What would the world be like if fossil fuels didn't burn?

Like the OP says. What would the effect be, both on history and on modern society?

My take: the Industrial Revolution would not have taken place, obviously. Medicine and biology would be fairly unaffected, but engineering would be much more primative. European colonization would be much more limited, both because of difficulties in transportation and their limited technological edge. China may have remained a major power. Large-scale wars would be infrequent, but smaller ones more frequent, because mechanized war would not serve as a deterrent. The discovery of nuclear power (probably about at the same time as in our history) may have precipitated a later Industrial Revolution, when coupled with the suddenly-useful electricity.

Thoughts? Can anyone do better?

Well, water power becomes more important, so the the industrial revolution in Britain and Europe shifts from places sitting on top of coal fields to places sitting on rivers and streams where waterwheels can be located. That might make Scotland and Wales more crucial than they were in our reality.

Canals stay important transport routes for much longer, and shipping is sail-powered until nuclear powered ships can be built.

Iron and steel are more expensive, because they have to be smelted using charcoal, not coal – and the charcoal comes from timber, which is a far more limited resource than coal. But aluminium, smelted with hydro-electricty, stays the same price, so it is used in many applications where iron and steel are now used.

Medicine and biology WOULD be affected, because without fossil fuel powered factories and trains and airplanes and electric lights everyone is still back on the farm eating dust behind a mule.

How could you discover nuclear power without an industrial civilization churing out untold riches that allow huge numbers of scientists and engineers? How does electricity remain anything more than a curiosity without coal fired electrical generators? How can you transport goods across country without steam trains and steamboats?

So much technology that doesn’t technically depend on steam power won’t actually be implemented due to the tremendous loss of wealth due to the loss of steam driven factories and transportation. We’re limited to something like the economy of the 1840s, with perhaps a few more toys for the aristocrats to play with.

A lot more wind and hydro power, you can be sure of that. We still wouldn’t have anywhere near the electrical infrastructure we have now, though, and most people wouldn’t have electricity, but certain large metro areas would have it, especially ones near large waterfalls and tall, windy, mountains. :stuck_out_tongue:

See, I disagree about the hydro power. Sure, where I live in the Seattle area a large percentage of our power comes from hydro from the Columbia River.

The Grand Coulee dam doesn’t technically require steam engines to construct. We can imagine a civilization without fossil fuels building the Grand Coulee dam and thereby electrifiying the city of alt-Seattle. Except in real life, the Grand Coulee dam would have been impossible to construct without trains to bring in construction materials and supplies and workers. And the supplies wouldn’t have existed without farms plowed by tractors that could market their products across the continent using trains and later trucks. And how do you get the workers out to the middle of the desert to build the damn thing? They’d have to sail all the way around Cape Horn and up the Columbia until the sailing ships couldn’t take them farther, then walk the rest of the way.

In the Roman Empire, it was cheaper to send grain from Egypt to Rome by sea than from the rest of Italy by land. Without fossil fuels we limit land transportation to animal drawn carts. And this means any sort of modern civilization is totally impossible, because you need early industrialization before you can bootstrap to technologies that don’t require fossil fuels. Electric cars require steel made in factories powered by coal.

Not quite true. Wood is perfectly capable of generating steam. Railroad were mostly wood-powered until after the American Civil war, and Mark Twain’s golden age of riverboats were all wood-powered. Maritime shipping would have to be by sail – it isn’t feasible to bring enough wood for a cross-ocean voyage – but early industrialization, say to the 1870s, would be possible.

Deforestation would be a problem for anything but modest industrialization. Blacksmiths switched from charcoal to coal way before the rest of the industrial revolution started (circa 1350 IIRC) not because coal is superior but because the forests were thinning out–it takes an awful lot of charcoal for metallurgy.

A sudden thought: I read somewhere that the death-knell for pirates were steam ships. They were faster and not dependent on the wind direction than sail, but the last thing a pirate would want is to have go to a known location to coal up. Our fossil-fuelless world could have pirates much later. Arrrr, matey!


I don’t see hydro and wind power being used for any practical electricity generation. We would use them now if fossil fuels suddenly disappeared, but without a large market for electricity (and the impetus to develop electric devices in the first place), I don’t think that there would be enough demand.

I see a lot of science being more theoretical, but that doesn’t mean that things with applicable results, like medicine, would still progress. And certainly even before industrialization there was a large scientific community.

For varying definitions of “large”. Nowadays the agricultural work force is about 1% of the population. Remove the fossil-fuel powered industrial revolution and it’s more like 50%, and most of the rest are artisans or proto-factory workers rather than knowledge workers.

A dead planet, because there would be no free oxygen.

Uh, neglecting magic, the most likely way for this to happen is a lack of Oxygen. But that makes the rest of the question kind of irrelevent. Since the OP wants to imagine a world without fossil fuels and with life, lets look at it another way and imagine what would happen if for some reason people had simply never discovered coal or oil. Metal would have remained scarce, technological advancement of almost every kind would have not occurred, we would still be living the life of the Romans. Cheap energy is pretty basic to advancement.

I’m not sure what you mean; I posit not that the plant life that made fossil fuels never existed; merely that hydrocarbons (for whatever reason, call it magic if you like), does not burn. The production of plastics would still be possible, for example.