Fossil Fuel Bubble
The term “bubble” has often been used to describe periods of economic excess such as the 18th century Tulip bubble, the 1929 stock market bubble, and the 2007 housing bubble. Recklessly expanded and easily burst, those occurences are accurately characterized by the word “bubble”. When they exploded and the economy collapsed, millions of people suffered the consequences. In a similar way, it may be said, that humanity has been and is creating a circumstance of energy use based on fossil fuels that is destined to burst. This development is not measured in years or decades, it is measured in centuries. The foundation in nature upon which this event is based, is the creation of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) that has taken place over many millions of years.
The process of the life and death of plants and animals is involved. The sun is the source of most of the energy on our planet. In the process of photosynthesis, plants grow, and in growing, they release oxygen and store carbon, the building block of life. Animal life has emerged through the reverse process of absorbing oxygen and releasing carbon in the form of carbon dioxide.The result is a fundamental balance of life on earth. When plants die (and animals), the material, from which they are made, decays. In decaying, carbon is released to the atmosphere. Some of that material is buried by accumulations of soil before the carbon is released. Over the millennia, the weight of earth above the decaying material has provided the environment necessary to convert that material into fossil fuels.
On a smaller time scale, measured in tens of thousands of years, the human species, homo sapiens, has evolved. Human beings have been identified by skeletal remains and genetic tracing, in Africa about 60,000 to 100,000 years ago. They have gradually migrated to almost every part of the earth, adapting culturally to many different environments. Meanwhile the climate has varied, with average global temperatures fluctuating in cycles marked by the ebb and flow of ice from the polar extremities of the planet. These changes were part of a natural cycle that affected every part of the biosphere. The interaction of the earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere are complex and only partially understood. Many species of life have come and gone, while many have survived the changes. Nature has had millions of years to experiment and to produce a balance to which these surviving species have successfully adapted.
The last ice age came to an end about eleven and a half thousand years ago, and the climate, with minor variations, has been stable since then. At about that time, archeologists have discovered, signs of human activity that were new and unprecedented. For the first time, humans were discovered to have been living in small, more or less, permanent villages, around which, they were planting crops. An agricultural revolution had begun. For the first time, humans were beginning to transform the environment. They were selecting certain grasses, mainly wheat and barley, which they found most edible, most manipulable, most easily cultivated, and most easily stored. In planting these crops, they multiplied the supply of available food.
The domestication of plants was followed, generations later, by the domestication of animals. Farm animals complemented agriculture by feeding on the stubble after a harvest, and dropping their manure, which served to fertilize the soil. The fundamental balance between plants and animals was utilized to increase the food supply for humans. Some plant material was found useful for other purposes such as the production of clothing, or the building of shelters. Domesticated animals also provided skins and fur for clothing, and milk as well as meat. Some domesticated animals, such as horses and oxen, were useful as beasts of burden, providing great new sources of energy for farming and for transport. The process of modernization was underway.
The agricultural revolution set in motion an economic growth that began with the production of a farm surplus. That surplus enabled some people to do something other than farming; to specialize in craft production. Specialization made production more efficient, increasing the surplus. Specialization also led to trade and to specialists in trade; the merchants. Surplus, specialization and trade, each reinforcing the other, were the engines of economic growth.
Surplus also fed more people and allowed the population to grow. Population density became concentrated in areas most suitable as centers of trade; located along rivers and seas because travel by water was the superior means of travel. The pre-industrial city grew. The need to organize large numbers of people and to coordinate the complex activities of a city, in trade with other cities, required some form of government and a hierarchy of leadership. The need to provide security against outside threats led to the formation of armies. Religious practices became formalized and a priesthood developed. All of these specialized activities among considerable numbers of people, who were not always in verbal contact with each other, were greatly facilitated by the development of written languages. All of these facets of civilization were made possible by the agricultural revolution.
Different levels of status and prestige became associated with the various specialized activities, and some specialties became more lucrative than others. A class structure developed, in which, typically the upper class consisted of the rulers, the military leaders and the priesthood. The lower class were the farmers who worked the land, and were the most numerous class. Merchants and craftsmen, whose economic activities and skills were highly valued, became a middle class. Conflict between communites and conquest of one by another, caused some of the conquered people to be enslaved.
With the passage of generations, the principle of inheritance took on great cultural importance as a means of preserving wealth and status. All of this became possible with the agricultural revolution.
Jared Diamond, the author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, explains the central role of geography in the expansion of civilization. The Fertile Crescent, the area defined by the Tigris-Euphrates rivers in the east, and the Mediterranean coast in the west, possessed the wheat and barley; and the sheep, goats, cattle and horses that enabled domestication of plants and animals to be first developed. Similar river-valley ennvironments in China and India were locations of civilizations there. The same latitudes that these early civilizations shared facilitated the expansion of civilization across the great land mass of the EurAsian continent.
