Fossil fuel

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This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. ~ Lyndon Johnson, 1965

Fossil fuels are fuels formed by natural processes such as anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms, containing organic molecules originating in ancient photosynthesis that release energy in combustion. Such organisms and their resulting fossil fuels typically have an age of millions of years, and sometimes more than 650 million years. Fossil fuels contain high percentages of carbon and include petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Commonly used derivatives of fossil fuels include kerosene and propane.


  • Environmental and biodiversity crises are at root social crises. They are caused by profound problems in the social world, by elites, and the hierarchical control of decision-making and allocation of resources in profit-driven, expansionistic, ecocidal capitalist societies. As social problems, environmental crises require social solutions, namely radical political change seeking to create just, democratic, and sustainable societies. What we today call “natural disasters,” are at [the] root [of] social disasters that must be addressed if we are to solve the global climate emergency. We must not only transform our anthropocentric and speciesist identities, our arrogant and vainglorious forms of human supremacism and pathological alienation, we must also transform our growth-oriented, profit-driven, meat-based, fossil fuel addicted societies. For millennia, the western world above all has lived by the philosophy of humans first, even humans only. It is now time for a new philosophy of earth first whereby humanity begins the arduous process of de-growth -- radically reducing their population numbers and consumption levels, rewilding natural environments and reserving vast habitats for wildlife alone, and shifting from a growth-oriented to a steady-state sustainable economy.
  • We may well call it black diamonds. Every basket is power and civilization. For coal is a portable climate. It carries the heat of the tropics to Labrador and the polar circle; and it is the means of transporting itself withersoever it is wanted. Watt and Stephenson whispered in the ear of mankind their secret, that a half-ounce of coal will draw two tons a mile, and coal carries coal, by rail and by boat, to make Canada as warm as Calcutta, and with its comfort brings its industrial power.
  • This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
    • Lyndon Johnson, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, p. 54.
  • At issue is not whether the global economy will pass away. It is passing away. Rising populations and debt combined with depletion of freshwater sources and fossil fuel make the status quo untenable. The only question is whether civil society will survive the transition.
  • We have a moral responsibility to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and leave our children a healthy and habitable planet.
  • We are already experiencing huge cost externalities from population hypergrowth and profligate fossil fuel use in the form of environmental devastation. Of the earth’s estimated 10 million species, 300,000 have vanished in the past fifty years. Each year, 3,000 to 30,000 species become extinct, an all-time high for the last 65 million years. Within one hundred years, between one-third and two-thirds of all birds, animals, plants, and other species will be lost. Nearly 25 percent of the 4,630 known mammal species are now threatened with extinction, along with 34 percent of fish, 25 percent of amphibians, 20 percent of reptiles, and 11 percent of birds. Even more, species are having population declines. Environmental scientists speak of an “omega point” at which the vast interconnected networks of Earth’s ecologies are so weakened that human existence is no longer possible.
  • Everything characteristic about the condition we call modern life has been a direct result of our access to abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have permitted us to fly, to go where we want to go rapidly, and [to] move things easily from place to place. Fossil fuels rescued us from the despotic darkness of the night. They have made the pharaonic scale of building commonplace everywhere. They have allowed a fractionally tiny percentage of our swollen populations to produce massive amounts of food. They have allowed us to develop industries of surpassing ingenuity and to push the limits of what it even means to be human to the strange frontier where man imagines himself into a kind of machine immortality.
    All of the marvels and miracles of the twentieth century were enabled by our access to abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuels. Even the applied technology of atomic fission, which came along in the mid-[20th-]century, would have been impossible without fossil fuels and may be impossible to continue very long into the future without them.
    The age of fossil fuels is about to end. There is no replacement for them at hand. These facts are poorly understood by the global population preoccupied with the thrum of daily life, but tragically, too, by the educated classes in the United States, who continue to be by far the greatest squanderers of fossil fuels. It is extremely important that we make an effort to understand what is about to happen to us because it will have earth-shaking repercussions for the way we live, the way the world is ordered, and whether the very precious cargo of human culture can move safely forward into the future.
  • At present population levels, we are putting unprecedented pressure on finite resources. We are conducting a grand-scale, unauthorized experiment on the 4.5 billion-year-old planet. The fact that we have not hit the bounds in a few generations of outrageous growth should not be taken as evidence for our long-haul prospects. We live like kings today, on the backs of [at least] roughly 100 energy slaves each (human metabolism is 100 Watts, but Americans enjoy 10 KW of continuous power). Our richness is very much tied to surplus energy availability, and that so far has been a story of finite [hydrocarbon-based] fossil fuels. But even under solar power, we can’t continue our track record of 3% energy growth per year for even several hundred years! Global physical limits—thermodynamic, energy return on energy invested, finite arable land, water, fisheries, climate change, etc.—are all asserting themselves to remind us that nature doesn’t care about our dreams.
  • Fossil fuels opened the door to widespread mechanization and electrification, completely transforming our way of life. As central as their role has been, it is difficult to claim that many of the benefits we enjoy today—whether health care, technology, scientific knowledge, or comfortable living standards—would have been possible without them. Much that we celebrate in this world rode on the back of fossil fuels.
  • Fossil fuels have leveraged human power and ingenuity to a remarkable degree. Their discovery and accelerating utilization utterly transformed lifestyles, achievements, and even how we perceive ourselves as a species.
    Yet, one thing we know for certain about fossil fuels is that they are a finite resource on this planet—slowly developed in select locations over hundreds of millions of years and being used about a million times faster than the rate of production. We know that we have already consumed a sizable fraction of the initial inheritance: perhaps now halfway through the irreplaceable allotment of oil. So we know that this phase of the human adventure is a temporary one.
  • Our fossil fuel bonanza has left our ecosystem in a perilous state. We have destroyed vast forests and habitat, polluted water and soil, kicked off a rapid climate trend that natural systems may not adapt to quickly enough, and basically overrun the planet. […] 96% of mammal mass on the planet is now in the form of humans and our livestock, leaving a paltry 4% of wild mammals—land and sea. Roughly 70% of vertebrate numbers have vanished since 1970 (undoubtedly a higher fraction if the survey had started in 1700). Forests are also way down.

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