What If We Never Had Fossil Fuels?

As I sit here wondering how we can successfully make the transition to a sustainable society, I think about the things that are going to have to change, like the relationship between ourselves, our possessions and our sense of satisfaction. And the way we’ll need to change our food system and begin to refocus on regional assets and become more aware of where stuff comes from and where it goes, like water and food, for example, and energy…

So that leads me to ask: what if we had a planet exactly like this one in every detail, except for the fact that it does not have and never did burn any fossil fuels? It’s kind of like the world our great grandchildren will find themselves living in, except in my little thought experiment, we wouldn’t have been derived from fossil-fuel-dependent  great-grandparents. But we would have had the same amount of time to evolve as a species.

So, my question is, what kind of world would this be? What kind of civilization would exist? Would we still be living in medieval times? Or would our clever forefathers have thought of other ways to bring us into a more modern, and presumably greener life.

I asked a couple of experts to see what they thought about this.

Stephen Cutcliffe, the director of the Science Technology and Society program at Lehigh University responded, “Presumably we would still have had fire and hence some basic glass and metal working although at lower temperatures to start, and so some wood-based steam power would have been feasible. I don’t know how far you could get with tolerances for steam engines, hence an efficiency question in terms of both transport and manufacturing. Plenty of water power to go around though, so why not basic manufacturing? Solar would have been feasible, certainly in a passive heating sense, and probably for hot water as well. We’d probably design buildings for heating and cooling much differently if we were dependent on solar. Wood would not have lasted too long in many places, especially in England and Europe, maybe longer in the Americas, which might have been an interesting trade advantage. It seems to me that there might be some limits in terms of materials we could utilize without large amounts of heat–so steel, aluminum, etc, but basic charcoal iron would be available, so we might have some modest height buildings but probably not skyscrapers. Said iron could be used in low pressure steam engines and for basic consumer items. Transportation might have been most affected. Iron rails and some basic locomotives? Why not? But individual autos in this scenario are hard to imagine. ”

So, then, maybe it would not be so very different than our current reality, but with more public transportation and shorter buildings, probably less suburban sprawl, too.

Roger Saillant, Executive Director of the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value at Case Western Reserve University observed that since hydro-power and wind power have been around for centuries, there is no reason why we couldn’t also have electricity. He goes on to say, “I believe that we could have progressed nicely using the sun and charcoal to advance society—maybe with less population and using biomass as we learned. Oil from biomass is discussed all the time today; we know about hydro-power; wind is there and so are geothermal and waves and volcanoes…. We have no idea what was burned in the library at Alexandria but surely there was worthy knowledge there.”

He mentioned the famous story of Archimedes using solar power to burn the ships of the attacking Romans during the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC. People have debated for years whether that really happened or if it was even possible. A group of students at MIT recently demonstrated that it might in fact, be feasible.

So if the Greeks could have built a solar death ray, two thousand years ago, just imagine what else our clever forefathers might have come up with, without good old fossil fuels to fall back on, as they pondered the great questions of how to stay warm, and eat, and get from place to place.

“Solar ovens were already started in Roman times,” says Saillant. “We would have been building concentrators long ago and developed them to make steel. Glass and ceramics were already being made by the Arabs 5000 years ago. Wind has always been a factor in power since before Greece and the Egyptians. We would have gotten lubricants and oils and fuels from plant oils. Once we did that, it would have been an easy to step up [internal combustion] engines and flight. Populations probably would have started closer to the equator and gradually drifted northward as more technology would have led to more efficiency.”

I’d like to hear your thoughts about this. As for me, the question gives me confidence that our predecessors would indeed have come up with many great things as will we, in the coming years, to build a society that is comfortable, clean and safe– enlightened, even–while using only the energy income that the sun provides and the modest renewable accumulation that biomass can provide.

RP Siegel and Roger Saillant are co-authors of the novel Vapor Trails, which raises this very question and a number of others like it.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His publications include business and technical articles as well as books. His third, co-authored with Roger Saillant, is Vapor Trails, an adventure novel about sustainability. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. He is also active in his community of Rochester, NY. A regular contributor to Mechanical Engineering magazine, RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner to the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.. Follow @RPSiegel on Twitter. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com