A great migration of people, over tens of thousands of years, came out of Africa, north to the Fertile Crescent, east to India and China; and from India, north to central Asia. From there, other migrants moved westward into Europe, while a smaller current of migrants moved into the far north and westward across a great land bridge into the Americas. The march of civilization into Europe, at the western end of EurAsia, was facilitated by the Mediterranean Sea, which, shaped like an arrow pointed westward to the Atlantic Ocean, provided the best means of expansion. The Nile River, the irregular Greek peninsula, and the centrally-located Italian peninsula were the sign-posts of that westward march, which originated in the Fertile Crescent.
At each step of the way, the population of the civilized world was being fertilized by the continued migration of people from Africa and central Asia. Cultural diffusion occurred throughout the migration; Africans and “sea people” into Egypt, cross-fertilization between Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, Phoenicians and Greeks westward-bound via the Mediterranean, Macedonians into Greece, Etruscans into Italy, and Greco-Macedonians, in the time of Alexander the Great, creating a cultural bridge across the known civilized world.
Then came the Romans into Carthage and Macedonia, from thence into the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, and westward into the Iberian peninsula, and northward into Gaul and Britain. The genius of the Roman Empire rested upon its ability to absorb so many people with diverse cultures into one commonwealth. It was an empire based upon the Mediterranean Sea with the city of Rome at its geographic center.
As the Roman Empire declined, the expansion of the civilized world continued. Parthians established an empire in Persia, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine Empire) remained in the eastern Mediterranean, and Western Civilization (an amalgamation of Greco-Roman, Christian, and Germanic cultures) expanded in western Europe.
That was followed in the 7th century by the rapid spread of the Islamic civilization from Arabia, eventually including the Fertile Crescent and extending along north Africa to the Iberian peninsula in Europe. A great deal of the intellectual progress in the Fertile Crescent was passed on by the Islamics via the Iberian peninsula into western civilization. The Renaissance began in the Italian peninsula, in part, due to this transmission of knowledge. Beginning in the 15th century in the Italian city-states the intellectual progress of the Renaissance spread into northern and western Europe.
The Renaissance was accompanied and stimulated by the expansion, via the Atlantic Ocean, of western European states on the northwest periphery of Europe. The center of economic growth of western civilization shifted from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Overseas expansion occurred first from Portugal and Castile and , by the 17th century, from Holland, England, and France. Western civilization entered a new phase of its history, which involved access and control over resources across the globe.
The intellectual resurgence, begun in the Renaissance, continued in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century and the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. These were the precursors of unprecedented gains in technology and productivity. Western Europe was prepared to launch into a new era, as dramatically different in its voluminous and widespread effects, as the beginnings of agriculture had brought to the hunting and gathering economy of 10,000 years earlier. The Industrial Revolution, begun in England in the late 17th century, spread, first across Europe, and then across the planet by the 21st century.
The Industrial Revolution
In the mid-17th century, Europeans were not likely to be aware of the approach of a new era of growth and productivity that would fundamentally transform their lives. Historians write of a Seventeeth Century Crisis marked by an increase in the frequency of war, a recurrence of disease, and a leveling-off of population growth. The Thirty-Years War devastated central Europe, the English were just recovering from a civil war and the city of London, soon thereafter, experienced a disastrous revisitation of the plague and a fire that consumed much of the city. Religious intolerance and persecution remained at a high level, and a wave of witchhunts swept across Europe. Throughout the agricultural era, population had grown slowly, but erratically, as long periods of gradual increase in production were punctuated by sharp downturns. It looked as if European population, after a slow recovery from calamities in the 14th century, was again about to take a plunge.
Quite the opposite circumstances occurred. Economic growth was spurred in the states facing the Atlantic Ocean. France prospered under the stable rule of King Louis XIV. England was stimulated by overseas trade, a mercantile revolution, and a Parliament which represented and favored the merchants and craftsmen, who were in the vanguard of progress. Holland experienced a “golden age”, also driven by maritime activities. Wealthy entrepreneurs experimented with new ways of organizing craft labor, employed cheap labor provided by the peasantry, who would otherwise have been hard-pressed to survive. Banks, insurance, and joint stock companies were formed in Holland and England that organized capital for large ventures. These were among the precursors of industrialization.
There were numerous factors, both in terms of opportunities to take advantage of, and challenges to meet, that resulted in the industrial revolution. Once begun, the process would, over the next three and a half centuries, be extended, first in Europe and then across the globe.
First of all, it involved economic growth; that is the accumulation of a surplus, a multiplication of specialties, and a dynamic expansion of trade. These economic changes fundamentally transformed political and social organizations. Spreading literacy, expansion of education, liberal political revolutions, improved technology in production, communications and transportation, and the rise of the nation-state, all followed.
