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Humanity’s Ascent Linked to Fossil Fuels

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Humanity’s Ascent Linked to Fossil Fuels: A Story Less Told

By Vijay Jayaraj

Having been subjected to daily media fantasies about a climate crisis, consider the reality that your children’s children will not only survive but thrive in a world that is benefiting from a warmer climate, higher levels of atmospheric CO2 and a plethora of scientific discoveries and innovations.

In the annals of human history, few, if any, periods have witnessed such profound and rapid advancement as the span from the mid-20th century to the present day. The transformative power of human ingenuity — coupled with the harnessing of natural resources, particularly coal, natural gas and oil — has spurred remarkable progress.

Some key metrics of humanity’s upward movement are life expectancy, access to clean water, the reduction of disease-related mortality, the resurgence of natural habitats in developed nations, advancements in transportation, increases in productivity and the overall elevation of living standards.

In 1950, the global average life expectancy at birth stood at a modest 46 years. By 2021, this figure had surged to 73 years, marking an increase of nearly three decades in the span of a single human lifetime. In 1950, 63% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. By 2018, this figure had plummeted to less than 10% while the global population more than tripled.

Nutrition has improved significantly. Concerns about global food security were widespread in 1950. Today, food production has more than kept pace with the growing number of people. The Green Revolution, powered by fossil fuel-based fertilizers and mechanized farming, has enabled agricultural yields to increase by 175% over the last 70 years.

This extraordinary achievement is the result of a confluence of factors, many of which can be traced to the utilization of fossil fuels to affect scientific advancements and make electricity widely available.

The petrochemical industry, a byproduct of refining fossil fuels, has been instrumental in the development of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. From the plastic tubing used in intravenous drips to the synthetic materials in prosthetics, the fingerprints of hydrocarbon derivatives are ubiquitous in modern medicine.

Access to clean water, a prerequisite for health and social development, has expanded markedly since the mid-20th century, when only a small fraction of the world could count on access to safe water. Today, according to the World Health Organization, more than 70% of the population enjoys healthful water services.

The development of modern plumbing systems, facilitated by the mass production of pipes and fittings (often derived from petroleum products), has brought clean water directly into homes. This seemingly simple advancement has had profound implications for public health, personal hygiene and overall quality of life.

Contrary to popular belief, the latter half of the 20th century and the early 21st century have witnessed an extraordinary recovery of natural habitats in many developed nations, particularly in the United States and Europe. In more recent decades, even rapidly developing and highly populated economies like India and China have registered a growth in forest area and even resurgence of some once at-risk wildlife species.

Proliferation of automobiles has transformed societies, granting individuals unprecedented freedom of movement. The global logistics network, powered by diesel engines in ships, trucks and trains, has enabled the creation of complex supply chains that bring a diverse array of goods to consumers at ever-decreasing costs.

In 2019, 4.5 billion passengers used commercial air travel. The advent of jet engines, which rely on petroleum-based fuels, has shrunk the world, making international travel accessible to millions and facilitating global commerce on an unprecedented scale.

Powered by fossil fuels, machines have taken over much of the physical labor in agriculture, manufacturing and construction, dramatically increasing output per worker. This productivity surge has been the engine of economic growth, enabling the production of more goods and services with fewer resources.

While life expectancy in Japan reaches 85 years, it barely exceeds 50 in some African nations. The path to development for these nations must, by necessity, employ the same drivers that propelled the West’s progress in the 20th century. Access to abundant, reliable energy is paramount. The role of fossil fuels in this process cannot be overstated.

The story of human advancement since the 1950s is inextricably linked to our harnessing of fossil fuels and our ever-expanding scientific understanding. As we look to the future, we must build upon these foundations, pushing the boundaries of innovation.

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