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Every person uses energy every day. Most from the time they wake up to when they go to bed. It is such a part of daily life that it is easy to take for granted.
But it’s important to understand that this is a very modern phenomenon. Not that long ago, even the wealthiest kings could not have imagined the energy the working class has at its disposal today.
The use of fossil fuels: coal, petroleum, and natural gas.
Yes, the energy sources demonized by politicians, activists, and professors throughout the world are what revolutionized humanity’s quality of life.
Why? Fossil fuels are cost effective. They are reliable. They are portable. And these qualities are what allowed for a boom in automated factories, transportation, indoor heating and cooling, and so much more. For most of human history, the average life expectancy was around thirty years. Populations remained relatively stagnant for centuries. Then, fossil fuels sparked the Industrial Revolution, creating a boom for humankind and changing everything.
Our planet now supports eight billion people. For most of human history, it could not even carry close to one billion. Without the conditions created by fossil fuels, at least seven of every eight people alive today wouldn’t be able to survive, let alone thrive the way humanity does today.
No segment of the population has benefitted more from this improvement in material well-being than the most vulnerable among us.
It is stable, reliable energy that allows premature babies to have a chance at life. It is refrigeration that allows those working paycheck to paycheck to keep their food safe to eat. Air-conditioning makes it possible for people in the warmest places to comfortably survive the summer and warms people in the coldest places through the winter.
Once we appreciate the incredible impact fossil fuels have had on civilization, we can seriously consider the energy debate going on around the world. Before we can decide what changes we should make to our energy consumption or “carbon footprint,” we need to fully appreciate what we’re trying to replace and the real-world consequences of the alternatives. We need to understand what might really motivating fossil fuels’ most vocal critics.
Thinking like an economist means thinking about the unseen, not only what we see around us.
And in this series, we are going to dig into the unseen of energy.