We will concern ourselves with two very revealing aspects of this change. One is population growth, which gives us a quantitative measure. The other are the new sources of energy that were tapped to drive industrialization.
Concerning the issue of energy, we return to the earlier discussion of energy at the beginning of this essay. The sources of energy, prior to industrialization, were human energy, the energy of beasts of burden, the burning of wood, and the beginnings of harnessing wind and water for agriculture and transportation.. These energy sources were all readily available to meet the needs of a relatively small population. They were all renewable sources, restored by natural processes in a short time period.
Industrialization, however, has been built upon the use of fossil fuels. Coal was the first to be tapped as England faced impending shortages of wood. Wood was needed for homes and for the British merchant and naval ships, but the forests of England were depleted and imports from Scandinavia and from New England were insufficient. There were abundant suppies of coal, but coal mining was hindered by flooding from groundwater. This challenge was met by the invention of the first primitive steam engines, used to pump water, and burning coal to power the engine.
Improvements in the steam engine’s efficiency, engineered by James Watt. later in the 18th century, gave the steam engine the power to drive all sorts of machinery. The textile industry had grown initially by capturing the flow of river water, and the first factories were located along river banks. The iron industry, which required sustained high temperatures, would have ground to a halt if wood continued to be used as the fuel. Coal was better suited than wood for the purpose, and the iron industry would go on to reach levels of production far beyond expectations. By the end of the 18th century, coal was replacing wood as an energy source, and iron was replacing wood as building material.
The invention of the railroad early in the 19th century, combined the power of a steam locomotive with iron rails. Land transportation of goods and people by rail enabled large, heavy cargoes to be moved over great distances at unparalleled speeds. Increased quantities of goods could be delivered to large numbers of consumers. Economies of scale could be achieved. Market economies were made possible. Demand for goods rose and industrial capacity was increased to meet the demand.
The surplus produced was much greater than ever before. New specialties, requiring a variety of skills and higher degrees of training and education, were created. Mechanics were needed to maintain the machines. Engineers were needed to survey and plan construction of canals and roadways and bridges. Managers were needed to rationalize the storage, transportation, and sale of large quantities of goods. Professional people; attorneys, physicians, teachers and scientists were in demand to deal with the complexities of an industrial society. The middle class, a term used to describe all of these specialized activities, came to include far more than the merchants and craftsmen of the pre-industrial world.
The variety of goods and services multiplied and the volume of trade increased beyond measure.
At the same time, population growth was stimulated by the increased production and availability of food and other necessities. The increase of population has clearly been on a scale that dwarfs any previous levels. In 1650, the global population is estimated to have been 500 million. By the year 1900, that number more than tripled to 1.6 billion. By the year 2000, population reached 6.1 billion.
By contrast, the population of wild elephants in Africa in 1900 is estimated at about 5 million. By the year 2000, elephant population in Africa had been reduced to less than million. This is only one example of the impact of the growth of human population upon other species. Among other prominent species which are experiencing dramatic, dangerous decreases are polar bears, rhinocerus, buffalo, wolves and wolverines. Many species of fish, including whales, wild salmon, and cod have experienced dangerous, and even catastrophic population collapses. This is a very partial list of, perhaps, millions of species that are threatened by the effects of human population on the environment.
By 2010 the human population was about 7.0 billion. The increase in numbers of people over the past three hundred and fifty years is part of the explanation for the dramatic economic growth in the industrial era. The costs for capital accumulation were lessened by cheap labor. The factory owners controlled the means of production and the instruments of government. Ruthless competition, without government regulations, motivated the owners of capital to cut costs by exploiting workers and preventing them from organizing in their own interest. The new industrial system generated great wealth, but it distributed the benefits very unequally. In the midst of unparalleled riches, there also was desperate poverty.
In periods of prosperity, the system worked reasonably well, as the individual and corporate motivations for profit and growth stimulated the gradual increase in wealth. When, however, ruthless competition, greed and corruption concentrated too much wealth in the hands of the few, and too little in the hands of the consumer, the profit and growth motive at the private level became destructive to the public well-being.
The business cycle has been a part of the history of the industrial world. Most economists came to accept the idea that these cycles were unavoidable, but self-correcting, over time. Meanwhile, the accumulation of investment capital, and the continued advance of technology, and the growth of the middle class, supported the long-term trends.
By the mid-19th century, new sources of energy were being tapped. Crude oil, discovered in western Pennsylvania, could be refined for use in kerosene lamps. Two decades later, the internal combustion engine, using gasoline, was invented. The refinement of crude oil into a variety of different combustable liquids opened a new era in the exploitation of fossil fuels. Automobiles and airplanes, not practically powered by coal, became possible with oil. Coal continued to be the fuel of choice for the railroad. Central power plants that generated electricity were being built in the last decade of the 19th century. Their fuel was also coal. Mass production of steel, stronger and more flexible than iron, made it possible to build large, steam-powered ships burning coal. These were seen as far more efficient and reliable than the sailing vessel.
