What would civilization's path have been like without fossil fuels

Assume there was an alternative earth that had biomass like trees or plants, but this earth had little/no coal, natural gas or oil. What would civilization have become had we not had endless trillions of exajoules of energy available to us in easy to access and highly dense concentrations like we have had with fossil fuels?

Would civilization have stopped growing and advancing around the 19th century (when the fossil fuel age started), or would science and technology have continued to advance and found alternative sources of energy to power those advances?

Grid electricity can be had from nuclear, geothermal, water, wind, solar, etc. Cars can be run on batteries, natural gas, biomass, hydrogen, compressed air, etc. But if not for the virtually free energy from fossil fuels I don’t know if we would’ve advanced to the point where we could discover and implement those alternatives on a large scale.

But people were using wind and water power long before the fossil fuel age, so would we have just made incremental advances in areas like those until they could power civilization, and eventually we would’ve ended up with roughly the same standards of living and level of science and technology that we have now anyway? Advances in biomass, wind and solar energy were possible in the 19th century. And there were cars that ran on batteries around 1900.

Plus there’d be far fewer plastics, so no idea how that would’ve affected our development.

I believe we would’ve found different sources of energy to power agriculture, transportation and electricity, but progress would be much slower because of it. So it might have been the 22nd century before we had a lifestyle approaching our current one.

Thousands of exajoules, not trillions. I wrote gigajoules originally, then forgot to change the trillions part.

I swear to god I’m smart. I swear it. I wouldn’t be changing that before anyone else could if I weren’t.

Of course it’s impossible to say because people are adaptable technologically, and because the outcome depends as much on social patterns as technological.

You note that “the fossil fuel age” started in the 19th century. But why did it start then? People had been burning fossil fuels since the bronze age at least. So why the sudden shift? And the simple answer is because they ran out of biomass. IOW fossil fuels were themselves considered to be a second rate alternative forced upon us by scarcity.

With that in mind it seems almost certain that another alternative or alternatives would have been found. What that might be is impossible to say, but as you note wind and hydro power had a long history, and solar and geothermal were being explored at the time.

Another point to bear in mind in that the big demand for fossil fuels was initially to fire up iron smelters, not to produce motive energy. Without fossil fuels the usage of iron would certainly have been lower in the initial stages, and we might not have seen the Eiffel Tower, but it may have had less impact overall than you think. It may have just meant that whole industrial revolution became an evolution until such time as hydro power took off.

And of course speculating about the social ramifications is essentially pointless. Without large centralised power sources there may never have been large industrial cities until hydro electricity was invented. No cities, no working class, no middle class. Impossible to say how that would play out in the long run.

We’d have much more deforestation than we already have, as we’d basically be running on steam powered by wood instead of coal.

We’d still have developed electronics, but without plastics, would we have the microelectronics we have today?

Not necessarily. Deforestation in the early industrial period was near complete anyway, which was why the switch to coal occurred. So it couldn’t have gotten much worse

So it’s entirely possible that today we would have industrial forests to provide our hydrocarbons, and as a result there wold be more forests, rather than less.

Why would we have any shortage of plastics? Remember, the first plastics were latex and cellulose based, not mineral. And plastics production represents a trivial amount of our total hydrocarbon use.

So it’s entirely plausible that we would have developed more plastics and sooner had our industrial chemists had been mucking about with biomass rather than mineral hydrocarbons. The only difference would be that we’d be using biomass as the feedstock.

Without petrochemical based fertilizers and fossil fueled vehicles to transport food, we would probably have hit our limit for feeding people earlier and have a much lower population.

Or we would be using electric vehicles and biomass based fertilizers, and this, coupled with decentralised production and a greater role for the tropics in iundustrialisation, would have led to far greater population growth than we have experienced in the real world.

Like I said, it all depends on far too many assumptions. If we assume people were totally incapable of finding alternatives ( as you have done) then we get a completely different outcome to a scenario where we assume people found multiple alternatives.

Rather unlikely. What would we power the electric vehicles with? Up until the invention of nuclear power there wasn’t any realistic means of producing the amounts of energy we were getting from fossil fuels. And no, hydro-power couldn’t have done it; there’s only so much of it. And then there’s the problem of what you use for batteries. Decentralized production is less efficient and would result in lower prosperity.

Your idea of “industrial forests” to produce hydrocarbons will also cut into food production. And if you think that those forests are what would give the tropics a larger role, the opposite would happen; the more delicate, less fertile soils of the tropics would mean that we’d quickly reduce the tropics to mostly desert.

And it’s highly unlikely that anything that we didn’t dig out of the ground would lead to “far greater population growth than we have experienced in the real world”; the whole reason why we’ve benefited so much from petrochemicals is that we are using up stored resources, not renewable ones.

The bottom line is, short of the nuclear era I see no reason to think that your hypothetical alternatives exist. Instead, I think we’d at best limp on for decades or centuries as a mostly wind, water and animal powered civilization.

We wouldn’t be the welfare country we are today. Everyone worked their asses to the bone or they didn’t eat.

We aren’t a “welfare country” now. And plenty of people worked very little if at all and ate like pigs; they just needed money and power.

Up until the invention of coal power there wasn’t any realistic means of producing the amounts of energy we were getting from wood either. That didn’t mean it wasn’t readily available, just that we never put the effort into using it.

The same may well be true of hydro, solar, geothermal or biomass electricity.

As I said, the problem is that we can’t just assume that nobody would find an alternative. Wood, and then coal and then petroleum were the low hanging fruit. That doesn’t mean they are the only, or even the most efficient, fruit.

