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6rant6's avatar

If there had been no fossil fuels would we be here?

Asked by 6rant6 (13619 points ) May 26th, 2012

Fossil fuels were such an important part of the 20th century, that I’m wondering whether we would ever have reached the current population and technology without them.

They’ve powered our vehicles, allowed us to have lighting, television, phones, and computers. They’ve fertilized our crops, protected them from varmints, taken then to market, cooked them, and kept them frozen. They’ve made it possible for us to smelt metals, fuse glass, and create a range of plastics.

If there had never been oil, coal, or natural gas, it certainly would have taken longer to get her, but I’m wondering if we would have been able to get here at all.

What’s your best guess?

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25 Answers

ETpro's avatar

Yes, mankind would certainly be here. No, we wouldn’t be nearing wiping ourselves out. But there were humans here for a very long time before they found and exploited fossil fuels. So yes, we would exist. Just not in this way in in these numbers.

jerv's avatar

There are many ways to get energy, so it may have taken longer but we would’ve gotten there eventually.

@ETpro If it weren’t fossil fuels, we would find other ways to wipe ourselves out too.

jaytkay's avatar

No, absolutely not, we would not be here.

Cheap energy is the reason the past 200 years have been so unlike all previous history.

blueberry_kid's avatar

Yes, because not only do we not have to, gasoline is now being able to made as “gasohol” from ethanol and gasoline, as well as gas being made from corn. Also, we as humans can live off of the sun, wind, and water. We can insulate our houses, convert to a non fossil-fueling heating system by heating with wood if possible in your area, pellet stoves, electric heat by installing heat pumps underground, geothermal heat pumps, and converting to renewable electricity and energy with solar panels.

Source: Going green

6rant6's avatar

@blueberry_kid I don’t know if you heard about this, but when the US started promoting the production of fuels from plants, the cost of gasoline shot up because there is so much fuel used in the production of grains – power for water pumping, fertilizers, pesticides, operation of farm vehicles.

ragingloli's avatar

The first cars were actually designed to run on electricity and some even on vegetable oil.
Had fossil fuels not been available, those designs would have become prevalent from the start.
(and steam engines run on wood, too)

As for the rest, wind, water, solar and geothermal always were available and would have been used and developed earlier, too. Iceland already gets half of its entire energy from geothermal and they plan to get the other half as well. You do not even need photovoltaic for solar energy, you can focus the light with mirrors on a central tower, which superheats fluid, which then can drive a turbine to create the juice.

6rant6's avatar

@ETpro Perhaps you didn’t read the details of my question?

jaytkay's avatar

The first cars were actually designed to run on electricity

Electricity is not an energy source. Those cars were running on hydro or fossil fuels.

bkcunningham's avatar

Where do you think the majority of electricity comes from?

6rant6's avatar

Can anyone figure out how much of the planet we’d need to cover with solar collectors to produce the energy of all our fossil fuel uses? Don’t forget to take into account that in the highest and lowest latitudes of civilization, we still have to have power. Personally, I have no clue.

In order for those first mirrors to be made, we’d have had to produce energy by burning trees?

syz's avatar

I doubt it. Just how far would we have gotten on steam power?

ragingloli's avatar

@6rant6
You do not just rely on a single source. You use the full range. Hydro, Aero, Solar, Geothermal.
Coastal areas are perfect for hydroelectric plants and offshore wind farms. Mainland wind farms can be neatly scattered between existing actual farms and in the vast wastelands of the US and other countries on Earth.
Photovoltaic panels can be put on virtually every roof of every house on the planet. You do not need cloudless weather for the panels to work. Larger plants can be put in deserts. There are a lot of deserts on Earth. I would say if you filled the deserts of Earth with solar power plants, solar alone would be more than enough to power the globe.
And geothermal can be placed anywhere where there is volcanic activity or near fault lines.
You can also plug a big one into the yellowstone super volcano.

Renewable energy is everywhere, it is more than enough to power the entire planet, and it is waiting.

bkcunningham's avatar

This, @6rant6, is an interesting article that attempts to answer your question:

http://solarbythewatt.com/2009/03/05/can-solar-replace-fossil-fuels/

bkcunningham's avatar

The article says it would take 125,000 sq. miles, or an area the size of Norway, Malaysia, Finland, Germany, a bit less than Japan, a bit more than New Mexico or simply area 350×350 miles to replace the total energy consumption in the world, not just electricity, with solar. This would be done at a cost 1.5 times the GDP of the world.

ragingloli's avatar

for comparison, the Sahara Desert in Africa has an area of 3.6 million square miles.
(and you do not have to spend it all at once, you can stretch it over a few decades, plus the price of the components will most likely fall tremendously over that period as well)

blueberry_kid's avatar

@6rant6 Here is why you’re right, maybe the corn gasoline production isn’t the smartest idea, but I still stick with my opinion of thinking that we will survive without fossil fuels. Why? There are plenty enviornmentally helpful things to do, as I listed above.

ETpro's avatar

@6rant6 Regarding ethanol, like so many things we insist here in the US that due to American Exceptionalism we can’t look at how anyone else in the world does things, even when they already have a way that works.. Brazil has a self-sustaining ethanol production system and produced 5.57 billion U.S. liquid gallons in 2011.

As to your OP, I read the details and answered your question with my best guess. If you don’t understand something I said as an answer, tell me what it is and I’ll try to clarify my ramblings.

@bkcunningham Enough solar energy hits the earth to supply 20,000 times the total energy requirements of humanity currently.

gasman's avatar

The industrial revolution was fueled largely by coal, then by oil. Hard to say how development might have been stifled these past 250 years without plentiful energy-dense fuel. Now the trick is to eliminate it.

rooeytoo's avatar

Some of us would still be living here no doubt. And actually there are still some who live as we all did before fossil fuels came into use. But I tell you what, I don’t want to live that way. Look at the head hunters in New Guinea, the only fossil fuels they use are trees for fires. LIving in a grass hut with no laptop, stove, air con, heat, electricity, indoor plumbing, hot water, iphone and on and on, is not my idea of the good life.

That’s the other consideration, if there were no coal or oil to use, there would be a hell of a lot less trees!

ETpro's avatar

@rooeytoo As @gasman says, it’s hard to guess. There are plenty of alternative forms of energy, but we have used the abundant electrical energy largely generated by coal and oil to develop them. We would have certainly figured out other ways. Wind, hydro and geothermal energy to name a few. With the energy they gave, we could have worked on solar. But my guess is the pace would have been much slower.

rooeytoo's avatar

Isn’t it interesting that some groups of people find ways to improve their way of life and others stay the way they are. What makes “we” the smart ones who find a way no matter what, while others seem to stand still in areas of development? I wonder if climate has something to do with it, or is it ambition, or intelligence???

6rant6's avatar

Asking whether we could convert to fossil fuels is quite different from asking whether we could have gotten here without them. All of those alternative sources of energy we might switch to now use smelted metals, and petrochemicals to produce the parts. How much energy would it take just to mine and process the requisite amount of copper?

gasman's avatar

@rooeytoo Read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Well maybe not – it seems to be out of print now. Anyhow, he argues persuasively for the huge roles that chance & luck played – not intelligence – in explaining the technological dominance of Europeans.

rooeytoo's avatar

@gasman – I’ll look for the book, but I think it is a hell of a stretch to say that luck and chance put us ahead of the head hunters. OR at least it could have been true for a couple of initial steps but after that…......

ETpro's avatar

Off topic, so please don’t let it derail the topical discussion, but @gasman & @rooeytoo, even out of print books are no further away than your local library if, as almost all are, they are part of the Inter-Library Loan program.

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