As population increased dramatically in the twentieth century, those areas that had not yet industrialized, often experienced numbers of people that exceeded an optimum level and consumed resources, thus slowing economic growth. This is part of the reason why undeveloped areas of the world outside Europe and North America have experienced a continued gap in development. Another reason is that those undeveloped areas continue to have the most rapid population growth while European and North American growth has slowed. By 2010, only about 1% of population growth was occurring in Europe and North America.
Throughout most of the 20th century, the benefits of burning fossil fuels appeared to far outweigh any disadvantages. Coal has the highest carbon content of any of the fossil fuels and is the most polluting, but it is also the fossil fuel with the greatest reserves in the ground. It was the primary fossil fuel at least until after World War II. While oil began to replace coal on railroads, as diesel engines replaced steam locomotives, coal has remained a major source of energy for electric power plants.
Underground mining was one of the most dangerous occupations in the industrial world. By the end of the 20th century, coal began to be taken out of the earth by mountaintop removal, which ravaged the country-side, released toxins into streams and rivers, and destroyed the habitat for humans and animals alike. The costs involved with pollution of air and water; the sickness and the medical costs, have not been included in an assessment of the costs for using coal.
Even as early as the 1840s, there was a reaction to the environmental burden imposed by industrialization. It was focused mainly upon urban areas where the density of population presented problems of removing human waste. The solution in those early days was to build underground sewer lines that washed the waste into the nearest river, where it was carried to the apparently bottomless sink of the ocean. Even before it was learned that some infectious diseases were carried by micro-organisms, polluted water was identified as a source for cholera. The solution was to separate the waste streams from the clean water sources.
Urban renewal in the mid-19th century included provision for parks to enable city people to escape, if only temporarily, from the congested urban environment. A public health movement spurred by public investments began to make cities more livable. That, combined with the bacterial revolution, began to bring most infectious diseases under control. Mortality rates were significantly lowered.
At the same time, about 1870, fertility rates also dropped. The urban environment, and the increasing numbers of occupations, which required years of training and education, stimulated a desire for fewer children. There was a continued rapid population growth as mortality decreases preceded and outpaced the decline in fertility. Meanwhile, an intellectual movement, known as Romanticism included an emotional rejection of the dirt, grime and lurid environment of industrial areas. It also involved an appreciation of the beauty of nature untouched by the hand of man. These concerns did not stop the continued spread of industrialization.
New breakthroughs in science, particularly in regard to the generation of electricity, assured that energy could be delivered from the source of the burning of fossil fuels to the homes and workplaces of most end-users, far removed from the pollution. Those least able to protect themselves were the industrial workers and the poor, while wealthy and middle class people moved out from the city centers.
The opportunities for economic growth and profit were multiplied. The beneficiaries of the increasing surplus were the politically powerful and a growing middle class, particularly those who were the power-brokers. Capitalist values emphasized individual enterprise. Individual and corporate success, and competition, took the leading role; to the detriment of social, communitarian concerns about the general well-being of the public.
Only the unforgiving rules of an unregulated market place brought temporary corrections to the relentless economic growth. Overly optimistic hopes for easy riches, reckless investments, and greed preceded financial collapse. Periodic economic depressions wreaked havoc upon the physical well-being of people, deprived millions of the jobs they needed, wiped out the overly-hyped value of financial instruments, and caused widespread pessimism, cautious consumption, and fears of investment.
Slowly, after people had adjusted or recovered from the collapse; investment of available surplus capital, job creation, and consumption returned; and the onward march of industrialization was resumed.
Europeans, by the last third of the 19th century, had, by virtue of industrialization, reached levels of wealth, although poorly distributed, that were beyond any previous achievements. They, among all the peoples of the earth, enjoyed a moment of wealth and power far exceeding that of any previous era, and far greater than that any of the other civilizations. The extension of education and literacy and the ease of communication and transportation that accompanied industrialization, had brought a re-alignment of political groups, beyond the city-states and tribes of the past, to the nation-state.
The resources of the nation-state, stimulated by the advance of technology, gave Europe a great advantage over the people in other areas of the world. Driven by a natural human tendency to consider one’s own group, the in-group, superior to other groups, Europeans had been using their advantages to extend their control across the planet. As Jared Diamond expressed it, with their guns, germs, and steel, they conquered other societies across the world, who were less geographically-favored. Geography had favored Europeans. They inherited the crops and animals of the fertile crescent which were carried across roughly the same latitude to the temperate rain forest belt of the earth. Once they had begun to clear the forests, they were adapting the farming methods acquired in the grasslands of the Middle East to a humid environment more suitable to agriculture.
