim that “enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year,” and called for the U.S. to immediately implement plans to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources of energy (Maly, 2015). Despite the fact that renewable sources energy are rapidly becoming a main part of the global energy portfolio, scientists point to claims like the one made by Al Gore as a disservice to the energy industry, by vastly overstating the potential to immediately switch from fossil fuels to renewables, like solar power. While over the course of the next 50 to 100 years, the share of fossil fuels powering global development is expected to decline, the economics of fossil fuel production and human reliance on the systems powered by fossil fuels will take decades to fully transition over to renewable energy.
For thousands of years, human and animal labor were the primary sources of power that fueled economic activity. When mechanical energy first became prevalent, windmills and water wheels provided the repetitive movement needed to power a variety of industries. While humans survived before the fossil fuel age, human reliance on fossil fuels can be traced back many generations. Practically all of the fossil fuels that humans use today were formed millions of years ago in the prehistoric era. While the widespread adoption of fossil fuels as the primary source of global energy didn’t occur until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, ancient civilizations took advantage of easily accessible fossil fuels and used them to fuel the production of tin, bronze, and iron. Scientists believe that coal, oil, and natural gas were first used in small quantities by the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and Chinese for industrial purposes. These three main fossil fuels were integral in driving global development and stimulating industrial and economic activity around the world.
When comparing human history and the production of coal, oil, and natural gas, coal was the first fossil fuel that was exploited by ancient human civilizations. Energy experts estimate that throughout the world, there are currently 1.1 trillion tons of proven coal reserves, which is enough to last another 150 years based on current and forecasted levels of consumption (Newman, 2019). The United States holds more proven coal reserves than any other country, with over one-fourth of all the world’s coal (U.S. DOE, 2019). The earliest evidence of coal use came from the Fushun mine of northeastern China, where coal was mined and used as early as 1000 B.C. to smelt copper. In his global travels, Italian explorer Marco Polo recorded early forms of coal being used in Asia for cooking, heating, and metal production. The origins of coal being used in Europe date back to between 371 and 287 B.C., when the Greek scientist Theophrastus noted that coal was used to smelt copper (Newman, 2019). Moreover, in Roman Britain along Hadrian’s Wall (a famous Roman landmark) and other towns formerly under Roman control like Chester and Bath, there is a great deal of evidence showing that coal was used for heating and smelting iron.
By the Middle Ages, archeological records show that small-scale coal mining operations could have been found all across Europe. By the 11th century, surface deposits were mined in Belgium, England, Scotland, and France (Pirani, 2018). Coal had become widely used in the metalworking industry, as well as the fuel of choice for distilleries and breweries. By the 1400s, after firebricks for chimneys were invented, coal started to become a domestic source of heating fuel, particularly within wealthy households. During the same time period, North American Hopi Indians also used coal to bake pottery from clay and for cooking and heating (U.S. DOE, 2019). By 1600, coal had then become the standard source of heating in cities throughout Europe. The transition from wood charcoal to coal came as a result of Europeans realizing that coal burned cleaner and more efficiently than traditional wood charcoal. The Netherlands became the first country in Europe where peat coal almost entirely replaced wood by the 17th century (Pirani, 2018).
During the Industrial Revolution, which began in the early 18th century, coal played a significant role in the rapid industrialization of both Europe and the United States. After James Watt invented the steam engine, coal was used to power machines to do work that previously had to have been completed using manual human labor. Coal was an essential fuel that made the steam to run engines. Following this invention, steam engines were also used to power the railroad industry, maritime travel, and industrial boilers. By the time of the American Civil War, weapons factories began to rely on coal to power blast furnaces, which were used to make iron and steel. Using coal in blast furnaces also cut the cost of iron and steel production, which helped to bolster economic growth. This growth led to unprecedented urban development across Europe and the United States. Coal provided the fuel needed to power extraordinary levels of development around the world. Between 1870 and 1913, the global production of coal rose by nearly six times what output had been during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (Pirani, 2018). By the end of the 19th century, coal had truly become a worldwide commodity.
