Home | Transformations | Fossil Fuel Energy – Sixth important transformation


Poll: Like Our New Look?
Do you like our new look & feel?

Fossil Fuel Energy – Sixth important transformation

Font size: Decrease font Enlarge font

Coal has been used in Europe since the 12th century (and in China it was burned 2,000 years ago). It first became a dominant energy source only in the 17th century in England, followed by some other European countries in the 18th century. By this time, due to the clearance of forests, the availability of fuel wood decreased in Europe, forcing many countries to import timber, sometimes even from other continents. Technological changes (e.g., the appearance of the blast furnace making the processing of coal easier) also contributed to the switch to coal. As a consequence, extraction of coal became cheaper than that of fuel wood.

The massive use of coal provided humanity with energy in a concentration never witnessed before. This huge amount of energy significantly contributed to the outset of the Industrial Revolution beginning in England in the second half of the 18th century. Industry became more and more based on machines instead of handicraft, and it gained an ever greater role in the economy at the expense of agriculture. Nevertheless, it is likely that in the beginning technological changes – especially the spectacular increase in the reliability of the new prime movers, steam engines in the second half of the 18th century – played a more important role in industrialization than coal itself. This view is supported by the fact that at first industrialization in the United States – which was richer in forests than Europe – was based mainly on wood (and water power) and it was only at the end of the 19th century that coal became the dominant energy source. In the later stages of industrialization, however, the energy demand of the economy increased to such an extent that – counting on the technologies of those times – satisfying it without fossil fuels would have been impossible.

In the mid-19th century a second type of fossil fuel, crude oil – having an even greater energy density (measured in J/kg) than coal – appeared. Crude oils have become the propellants of internal combustion engines. These prime movers were developed from the mid-19th century, and were lighter and more efficient than steam engines. In the 20th century crude oil became the dominant energy source of the world, and this situation has not changed, despite the two oil crises in the 1970s decreasing its significance. The third type of fossil fuel, natural gas, became widespread only in the second half of the 20th century.

The basis for the widespread use of electricity was laid down when, in 1831, Michael Faraday demonstrated electromagnetic induction. He showed that mechanical energy can be converted into electricity and vice versa. By the end of the 19th century the invention of the first cheap and reliable transformers made possible the long-distance transmission of electricity. This invention, together with electric motors, prime movers powered by electricity and also invented at about the same time, caused a steep rise in energy use. From the end of the 19th century part of the fossil fuels (30% in 2000) have been converted to electricity in power plants, making easier the delivery of fossil fuels’ energy to locations remote from their reserves. (Beside fossil fuels, electricity can be generated from other primary energy sources as well, such as from water or wind power.) Although the first power plants were operated by steam engines, in a short time they were replaced by the more efficient, lighter and smaller new prime movers, steam turbines. This change was an indispensable condition for the large-scale generation of electricity. Today about 80% of the global electricity supply is generated by steam turbines.

There was an increase of approximately 40-fold in the total energy use of the world between 1800 and 2000, due primarily to the use of fossil fuels and electricity. Today, world economy is based on fossil fuels. Coal, crude oil, and natural gas together supply about 75% of the global energy demand. The machines driven by these energy sources and the products of these machines have made possible a significantly greater extent of transformation of the biosphere than ever before. The burning of fossil fuels has been contributing to several serious environmental problems (e.g., global climate change, urban smog and acid deposition).