The overseas expansion of the Europeans, which had begun with the Portuguese and the Spanish at the end of the 15th century, reached its apogee in the orgy of imperialism at the end of the 19th century. Never before had Europeans acquired so great an advantage, which they mistakenly attributed to a racial and national superiority.
The twentieth century brought several significant changes. The technological advances continued and even accelerated. But, the surplus they generated was squandered in the two most destructive wars in history. There is no more efficient destroyer of surplus than war, and the First World War, with its advanced weaponry and nation-state organization, was most destructive war yet to occur in history, as measured both in human lives and in capital. The guns, the germs and the steel of Europeans were turned against themselves.
The loss of life in the war was followed by an even greater loss of life through disease. The war created the conditions for the spread of a global pandemic of influenza.
Europe and the world were very different after the Great War. Any suggestion of the moral superiority of Europeans was laughable after the bloodshed of that war. The slaughter of human lives on the battle fronts of Europe with little to show for it, was testament to the tribal characteristics of the nation-state, which valued the nation to such a degree that the mass sacrifice of millions of human beings was justified in the name of the nation. The lives of millions more were shattered, and the economy thrown into reverse. England, once the the great creditor nation of the world exhausted all of its credit and became indebted to the United States. The financial capital of the world shifted from London to New York. The United States became the great creditor nation.
Germany had been on the rise as an economic powerhouse, but its pre-occupation with military solutions was one of the causes for the war. Germany experienced unparalleled economic and political turmoil, the national pride of its people shocked beyond their understanding.
The war accelerated the certain demise of the traditional imperial governments in Austria and Russia. The division of the people of the Balkans into many different nationalites and three different religions was also accelerated.
None of the governments and nations involved were prepared for the changes wrought by the war. The United States, in its capitalist traditions and experience with isolation from Europe, insisted upon the payment of debts incurred by the war, and provided no assistance to the struggling nations of Europe except that provided by private initiatives. The United States Senate refused the leadership of its own President, who sought to create a global institution to prevent future wars.The European economy had become dependent upon the United States’ economy without a realization of that new reality.
The French demanded the payment of large reparations from a destitute Germany. In Russia, one oppressive authoritarian government was replaced by another. Reduced to a state of economic collapse and poverty after several years of war, a new leadership claimed to be following a Marxist ideology. It was the worst possible time and the most unlikely of circumstances for that to have occurred. Marx had based his prediction of socialist change as occurring in the most developed industrial regions in the midst of great wealth. Russia, after 4 years of World War I, followed by 3 years of civil war. had been reduced to economic ruin.
The states created in the Balkans more closely approximated the national divisions in the region, but were still a long way from achieving the aspirations of the people.
In other words, the war had worsened the situation that existed beforehand. The war was followed by an unstable peace marked by economic hardship and political turmoil. This was particularly true in Germany where the Weimar Republic was blamed for the humiliating circumstances of the peace, the signing of the Armistice and the peace treaty at Versailles. Pride in being German was accompanied by deep resentment against supposed traitors; socialist, communists, and Jews, who had allegedly betrayed the fatherland. A widely-believed myth made rational politics impossible.
The war created the circumstances that led to a second great war; one more terrible than the first. The sequence of events between the wars has the inevitable quality of a Shakesperian tragedy. An economically destitute Europe became dependent on a prosperous economy in the United States.
On the opposite side of the ocean from the destruction of war, American corporations grew bigger and more profitable as they increased production to meet the needs of European allies. American consumers were fully employed, in the jobs created by the war effort. People accumulated high levels of saving. Both the supply side and the demand side of the economy were satisfied.
When the first war came to an end, a decade of prosperity followed in the United States. The United States returned to its traditional policy of isolationism with high protective tariffs that deterred trade with Europe. The capitalist system worked to concentrate wealth and profit in the wealthy and corporate side of the American economy. By the end of the decade, consumers’ savings were depleted. A great inequality of wealth prevailed. The demand side collapsed in the midst of surpluses. Industrial production wsas cut because there were not enough buyers. Farm prices dropped to levels that deprived farmers of income, because supply so greatly exceeded demand.
As the American economy descended into depression, American private investments in European bonds dried up. The source of capital that had financed a German economic recovery was cut off. Germans defaulted on reparations payments to England and France. England and France defaulted on inter-allied debts to the United States. The European economy followed the American economy into depression.
Trade was sharply reduced as both economic partners, Europe and America, pulled each other down. The Great Depression became a global depression; the most serious economic collapse in the history of capitalism.
The German economic collapse created the opportunities for the Nazi Party to come to power. Hitler saw war as a positive good, which would restore Germany to its “proper place” in the world. He proceeded to rearm Germany in violation of the Versailles Treaty. The English and French stood by, concerned, but trying through diplomacy to avoid another war. The United States was in the throes of a determined isolationist policy not to get involved in another European war.
Hitler prepared for war, used dilomacy to exact concessions; and when he was ready, launched the Second World War.
