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Grant Bosse: Fossil fuels are an environmental miracle

April 21. 2018 3:23PM

Sunday is Earth Day.

To mark the occasion, I would like to recognize one of the most significant environmental breakthroughs in history: fossil fuels.

First of all, consider how radically the availability of reliable, abundant energy has transformed civilization. It has made previously uninhabitable regions safe for human beings to live. It has enabled the large scale-production of nitrogen fertilizers that feed the world. It has connected us, commercially and culturally, with the rest of the world.

And it has enabled us to live longer, healthier, happier lives. Fossil fuels have been a boon to humanity.

Even if we were to ignore how much fossil fuels have done to benefit people, we need to acknowledge how much they have done to help the environment.

Author and environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg cites data showing that in 1910, almost a third of farmland was used simply to raise the fodder for horses and mules. Technological improvements, powered by petroleum, reduced the need for farmland even further.

Replacing animals with machines cleaned up city streets tremendously. In 1894, one writer in the London Times estimated the city would be buried under 9 feet of manure within 50 years. That crisis was avoided because of the internal combustion engine.

Cities now have a much smaller environmental footprint, per capita, than rural and suburban areas.

Lomborg argues that replacing whale oil with kerosene saved the great whales from extinction, though they are still struggling to restore their diminished population.

During the early years of the Industrial Revolution, railroads hastened deforestation, as it became much more affordable to bring large amounts of lumber to far-flung markets. But that trend soon reversed. Burning coal means we did not have to burn as many trees. Forests are larger than they were a century ago.

We may enjoy sitting next to a roaring fireplace on a cold, winter evening, but burning wood on a large scale is bad for air quality, and one of the leading health hazards of pre-industrialized societies.

Finally, fossil fuels unlocked an unprecedented era of economic growth and prosperity. This immense wealth not only means that we can afford cleaner air and cleaner water, but that we demand it.

In 1954, economist Simon Kuznets postulated that income inequality and economic growth might have a relationship that could be graphed as an upside-down U. At first, rising GDP would lead to greater income inequality. But eventually, that wealth would spread across the population.

In 1991, economists Gene Grossman and Alan Krueger applied Kuznets's theory to the environment. They observed that as an emerging nation's income rose, so did several measures of pollution. But as the nation's economy prospered, pollution fell. Prosperity led to cleaner air and water.

Since then, more than 100 peer-reviewed publications have observed Environmental Kuznets Curves.

In the United States, we reached the top of our Environmental Kuznets Curve before the first Earth Day in 1970, and before the Environmental Protection Agency even existed.

Our economy, powered increasingly by oil, coal, and natural gas, was quickly cleaning up our environment even as the environmental movement was forming. In the 48 years since that first Earth Day, we have greatly increased our environmental standards. We are constantly raising the baseline for what we consider an acceptable environment. And that's a good thing.

These environmental benefits have not come without cost. We had to deal with increased pollution as we rode up the Kuznets Curve, even as we enjoy the ride down the other side.

Releasing carbon that had been captured in the bodies of animals and plants for millions of years has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This has almost certainly led to an increase in greenhouse warming, and could lead to much greater warming in the future.

I am skeptical of the precision that climate alarmists claim in making dire predictions of the future, but would readily cede the benefits of moving on from fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel reserves are not renewable, though we keep getting better at finding and exploiting them. We're never going to run out of fossil fuels. We'll simply stop using them as much.

After decades of state-subsidized stagnation, solar power is finally starting to show signs of economic viability. Improvements in batteries could eventually replace gas tanks as the predominant source of transportation power, and allow a distributed electric grid that uses much more solar, wind, and hydro power.

A century from now, our descendants may look back on fossil fuels as a transitional technology, like cassette tapes and compact discs.

The ability to record and play back sound was revolutionary. We invented record players, and then cassettes and 8-tracks. Each incremental step made our music more convenient, portable, and accessible. CDs were another leap forward, converting sound to digital information, enabling the next jump to MP3s, and ending the need for physical media entirely.

You can still buy a record. You can still ride a horse. And we'll still have some use for fossil fuels in our renewable energy future.

Mankind has benefitted tremendously from the discovery that mineral resources could be burned to produce energy. It has enriched the lives of billions, and brought us to the edge of a new age of possibilities.

Fossil fuels have helped us create a better environment and a better world. I look forward to a future when they are no longer needed.

Grant Bosse is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @grantbosse.

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