The Birth of Market Economy

Market economy is an economy governed, in an ideal case, exclusively by market prices. This means that the pro production and distribution of goods are entrusted to a self-regulating mechanism. Though the institution of market has been known for millennia, it did not play a dominant role in the economies of human societies until the 19th century. In other words, profit made on exchange was virtually never an important element of the economy. The number and significance of markets began to increase in the 16th century. However, in the beginning societies were not yet transformed by them and the idea of self-regulating markets was unknown as well. Market economy was born in England following the Industrial Revolution in the first half of the 19th century. As soon as production became accomplished with the aid of complex machinery in a commercial society, the idea of self-regulating market economy appeared. This happened because complex machines were expensive and therefore their use was rewarding only if large quantities of goods were produced by them. (This, in turn, became feasible due to fossil fuels increasing the amount of available energy.) Thus, the profitable operation of these machines was possible only if both the sale of manufactured goods and the availability of primary goods (e.g., natural resources) feeding the machines were guaranteed. For the successful operation of this system it became necessary to treat nature as a fictitious commodity, which means that it had to become subordinated to market mechanisms. At the same time, society had to be reorganized as well. While in earlier times the economy was controlled by the society, now this control weakened and the situation turned around. Society has become more and more subordinated to market economy (cf., the term “market society”), and profit making has become one of the most important motives of people’s actions.

Colonization and World Trade: The Expansion of

Industrialism and Market Economy

Industrialization and fossil fuels gave an impetus to colonization and world trade. While in 1800 the value of world trade was only 3% of the world economic output, it rose to 33% by 1913. Then, following the decline caused by the two world wars and the global economic recession in the 1930s, it recovered to the level of 1913 by the 1980s and has been further increasing ever since.

The volume and the speed of transport increased significantly due to three factors: 1) fossil fuels, 2) the considerable improvements in road quality beginning in the mid-18th century, and 3) the appearance of the new prime movers light and small enough to be built in vehicles. Due to the easier availability of distant resources, increasing mobility and easier transportation resulted in the growth of economic output and population30. The use of steamships and locomotives from the 1830s made possible the appearance of the first reliable transcontinental and global transport networks. New industrial processes and inventions increased the demand on several raw materials coming from the colonies (e.g., the introduction of vulcanization increased the demand on rubber.) The improvements in communication technology have also contributed to global economic integration.

Most societies in the Third World were obliged to switch from autarky to production for the world market. Moreover, in most cases their production has been reduced to just a few (or even only one) export products (e.g., crops or metal ores), and the money received in turn has been applied to import other goods. Thus, the Third World has become dependent upon world market prices, without being able to exert any significant influence on them. As a consequence, the richer countries have been able to exploit the natural resources of the Third World at a reduced price, and therefore rather easily. In many cases the demands of distant markets have meant a suction force much too powerful to attain sustainable resource management. Colonization, however, has resulted not only in the takeaway of resources from the Third World, but also the spread of commodities and technologies coming from the richer countries. While the diffusion of commodities has been rather unhindered, this has not always been true for technology transfer.

Market economy has gradually expanded worldwide and this process was only temporarily hindered by the world wars and the global economic recession in the 1930s, and is therefore still flourishing. The main flywheel of this system is profit making. Since it can only be attained by increasing the possibilities for investments, economy is virtually destined to perpetual growth. More importantly, because of several real or alleged reasons, economic growth has been promoted by virtually all states in the world – and not only states with market economy – competing with each other economically. Moreover, economic growth has generally been considered as one of the most desirable social goals.

The growth of the world economy gathered momentum from about 1820, and from the beginning of the 1870s its rate of increase reached unprecedented heights. Apart from the period between 1914 and 1945 (when there was only moderate growth) this rate of increase has been more or less continuous ever since. Between 1820 and 1992 there was growth of about 40-fold in the world economy, indicating a per capita growth of about 9-fold. In contrast, in the previous centuries per capita economic output stagnated. Most of the energy required for this growth was supplied by fossil fuels (and the growth in the 20th century was based mainly on crude oils). Beside this huge amount of energy, technological and scientific changes were the most important foundations for economic growth. The growing scale of the world economy has resulted in an ever increasing use of natural resources and an ever increasing production of wastes and pollution.