Among the many changes that occurred during World War II, there were important developments concerning the sources and use of energy. The technology of the internal combustion engine and the great abundance of oil determined that this was a war that was fueled by oil. The first sources of oil production had been in the United States in the last half of the 19th century. More and greater reserves were found in the 1930s in Texas. Meanwhile, rich reserves of oil were discovered in Iraq before World War I, and the most abundant oil discoveries were made in Saudia Arabia in the 1930s. President Roosevelt’s visit to Saudi Arabia began a long term relationship between the Saudis, the greatest producer of oil in the world, and the United States, the largest consumer of oil.
The tactics of warfare in World War II were first employed by the Germans in their conquest of most of Europe at the beginning of the war. The same tactics were employed against the Germans in defeating them. It was called blitzkrieg or lightning war, involving the use of thousands of tanks and motorized vehicles that broke through defensive positions and quickly moved to surround and encircle the defenders. They were accompanied by waves of aircraft, ranging far beyond the frontlines and cutting routes of supply and retreat.
Strategic action involved heavy bombing of industrial centers and cities, hundreds of miles from the fields of battle.
In naval warfare, there was a similar dependence on oil. Most of the warships were powered by diesel engines or steam boilers burning oil. The primary warships in the war; aircraft carriers and the planes that flew from their decks, and the submarine, were powered by oil. In the war in the Pacific, the Japanese had initially seized oil producing areas in the Dutch East Indies. When the United States waged its counter-offensive against the Japan, the Japanese supply lines were severed by American submarines. The most destructive war in history was fueled by oil.
Meanwhile, just as the war began, scientists in Europe had discovered the process of splitting the atom and releasing nuclear energy, . Scientists were immediately aware of the enormous amounts of energy that might be released, because the work in theoretical physics done by Albert Einstein at the beginning of the century had demonstrated its potential. The conversion of mass to energy, which had been accomplishedon a minute scale in the laboratory by 1938, involved only a small amount of mass to produce an enormous amount of energy, expressed in the famous equation E=mC squared.
As the war began, there was a high priority given to producing a weapon, rather than exploring its peaceful applications. The effort to do so, on an industrial scale, required a large investment, employing a great many scientists and engineers, and many thousands of workers. This massive effort could not have been undertaken, without extreme difficulty, in theaters of the war that were subject to strategic bombing. That factor, as well as the many scientific questions that had to be answered, and the uncertainty of how long it would take, determined that neither Germany nor England could undertake the effort.
The United States, separated by oceans from the physical destruction of war, became the locale for the effort. It was known as the Manhattan Project. It involved three major industrial centers in Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oakridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington. In spite of the high priority given the project, it would require four years to accomplish. The Atomic bomb was not available until after Germany had been defeated, but, it was used against two Japanese cities to hasten the end of the war.
Thus it was that a new phase of history began as World War II came to an end. The technology of the oil industry and the internal combustion engine, and the abundance of oil reserves, assured that a peacetime economy would rely principally on fossil fuels. The pollution caused by the burning of coal and the difficulties of transporting coal determined that oil would increasingly become the fuel of choice for heating and for energy. Coal remained an important part of that equation, particularly in large power plants and utilities.
.Adding to the promise of fossil fuels, was the use of natural gas, which was found in the same locations as the oil reserves, and was the cleanest burning of all of the fossil fuels.
It seemed for many years, that the harnessing of nuclear energy would be the long term answer to the energy needs of humanity, as scientists and engineers, worked on the devlopment of peaceful applications. That promise was naively expressed by an advertisement in the 1950s that pictured a glass of water as containing the energy required by a cruise ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean, expressing the significance of Einstein’s equation of the transformation of mass to energy. The reality, however, was that the process of fission or splitting of the atom, released innumerable unstable, radioactive particles that were exotic and highly toxic. The natural process of radioactive decay had, over millions of years, removed high levels of radiation from the environment. Fission produced immediate radiation and the release of radioactive isotopes with varying rates of decay. All of this material had to be safely stored, in some instances, for thousands of years. The nuclear reactors that were designed to release energy at a safely manageable pace, all well-shielded from the outside environment, were extremely challenging and costly to build. The radiactive materials being produced, and stored, created safety problems such that no private corporation could afford to take the risks involved unless they were insured against loss by government.
Nuclear energy, while it offered the great benefit of being carbon-free, presented so many problems of its own that it offered no reasonable alternative to fossil fuels. The principal events that clearly marked the demise of nuclear energy as a safe, reliable source were the release of radiation in Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsyvania, the hydrogen explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in Russia, and the disruption of the nuclear plants at Fukushima Japan by a tsunami.
Furthermore, the continuing failure to build acceptable, safe nuclear storage facilities for long-term radioactive waste products is a warning of potential future disasters.
