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September 2014 Brief: Volume 21, Number 26

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Fossil Fuels Benefit All People and Are Not Evil!


by Deborah Thornton



Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case, tracks the economic benefits to all people resulting from the efficient use of energy from fossil fuels. Written by Kathleen White, Director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment, who is also an officer of the Lower Colorado River Authority, it documents the history and positive economic benefits of fossil fuels.[1]


White discusses the significant changes and improvements in human lives over the last 200 years – all fueled by innovative uses of oil and coal.[2] This paper brings a reasoned, historical perspective to the energy source debate. Fossil fuels are not evil, our use of them is not inherently wasteful, and they will remain critical to the world economy for many hundreds of years.


The paper starts with a comparison of life today, for your normal family, compared to life in 1814, as crafted by Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist. That life, 200 years ago, was short and tough. The father dies of pneumonia, the baby dies of smallpox, the sister becomes “chattel of a drunken husband,” the mother’s teeth rot and fall out. They mostly eat gruel, with little meat, fruit, or salad. There are no candles, only light from a smoky wood fire. Education is basic, with no arts or music. Only the father has travelled to the “city,” while the rest have gone no farther than 15 miles from home. A jacket costs a month’s wages. There are lice in the clothing and the children sleep on straw mattresses on the floor.


We have all heard of the deprivation faced by our forefathers. But do we understand what it means? Today, this is a life lived by only the poorest of the poor in developing world countries. And even most of them have cell phones, powered by fossil-fuel-generated electricity.


Ridley then elaborates that since the 1800s:


…real incomes have risen more than nine times. Taking a shorter perspective, in 2005, compared to 1955, the average (female) on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. She was less likely to die as a result of war, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding, famine, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, small pox, scurvy, or polio. She was less likely, at any given age, to get cancer, heart disease, or stroke. She was more likely to be literate and to have finished school. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush-toilet, a refrigerator, and a bicycle. All this during a half century when the world population more than doubled.[3]


This economic progress has been driven by the efficient and cost-effective use of fossil fuels. Arguably the world is a better place than it was 200 years ago, and people in poverty are not concerned about the environmental impact of their actions if they’re just trying to stay alive and feed their children. As White and Ridley persuasively argue, the greatest beneficiaries of the industrial revolution and efficient use of fossil fuels were those in “abject” poverty.


We need to be clear on the facts: prior to the late 1700s (interestingly also the era of the birth of the United States) neither income per capita nor life expectancy of humans had increased since the earliest recorded history. The poor village family continued to live as they always had. Little change occurred and little change was expected in their lives and futures. The shoemaker’s son would also be a shoemaker, if he was lucky enough to live past age five.


The industrial revolution, powered by fossil fuels, changed this trajectory. This ability to manage and control power has been critical to economic development for hundreds of millions of people. Refrigerators, furnaces, air conditioners, and heart machines must work – 24/7 – and clearly help people to live safely and productively.


Yet over-reacting global-warming alarmists would have us return to the 1800s and before by refusing to recognize the universal benefits of fossil and nuclear fuel use. As a result of their efforts, a 2006 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimates that over 50 gigawatts (GWe) of coal-fired electricity capacity in the U.S. and another 40 GWe of nuclear capacity will be removed from use in the next 15-25 years.[4]


This will have a significant negative economic impact on all citizens. MIT, certainly not a group of climate-change deniers or tea-party extremists, characterize this impact as resulting in “severe reductions in the services that energy provides to all Americans.”[5]


We’re not the only ones seeing this negative economic impact. Officials in Germany – which has enthusiastically embraced expensive and inefficient “renewable energy” sources such as solar power – are now warning their citizens and businesses that “soaring energy costs” are creating the risk of “dramatic de-industrialization.”[6] Many Europeans, fully accepting the global-warming scare, are now paying three to four times as much for electricity and natural gas as Americans. Environmental extremism is literally bankrupting these people and businesses.


Severe reductions in the U.S. and de-industrialization in Germany, two of the world’s leading economies, are not positive results for anyone. Maybe we should re-think our current hysteria-driven approach to energy generation. Fossil fuels are not inherently evil – they have given us the comfortable lifestyles we enjoy today. Bad public policy driven by hysterical global-warming extremists is evil and should be stopped.


[1] “Press,” Texas Public Policy Foundation, June 17, 2014, <> accessed on July 11, 2014.
[2] Kathleen White, “Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case,” Texas Public Policy Foundation, June 19, 2014, <> accessed on June 21, 2014.
[3] Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist (2010), pp. 13-14.
[4] “The Future of Geothermal Energy,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, p. 1-1, 2006, <> accessed on July 14, 2014.
[5] Ibid, pp. 1-2.
[6] Robert Bryce, “The Real Climate ‘Deniers’ Are the Greens,” February 3, 2014, The Wall Street Journal, <> accessed on July 6, 2014.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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