For countless thousands of years, mankind endured life on the edge, in hunter-gatherer, subsistence farmer, and primitive urban industrial societies powered by wood, charcoal, animal dung, water wheels, and windmills. Despite backbreaking dawn-to-dusk labor, wretched poverty was the norm; starvation was just a drought, war or long winter away; rampant disease and infection were addressed by herbs, traditional medicine, and superstition. Life was certainly eco-friendly, but life spans averaged 35 to 40 years.
Then, suddenly—a miracle! Beginning around 1800, health, prosperity and life expectancy began to climb … slowly but inexorably at first, then more rapidly and dramatically. Today, the average American lives longer, healthier and better than even royalty did a mere century ago.
How did this happen? What had been absent before from human civilization that now was present, bringing about this incredible transformation?
Humanity already had the basic scientific method (1250), printing press (1450), corporation (1600) and early steam engines (1770). What inventions, discoveries and practices arrived post-1800, to propel us forward over this short time span?
Ideals of liberty and equality took root, says economics historian Deidre McCloskey. Liberated people are more ingenious, free to pursue happiness, and ideas; free to try, fail and try again; free to pursue their self-interests and thereby, intentionally or not, better mankind—as Adam Smith detailed.
Equality (of social dignity and before the law) emboldened otherwise ordinary people to invest, invent, and take risks. Once accidents of parentage, titles, inherited wealth, or formal education no longer controlled destinies, humanity increasingly benefitted from the innate inspiration, perspiration, and perseverance of inventors like American Charles Newbold, who patented the first iron plow in 1807.
Ideas suddenly start having sex, say McCloskey and United Kingdom parliamentarian and science writer Matt Ridley. Free enterprise capitalism and entrepreneurship took off, as did commercial and international banking, risk management and stock markets. Legal and regulatory systems expanded to express societal expectations, coordinate growth and activities, and punish bad actors.
The scientific method began to flourish, unleashing wondrous advances at an increasingly frenzied pace. Not just inventions like steam-powered refrigeration (1834) but, often amid heated debate, discoveries like the germ theory of disease that finally bested the miasma theory around 1870. Yet, another absolutely vital, foundational advancement is often overlooked or only grudging recognized.
This was the advent of abundant, reliable, affordable energy—the vast majority of it fossil fuels. It made the sudden progress possible. Coal and coal gas, then also oil, then natural gas as well, replaced primitive fuels with densely packed energy (our Master Resource, economist Julian Simon called it) that could power engines, trains, farms, factories, laboratories, schools, hospitals, offices, homes, and more, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year.
The fuels also ended our unsustainable reliance on whale oil, saving those magnificent creatures from extinction. Eventually, they powered equipment that removes harmful pollutants from our air and water. Today, coal, oil, and natural gas still provide 80 percent of America’s and the world’s energy for heat, lights, manufacturing, transportation, communication, refrigeration, entertainment, and every other component of modern life. Equally important, they supported and still support the infrastructure and vibrant societies and economies that enable the human mind (what Simon called our Ultimate Resource) to create seemingly endless new ideas, institutions, and technologies.
Fossil fuels also generated electricity, which play an increasingly prominent and indispensable role in modern life. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine life without this wondrous energy form. Hydroelectricity made its debut at Niagara Falls in 1881 and first lit a home a year later: the Hearthstone House in Appleton, Wisconsin, eight miles from where I grew up. Nuclear power joined the club in 1954. By 1925, half of all U.S. homes had electricity; a half century later, all did.
Medical discoveries and practices followed a similar trajectory, as millions of invisible hands worked together across buildings, cities, countries, and continents—without most of them ever even knowing the others existed. They shared and combined ideas and technologies, generating new products and practices that improved and saved billions of lives.
Medical research discovered why people died from minor wounds, and what really caused malaria (1898), smallpox, and cholera. Antibiotics (the most vital advance in centuries), vaccinations and new drugs began to combat disease and infection. X-rays, anesthesia, improved surgical techniques, sanitation, and pain killers (beginning with Bayer Aspirin in 1899) permitted life-saving operations. Indoor plumbing, electric stoves (1896) and refrigerators (1913), trash removal, and countless other advances also helped raise average American life expectancy from 46 in 1900 to 76 (men) and 81 (women) in 2017.
Washing hands with soap (1850) also reduced infections and disease. Wearing shoes in southern U.S. states (1910) all but eliminated waterborne hookworm, while the growing use of window screens (1887) kept hosts of disease-carrying insects out of homes. Accessible, affordable health insurance made better medical treatment available to the masses.
Meanwhile, petrochemicals—fossil fuel derivatives—increasingly provided countless pharmaceuticals, plastics, and other products that enhance and safeguard lives.