Fossil fuel addiction
Fossil fuels, therefore, have continued, after World War 2, to be the primary source of energy, and ,at an accelerating rate. During the years from 1945 until 1970, the United States continued to be the largest producer, as well as the largest consumer of oil in the world. By 1970, consumption began to exceed production in the United States, however, international production continued to rise and new reserves were discovered. Globally there remained a large surplus of oil, but political developments and war in the Middle East created an artificial shortage during the decade of the 1970s.
Because of the dependence of the world economy on oil, the price increases created a global inflation. The shortage stimulated a variety of conservation measures that slowed the increase in demand. It also motivated the oil companies to tap sources of oil that were more costly and risky to exploit in offshore waters and in the Arctic.
When the political situation improved in the 1980s, there was an abundance of oil that led to price decreases and an end to the inflation. The oil producers returned again to a high rate of production. Industry responded with renewed technological developments that created increased uses of oil and natural gas. Consumption also increased. The fossil fuel bubble was still expanding.
The collapse of the Soviet economy in the 1980s brought an end to the long Cold war, with the United States becoming the unparalleled super-power. Political instability and war returned in the 1990s to the oil-rich areas of the Middle East. Invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, and the imminent threat to Saudi Arabia, assured intervention by the United States.
The experience of World War II, followed by more than four decades of cold war tension, had converted the United States into a military power several times greater than any potential rival. A military-industrial complex became a powerful special interest with a complex web of economic and political ties to the military establishment. The temptation to look for military solutions to crises was irresistable.
At the end of the 1990s, however, the end of the Cold War and new technological developments in the field of computers, were lifting the United States economy to renewed prosperity, marked by the first significant federal budget surpluses since 1969.
The terrorist attacks upon the United States in September, 2001, profoundly changed the situation. The leadership in the United States, the administration of President George W. Bush, chose to react to the terrorist attack with two wars, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq. Coming on the heels of a substantial federal income tax cut, the cost of the two wars plunged the economy from surplus into deficit.
Meanwhile, almost forty years of neglect of the public sector, beginning in the 1970s, was taking a toll on the infrastructure and the educational foundation of the economy. Education had been the key to the growth of a dynamic industrial economy, marked by significant scientific breakthroughs in computers, aerospace, and medicine. As a result of the GI Bill, a college education became affordable to millions of war veterans.
The interstate highway program, begun in the Eisenhower administration, created jobs and linked the nation together in a nationwide transportation network. Begun in the era of cheap, abundant oil supplies, it also moved the nation into a greater dependence upon the automobile and away from more fuel-efficient mass transit. It established the basis for a suburban lifestyle that separated the workplace from the home and created the commuter revolution wedded to the automobile and gasoline.
Increasing inequality in the economy
The decade of the 1970s was marked by steady inflation and rising debts in both the public and private sectors. Federal debt was linked to the cost of the Cold War armaments race, and private debt to the extensive borrowing required to maintain a high level of consumption. Reversal of progressive tax policies accelerated in the 1980s and encouraged a long term redistribution of wealth from the average middle class worker to the most wealthy segments of the society. A declining influence of labor unions in private industry accentuated the growing maldistribution of wealth.
Perhaps, the most dangerous trend was a long-term decline in government support for education, reflected in rapidly rising tuition costs born by students.
All of these developments; the high cost of war and preparation for war, the increasing dependence on fossil fuels, the neglect of the domestic needs of the American people, particularly in education, the rising levels of indebtedness in public and private sectors and the increase in the maldistribution of wealth, were combining to create a perfect storm of crises in the early twenty-first century.
In addition, an accumulating crisis in the environment posed, potentially, the greatest threat of all to future stability and prosperity. The localized concern for the state of the environment, which had existed from the very beginnings of industrialization, had, by the 1960s, expanded to involve the entire planet.
Following World War II, there was a substantial growth in the chemical industry. New toxic chemicals were introduced in massive quantities to combat insect pests. One of the most deadly of these chemical compounds was DTD, which was used, with great initial success, to attack the mosquitoes that carried malaria. The campaign against malaria, killed most of the mosquitoes, but not all. The few survivors produced new generations of mosquitoes that had immunity to DTD. The new genetically-modified mosquitoes multiplied quickly. Meanwhile, DTD, which persists for a long time in the environment, also attacked birds and a host of insect species, some of which were a part of a balance of nature.
The landmark work of the biologist, Rachel Carson, awakened people to the threat. In her book, Silent Spring, she outlined the scope of the problem, backed up with scientific evidence that spokesmen for the Chemical Industry could not successfully refute. Hazardous pesticides were being used on such a scale that even large mammals were sickened and human health was compromised.
The introduction of plastics and other synthetic materials, that were not bio-degradable, became a major theme of the work of Barry Commoner in the 1960s and ‘70s. The volume of toxins being released into the air and water by power plants and other industrial activities was compromising the health of humanity, and a myriad of other species of life. The problem of the disposal of human waste was dramatized by the saga of the barge, carrying waste from New York City and its environs, which was towed all the way to the Caribbean and back, looking for some place that would accept its cargo.