The Boom in Chemical Industry

The increase in the amount of available energy, together with the application of new scientific results, played an important role in the very quick unfolding of the chemical industry in the 19th century. The synthetic compounds produced by this industry – about 150,000 of them have seen commercial use – have caused several environmental problems. For example, halogenated hydrocarbons have damaged the stratospheric ozone layer, and several types of plastics (many of them are derivatives of crude oils) widely used since 1945, have caused problems mainly as wastes.

The Industrialization of Agriculture and Fishing

Agriculture underwent a huge transformation due to industrialization. Machines and machine made tools appeared in the fields. As a consequence, agricultural yields have increased due to both the more intensive cultivation and the increase in the area of cultivated lands. The latter has led to the further decrease in the areas occupied by natural ecosystems. From the 20th century chemical industry has provided agriculture with huge amounts of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, causing serious environmental problems. The pumping of groundwater has made possible irrigation – and therefore agricultural production – on lands considered much too arid before, and it has contributed to the intensification of irrigation elsewhere. Today, pumped water is used on about half of the world’s irrigated lands.

From the 19th century, the increase in yields caused by the industrialization of agriculture has been one of the important causes (and also consequences) of the rapid population growth. In this respect, nitrogen fertilizers have played a particularly important role. Nitrogen is a limiting resource in many ecosystems and for a long time this was true for the majority of agricultural ecosystems as well. However, the invention of (industrial) ammonia synthesis, a highly energy intensive process (in most cases natural gases are used for supplying the energy), made possible a significant increase in agricultural yields. The mass application of nitrogen fertilizers started at the beginning of the 1950s and it has been increasing very rapidly ever since, contributing significantly to the post-war increase in the growth rate of human population. In 1950, world population was about 2.5 billion, while it reached 6 billion by the end of the 20th century. For at least one third, but perhaps even two fifths of the current world population, the nitrogen content of proteins in food is supplied by synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. This means that human ammonia synthesis is essential for the existence of a significant proportion of people living today. At the same time, the application of nitrogen fertilizers has contributed to several environmental problems, such as the global climate change and the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer, by increasing the atmospheric concentration of nitrous oxide.

The fishing process also became industrialized in the early 19th century, as indicated by the use of, for example, steam trawlers, power winches, and from the 20th century, diesel engines, freezer trawlers, etc. This has resulted in unsustainable fishing practices and the depletion of many of the world fisheries indicated by the decline of global catches since the late 1980s.

Mass Urbanization

Before the fossil fuel era, the size of cities and the number of big cities were limited by the fact that their energy demand (e.g., fuels and food) had to be supplied from biomass energy with low power density (measured in W/m2) coming from the areas surrounding them. In the absence of powerful prime movers, the possibility of transport from distant areas was also limited. Fossil fuels with high power density changed this situation. It was not by accident that in the beginning many big cities were born near coalfields. Later, due to the widespread use of electricity and vehicles driven by the new prime movers, the proximity of fossil fuels ceased to be an important condition for the rise of big cities.

At the beginning of the 19th century only about 2.5% of the world population lived in cities. This proportion reached about 10% by the dawn of the 20th century, and – to a large extent due to Third World urbanization starting in the 20th century – about 50% by the beginning of the 21st century. Both the number of cities and the number of their inhabitants have been increasing.

The new factories of cities absorbed a large part of the working force freed by the industrialization of agriculture. This has resulted in a further separation from nature for masses of people. Cities and industrial areas have expanded to the detriment of natural ecosystems and agricultural lands. This process has been boosted by increased mobility. Urbanization has brought about the genesis, the worsening, and the increase in the frequency of several local urban environmental problems (e.g., air pollution, noise, etc.).

Scientific (R)evolution and the Change in the Dominant

Worldview and Set of Values

It is not very likely that the sudden increase in the extent and pace of human transformation of the biosphere characterizing this sixth transition would have been so spectacular without the significant changes in people’s ideas about the surrounding world. Presumably, these changes were both the causes and consequences of the increase in transformation of the biosphere. Worldview changes can be traced back to a large extent to the Scientific (R)evolution unfolding in the 17th century – but rooting in the Middle Ages – and particularly to the works of René Descartes (1596-1650) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Later, the European worldview and set of values have become almost universal.

