Magazine October 28, 2019, Issue

Energy Means Food and Time

(Daniel Acker/Reuters)
And much else that spectacularly raises the human standard of living

Today in the developed world it is commonplace to glorify our planet and bemoan the impact of human beings on it. But that impact is necessary and often positive. Our planet is naturally dangerous, and it is deficient in many of the values human beings need to flourish. Nature does not want us to have a life expectancy of 75 or an infant mortality rate below 1 percent. Today we regard death before age 30 as a tragedy; in more “natural” times, it was the expectation.

Take our most basic need: food. Earth is not a garden of Eden. For hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors had to work hard to avoid starvation — and often failed. In poorer parts of the world today, many people are still barely able to get enough food to survive, let alone flourish. Indeed, food production is such a challenge that environmental thought leaders have long predicted inevitable starvation for billions of people on this “finite planet.”

In 1968, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich declared in his wildly popular book The Population Bomb that “the battle to feed humanity is over.” He wasn’t the only one who thought so. “While there have always been famines and warnings of famine, food experts generally agree that the situation now is substantially different,” the New York Times reported in 1969. “The problem is becoming so acute that every nation, institution, and every human being will ultimately be affected.” In an open letter in 1975, the Environmental Fund, a group of leading American intellectuals, wrote that “the world as we know it will likely be ruined before the year 2000. . . . World food production cannot keep pace with the galloping growth of population.”

The world’s population was 3.6 billion in 1968. The average person is better fed now than then, although the population has doubled. That seeming miracle was due in large part to the fossil-fuel industry.

Modern agriculture, like all modern industry, runs on machines, and fossil fuels are the leading source of the food that machines run on. Nothing can match the fossil-fuel industry in producing the types of energy that agriculture requires at a low cost and on a scale big enough to feed billions of people.

Oil-powered mechanization, for example, has meant a dramatic increase in the amount of farmland that can be cultivated per worker. For most of human history, agricultural work was done through the muscle power of humans or draft animals, placing a low ceiling on how much farmland could be harvested, and often requiring 90 percent of a local population to be devoted to farm labor. The oil industry changes that by making available cheap, concentrated energy that can fuel tractors, combines, and other forms of high-powered farm equipment. In The Rational Optimist, a valuable survey of human progress, Matt Ridley describes the value of mechanization on his own farm, noting that “a modern combine harvester, driven by a single man, can reap enough wheat in a single day to make half a million loaves.”

Oil-based transportation increases how much farm product can be brought to market. For the vast bulk of human history, the earth was full of patches of potential farmland that were useless because they were too remote from population centers. When men and goods travel by horse or mule or on foot, the shipping costs quickly exceed the value of the cargo. In the 20th century, the rise in oil-powered transportation — railroads (modern railroads are powered by diesel engines), freighters, and trucks, especially — brought remote farmland within the reach of anyone in the city, the country, and eventually the world. The cheaper transportation became, the more farmland came into the global agricultural economy, and the more plentiful and affordable food became. In addition, new seeds and other supplies could be brought to new locations to make previously low-performing land yield more crops. 

Gas-based fertilization increases the volume of crops that can be grown per unit of farmland. The volume we can grow today is utterly “unnatural,” far beyond the capacity of the naturally occurring nutrients in the soil to nourish crops. In the past, one method of fertilization was to spread manure or some other organic substance, which enabled plants to absorb more nitrogen and thereby stimulated growth. The use of such fertilizer helped populations to grow and living standards to rise throughout the 19th century, but there was a problem: As the population grew, it became harder to find enough manure to collect. The supplies of guano off the coasts of South America and South Africa were being exhausted. The problem was solved when Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed a process for making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer from methane, the dominant component of natural gas.

Electricity-based (and therefore usually fossil-fuel-generated) or diesel-based irrigation means that crops get more water. Irrigated lands average more than three times the crop yields of exclusively rain-fed areas. Sometimes irrigation is accomplished through gravity, but otherwise a lot of energy — usually fossil-fuel energy — is required to move the water.

Norman Borlaug and other food scientists introduced new farming techniques to Mexico, India, Pakistan, China, and parts of South America. This green revolution was made possible by fossil-fueled civilization, in which the use of high-powered machines freed large numbers of people from manual labor and enabled them to engage in intensive research. 

Fossil fuels are the food of food. 

In providing the fuel that makes modern, industrialized, globalized, fertilized agriculture possible, the oil-and-gas industry has sustained and improved billions of lives. Surely this must rank as one of the great achievements of our time. When we consider the problems that the industry creates, we should take into account that it fed and feeds the world. And how often does the industry get credit for it? Bono and other celebrity activists get more credit for caring than the oil and energy industries get for doing.

Not to give the industry its due credit is a dangerous injustice. When activists clamor to “keep fossil fuels in the ground,” they do not know, or perhaps don’t care, that if their advice were heeded, people would starve.

Without the broader energy industry, the world could not support a population of 7 billion — or 3.6 billion, or perhaps not even 1 billion. To starve our machines of energy would be to starve ourselves.

As the industry that powers all others, energy can be considered the master industry. Computers, electronics, health care, pharmaceuticals — every industry uses machines and resources that are manufactured thanks to the energy industry, which makes our society more productive and saves time. The more productive industry is, the more resources and machinery we have, and the more time we have to enjoy our lives. As we debate energy policy during the 2020 election campaigns, the fundamental role that low-cost energy plays in our lives, and the unique ability of the fossil-fuel industry to produce it, needs to be part of every conversation.

Alex EpsteinMr. Epstein is the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and the founder of the Center for Industrial Progress.

In This Issue

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