The celebration of “Earth Day” begun in the 1970s, popularized the threats to the environment. The passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency were recognitions of the fact that the Federal government had additional responsibilities to protect human health and safety.
Public utilities and private corporations, whose activities were responsible for poisoning the biosphere, were not taking necessary steps in the public interest, and usually campaigned to prevent government regulations and controls. Their primary motivation was to grow the size of their activities and to maximize their profits, whether or not the public interest was served. The public sector had, indeed, increased substantially since the New Deal of the 1930s and World War II. Permanent or long-lasting commitments had transformed American life. The Social Security Program provided basic financial security for the elderly. Unemployment compensation, whose costs were divided between the federal and state governments, compensated, to a limited degree, for gaps in employment during the working years. Federal and state aid to education vastly expanded educational opportunities. Government support for scientific research kept the United States at the cutting edge of technological advances. The interstate highway program was a large public works program that provided jobs.
Meanwhile the largest part of the disposable budget, approximately one-half, which Congress appropriated every year, went for the maintenance of the most powerful and well-equipped military establishment in the world. All of the above was affordable because the United States’ economy was the wealthiest in the world. In 1945, it was the largest creditor nation of the world,benefiting from the return on aid programs and corporate investments abroad. A progressive system of taxation had assured an equitable distribution of wealth and the growth of a middle class, which maintained consumer demand.
In 1970, the American consumption of fossil fuels began to exceed its production, and escalating costs of oil, brought the beginning of the end of the extraordinary prosperity the United States had enjoyed in the 1950s and 60s. Inflation eroded the savings of consumers and increased the costs of industry. Economic growth stalled. In the decade of 1980s, a tax cut primarily benefiting the wealthy and corporations combined with increased expenses for the military was inflationary, but, a substantial decrease in the cost of oil compensated, and the economy began to recover.
High levels of government spending and consumer spending were financed by borrowing. The Federal debt doubled during the decade of the 1980s.. Changes in the tax code favored the wealthy and corporations. Progressive tax scales were considerably reduced. There was a growing imbalance in the distribution of wealth. The assaults on the environment continued and government regulation was undermined by the political influence of industrial corporations even as the need for government intervention increased.
By the 1990s, climatologists were uncovering evidence of a long term change in the climate involving a gradual increase in the average global temperatures. Though the average temperature increase seemed small, about 1 degree centigrade, the impacts were numerous and of growing concern. The 1 degree mark has already been exceeded, and catastrophic effects are possible. The melting of glaciers, the retreat of ice in the Arctic, slowly rising sea levels, the increased incidence of droughts and wildfires in some areas while large-scale flooding occurred in other areas, the increased severity of storms, the death of coral reefs around the world, were all caused by an increase in carbon in the atmosphere and the oceans. The evidence clearly indicated that an increase in carbon dioxide, and other global warming gases in the atmosphere was causing a greenhouse effect. Furthermore, these changes were caused by human activities. More than 80% of the effect was the result of burning fossil fuels. Most of the remaining effect came from the clearing of forests for ranching and farming and mining.
The fundamental balance of nature between plants and animals is being upset by human activities. The industrial revolution that had been taking place over the past 300 years is finally disrupting the environment of the entire planet. It is not surprising that fundamental changes would result from a population increase of 14-fold, from 1/2 billion people in 1650 to 7 billion in 2010. It is not surprising that the burning of fossil fuels, which had been stored in the earth for millions of years, would increase the carbon load in the atmosphere, and that this would bring profound changes in the climate.
This environmental challenge is only beginning. The excess carbon now in the atmosphere will continue to cause crises at an accelerating pace even if there is no further extraction of fossil fuels from the earth. Any additional extraction will only exacerbate the problem. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus in support of this understanding.Here is an update. For additional evidence concerning the developing climate crisis in different areas of the world, please watch the U-tube video at the Rain Forest Action link
In spite of the scientific consensus, the fossil fuel industry has sought to continue to grow and profit. They have resorted to increasingly desperate measures; drilling for oil in the Arctic, where oil spills can have catastrophic results, drilling off shore a mile below the surface, and using a new method of hydro-fracturing of rock to release oil and gas from shale rock. While all of these methods are dangerous to the environment, with or without them, supplies of fossil fuels are finite and unable to keep up with demand. The global economy has become very dependent upon fossil fuels and the process of developing alternatives will require time.
The scientific knowledge and the technological solutions are in the process of being developed. The use of renewable energy from the sun and wind, and geothermal heat in the earth is the solution. Delays in making the transition will be costly in human lives, and in the viability of the biosphere. Humanity is at a fundamental turning point in its history. The fossil fuel bubble will burst in this century.