While coal is known as the fossil fuel that has been utilized by humans for the longest period of time, petroleum and natural gas also have a long history of use by global civilizations. Modern humans have had access to surface deposits of crude oil for thousands of years. The ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and Chinese are known to have used petroleum for lubricating their chariot wheels, waterproofing their boats, for adhesives, and even as a key element in the mummification process (Newman, 2019). Other early uses for petroleum included medicinal and weaponry applications. Petroleum was thought to help treat wounds, while it was also consumed as a laxative. Around 430 B.C., records show that Persian warriors wrapped fibers soaked in petroleum around their arrows and lit them on fire before spraying the arrows at their enemies (Meehan, 2017). Later in the 12th century, petroleum products also became essential for illumination.
Similar to ancient petroleum ponds, natural gas deposits were also used by ancient civilizations. Around 500 B.C., ancient Chinese civilizations built bamboo pipelines to transport natural gas that was used to boil saltwater brine to be converted into drinkable water (Meehan, 2017). As a result of this technological breakthrough, the Chinese are credited with developing the world’s first fossil fuel pipeline and desalinization plant. In Europe, the Greek historian and author, Plutarch (A.D. 46-120), recorded how Alexander the Great witnessed burning natural gas wells near Ecbatana, which is now known as modern-day western Iran. (Newman, 2019). The Persians were one of the first civilization to use natural gas to heat their homes beginning around 100 A.D.
While natural gas was used as a source of fuel for many ancient civilizations, the technique of liquifying natural gas wasn’t first unveiled until 1852 when British scientist Michael Faraday was able to successfully condense the gas into a chilled and liquified form (Maly, 2015). By the early 1900s, liquified natural gas plants started to become widespread around the U.S. and Europe. Coupled with the invention of the Bunsen Burner in 1885, which made it possible to safely combine gas and air for industrial heating, the development of liquefied natural gas helped to fuel economies during the post-industrial era.
In response to the transition from coal to natural gas, well-established coal mines have been closing in recent years in countries like the U.S., China, India, and South America. In the coming years, natural gas production and consumption is predicted to grow steadily, as more economies switch over to this cleaner and less carbon-intensive form of fuel. The share of coal being used in global power production is expected to decline from 41 percent in 2013 to just under 36 percent by 2021 (Newman. 2019). In a 2016 report released as part of BP’s annual review of the global energy market, coal production was noted to have dropped by over 231 million tons over the course of a single year, which was caused primarily by a production decline in the U.S. and China. However, even though developed countries are transitioning away from coal, less developed nations like Bangladesh, have continued to unveil plans to massively increase coal-fired power generation in the coming decades. Because developing nations don’t have the existing infrastructure needed to support natural gas and renewable energy generation, it is often cheaper and easier to rely on coal.
Over the course of history, the fossil fuel energy transition (from wood to coal, from coal to natural gas) has continued to result in technological breakthroughs for global energy generation. The mass adoption of new forms of energy has historically helped to stimulate the global economy. During the Industrial Revolution, the transition from wood to coal, coupled with the development of the steam engine, helped to bolster global economic growth and the expansion of urban areas. Since 2000, the worldwide consumption of petroleum products has increased progressively at 1.3% annually, with projections estimating roughly 1% per year through 2040 (Meehan, 2017). Human civilization consumes fossil fuels through an array of technological systems that are firmly embedded within the fabric of society. Since fossil fuel consumption is often driven by economic growth, a continually growing economy would suggest that fossil fuel consumption may also continue to grow. However, as history has conveyed, technological breakthroughs have predicatively had an impact on energy use and generation. In a future that may be characterized by the impacts of climate change, it will be imperative to continue to monitor how technology may impact the consumption and production of fossil fuels.
Maly, T. (2015). “A Brief History of Human Energy Use.” The Atlantic.
Meehan, G. (2017). “Thank You Fossil Fuels and Good Night: The 21st Century’s Energy Transition.” The University of Utah Press: Salt Lake City
Newman, N. (2019). “The history of fossil fuels.” Eniday.
Pirani, S. (2018). “Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption.” Pluto Press: London
U.S. DOE. (2019). “Fossil Energy Study Guide.” U.S. Department of Energy.
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