You would use batteries as batteries. Just as we do in electric draglines, and trains and trolleys today.

That is arguable at best.

Production is always decentralised, the only real question is what you choose as your centre. In our world cotton form the Americas and India and food from around the world were shipped to Manchester. In an alternative world production would occur closer to the point of production,making things more efficient.

No, it won’t. That’s the beauty of forests. The grow on land that isn’t arable. I can immediately think of several hundred million hectares of forest in SE`Asia and Australia that were never used for food production prior to the second half of the 20th century.

  1. Contrary to what you may have heard on the Discovery channel, tropical soils aren’t all delicate and infertile. Did you never wonder how the tropics have always supported far higher populations densities than temperate regions if the soils are less productive and more fragile?

  2. Forests are the ideal crop for delicate and infertile soil. It is using such soils to produce food crops that causes the damage.

That is a total non-sequitur.

Of course you don’t. Someone in 1700 would have said the same thing about coal. And someone in 1850 would have said the same thing about mineral oil. We never see the alternatives until we are forced to find them. And every time we do not to find alternatives we inevitably do find them, and they usually turn out to be superior to what they replaced.

Preach it.

Deforestation in the places that industrialized. I don’t think it’d have taken them long to remember all those other trees they only are getting round to now in the real world.

Plantations of trees are not forests as far as I’m concerned. They’re species-poor monocultures.

True, but they’re *easier * and cheaper to synthesise from petrochemicals, so I’m not convinced they’d be as ubiquitous as they are now.

We’d still have plastics, but most plastic is made out of fossil fuel and we’d have to use biomass instead.

Either way, I do know scientists are working on advances in biomass like algae fields that can produce 20,000 gallons of oil per year vs. the 200 or so we get from corn. Things like that would likely play a bigger role.

So to help power transportation and plastic manufacture I’m guessing biomass R&D would’ve been a far bigger factor.

Also efficiency would likely be a far bigger concern. Modern cars convert about 20% of chemical energy in fossil fuels into mechanical energy, and coal plants convert about 45%. And that is after decades of research into making them more efficient. A car powered by batteries is almost 90% efficient however. But even if we were stuck using internal combustion engines powered by biomass, I’m sure efficiency would’ve been a far bigger concern than it was on our planet. We never really had to worry about it, a car that was 10% efficient was fine since oil was about $20/barrel for most of our history.

Its hard to say. I think we would’ve found alternatives, but it seems you need the industrialization, division of labor and advances in civilization to make meaning R&D discoveries and w/o cheap fossil fuels I don’t know if that was possible on a meaningful scale. Then again, people were making R&D discoveries before fossil fuels were used in earnest. Nowhere near the rate they are now, but they still were.

It requires about 10 calories in fossil fuels to produce and transport 1 calorie of food. Then again, how much of that is just because fossil fuels are dirt cheap? In a world of non-existent fossil fuels maybe people would’ve used battery powered tractors powered by the local geothermal plant and advances in agricultural R&D to increase yields per acre would be a far bigger role than they are now.

The argument I have heard some people make is ‘civilization could not exist without cheap, abundant fossil fuels’. However that is true for our civilization because that is the environment we found ourselves in. I tend to think human civilization still would’ve advanced scientifically and culturally in a different world, but it would’ve been a slower advance.

That is true in our world, but that is true because we have advanced by being dependent on cheap, easily obtained fossil fuels.

Fertilizer can be made from biomass or bacteria too, so if there were no petrochemicals I think people would’ve just gone a different route. Same with transportation or heavy machinery to grow and extract food.

The benefits of having more and cheaper food are plentiful. People who invent these tools and farmers who use them get rich. And nations with steady food supplies have an advantage over nations which are food insecure. Plus everyone likes to eat. So the incentives on an individual level for both producers and consumers, as well as the national level to find ways to grow more food would still have been there, but we would’ve found different ways to do it.

In contrast to what the country was like in the 19th century we qualify as a welfare country.

The money and power people came into power and money how? Very few people were pioneers in this country. They may have taken a later boat but down in the south and western parts, people either worked or they didn’t eat.

You are assuming that those different ways exist; I seem no reason to think so. I find it much more likely we’d have hit a population cap long ago.

And? They also tended to have little things like famines, not coincidentally. Including for people who worked.

Exploiting people, mainly. Lie, cheat, steal, enslave, kill. The classic methods.

Nonsense. They worked FOR the people who didn’t need to work to eat. And quite often, the people who worked went hungry anyway.

You’re talking about the slaves? Yeah, slaves worked or they didn’t eat. But the plantation owner wasn’t chopping cotton alongside the negroes, was he?

And what’s so great about requiring people to work or they don’t eat? My Grandma is 93 years old, and she can’t work, because she can barely walk. So in your utopia my Grandma shouldn’t be allowed to eat? My three year old daughter doesn’t work either, and the same for my seven year old daughter. What a bunch of spoiled leeches!

Even back in the early days of this country there were drunkards, layabouts, invalids, children, elderly, mentally handicapped, the blind, the deaf, the lame. Read the Bible! And plenty of those guys ate, because they got a handout from their families, their neighbors, their church, or strangers on the street.

I’m not sure we’d’ve entered the iron age without fossil fuels. It takes a fair amount of heat to smelt iron, and wood alone as a fuel source isn’t going to do it on a useful scale, at least not to the point of equipping an army.

An eternal eighteenth century basically until the aliens invade or the New Ice Ages begins or a comet hits Earth.