Descartes considered the whole material universe (and also living organisms) similar to a machine operating according to the laws of mechanics and governed by exact mathematical principles. This became the dominant paradigm of science until the 20th century, and though it was already fundamentally reinterpreted – mostly by some physicists of the previous century – our way of thinking is still under its influence. Furthermore, Descartes categorically separated mind from matter, creating the philosophical basis for the later desacralization of nature. Obviously, the exploitation and manipulation of a nature viewed in the Cartesian way is easier than, for example, that of a Mother Earth considered as a living organism. Furthermore, Descartes – foreshadowing the subsequent marriage of science and technology – emphasized that by means of science humanity would become the master and possessor of nature.

Newton put the ideas of Descartes into practice. Building mainly on the results of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes, he elaborated the mathematical principles of the mechanistic view of nature. Newtonian physics served as a model for most of the new scientific disciplines born in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is also true for modern economics emerging in the second half of the 18th century. Neoclassical economics, the currently dominant school in economic science, which generally neglects the natural constraints imposed on economic activities, is the successor of classical economics, and therefore of the Newtonian mechanistic worldview as well.

The works of Descartes and Newton played an important role in the unfolding of The Enlightenment propagating the liberation of humankind from natural constraints by the help of reason and science from the 18th century. Secularization was a characteristic feature of the Enlightenment. Consequently, the behavior of most people ceased to be regulated by coherent religious worldviews. Due to secularization and the birth of market society, human behavior has become more and more characterized by instrumental rationality (that is, action aimed at the realization of arbitrarily determined goals by the help of the most suitable instruments), which hardly existed before and based on abstract conceptual thinking. Thus, the consideration of the justness of goals has been more and more eclipsed by the importance of the efficiency of instruments. This has also proved to be true for science. Modern, Cartesian-Newtonian science acting in the spirit of instrumental rationality (i.e., a narrowly interpreted rationality) has aimed at the construction of a special kind of knowledge that is predictive, technologically constructive, and suitable for the manipulation of nature.

Belief in progress, which virtually did not exist in earlier societies (at least in a mundane  sense) was also a product of the Enlightenment. Due mainly to the fast and spectacular changes of science and technology, several thinkers started to believe that human history is a chronicle of perpetual progress. Moreover, a reverse effect has risen as well: the necessity of progress (or that of the quasi-synonymous “development”) has become one of the central ideas of societies, stimulating economic growth and increase in technological complexity.

While it is hard to determine to what degree the ideas of philosophers or scientists and those of other people overlap (though this overlap is probably significant), by the promotion of increase in technological complexity, Cartesian-Newtonian science has undeniably contributed to the extended transformation of the biosphere. In this respect, the above-mentioned boom in the chemical industry and the use of nuclear energy from the 20th century should be emphasized. The latter has caused an increase in the concentrations of certain radioactive isotopes in several parts of the biosphere, often damaging living organisms, including human beings.

Medical Science and Chemical Industry Against



Through decreasing mortality – mainly owing to the rather successful combat against pathogens – medical science played an important role in the unfolding of the population explosion. The most important milestone in this respect was perhaps the establishment of germ theory by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in the 1860s and 1870s. This theory is the recognition that infectious diseases are caused by microbes. It was a prerequisite for the development of vaccines against infections – discovered already several decades before, but applied only against smallpox until then. It also gave impetus to the improvement of sanitation beginning already in the first half of the 19th century. The marriage of medical science and chemical industry has resulted in the appearance of many types of new medicines. Antibiotics have been particularly important among these. Their systematic development began after the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1929. The use of antibiotics has become widespread after World War II, greatly helping the fight against infectious diseases, and thus contributing to the acceleration of world population growth after 1945. Synthetic pesticides used against insect vectors of diseases had the same effect.

No tags for this article
Rate this article