Few advances can rival water and wastewater treatment. Also made possible by fossil fuels, electricity and the infrastructure they support, such treatments enabled healthier societies that created still more prosperity, by eliminating the bacteria, parasites, and other waterborne pathogens that made people too sick to work and killed millions, especially children. They all but eradicated cholera, one of history’s greatest killers.
Invented in 1939 and sprayed on war refugees and concentration camp survivors to stop typhus outbreaks, DDT delivered the coup de grace to malaria in the United States, Europe, Siberia and other places where it had long made people unable to work for weeks or months on end, left many with permanent brain or liver damage, and killed millions. DDT still enables African, Asian and Latin American health officials to spray the walls of primitive homes with the most powerful and long-lasting mosquito repellant ever invented. One spray every six months keeps most mosquitoes out, irritates those that do enter so they don’t bite, kills any that land, and thus reduces malaria by 80 percent or more in locales where this disease is still prevalent.
Other chemicals control disease-carrying and crop-destroying insects and waterborne pathogens.
The internal combustion engine (Carl Benz, 1886) gradually replaced horses for farming and transportation, rid cities of equine pollution, and enabled forage cropland to become forests. Today we can travel states, nations, and the world in mere hours, instead of weeks—and ship food, clothing, and other products to the globe’s farthest corners.
The average horse emits 30 pounds of feces and two gallons of urine daily. Circa 1900, New York City sanitation crews dumped the excrement into rivers, fouling them beyond imagination, while thousands contracted tuberculosis from living in damp, moldy homes and inhaling dried, pulverized manure left behind on the streets.
Catalytic converters and other technologies steadily ensured that today’s cars emit less than two percent of the pollutants that came out of tailpipes in 1970.
Ammonia-based fertilizers arrived in 1910; tractors and combines became common in the 1920s. Today, modern mechanized agriculture, fertilizers, hybrid and GMO seeds, drip irrigation, and other advances combine to produces bumper crops that feed billions, using less land, water, and insecticides.
Power equipment erects better and stronger houses and other buildings that keep out winter cold and summer heat, survive hurricanes and earthquakes, and connect occupants with entertainment and information centers from all over the planet. Radios, telephones and televisions warn of impending dangers, while fire trucks and ambulances rush accident victims to hospitals.
Some may yearn for “the simpler life of yesteryear.” But having grown up without electricity or indoor plumbing, using horses and her own muscle to help remove large rocks from fields so her family could plant crops—and having lost children at a young age—my grandmother had a different perspective. “The only good thing about the good old days is that they’re gone,” she told me.
Indeed, one could say prosperity and health begin with holes in the ground. Modern drilling and mining techniques and technologies find, extract, and process the incredible variety of fuels, metals, and other raw materials required to manufacture and operate factories and equipment, to produce the energy we need to grow or make everything we eat, wear or use.
Modern communication technologies combine cable and wireless connections, computers, chips, cell phones, televisions, radio, or Internet, and other devices to connect people and businesses, operate cars and equipment, and make once time-consuming operations happen in nanoseconds. In the invention and discovery arena, Cosmopolitan magazine might call it best idea-sex ever. And abundant, reliable, affordable energy, still mostly fossil fuels, still makes it all happen.
The Troubling Conundrum
Amid all this health, prosperity and longevity for so many—why do two billion of the Earth’s estimated 7.6 billion people still struggle on the edge of survival, on $3 per day? Why do millions still die every year from malnutrition, Vitamin A deficiency, and insect-carried, waterborne, respiratory, and intestinal diseases?
Why do two billion human beings still have minimal, sporadic, unpredictable electricity, while another 1.3 billion still have none? Why does the average American benefit from having 20 times more electricity than the average sub-Sahara African—the equivalent of having the energy of modern life just one hour a day, eight hours a week, 416 hours per year, unpredictably, for a few minutes, hours or days at a time?
The formula for health and prosperity is readily available via a computer or cell phone. The most modern technologies are widely and readily available. What is holding the rest of the world back? Indeed, says African human rights advocate Leon Louw, today the real mystery is not the “miracle of prosperity.” It is the “miracle of poverty”—the sad, disgraceful “miracle” that abject poverty still exists.
Part of the explanation is endemic to the poorest countries. People have no jobs, no private property rights in their land, thus no collateral for loans. They have insufficient infrastructure or none at all—poor or no roads, wastewater treatment, indoor plumbing, decent schools or hospitals—largely because there is little or no energy, especially electricity.
Corrupt, kleptocratic, authoritarian if not totalitarian governing elites take care of their families and political allies, spend aid money on themselves, and do nothing for the people. Disturbingly, this intolerable situation is gravely worsened by powerful, callous environmentalist groups and government agencies that justify eco-imperialist, environmentally racist policies by making exaggerated and fabricated assertions that fossil fuel energy and middle-class housing and lifestyles for the world’s poor would not be “sustainable” or would cause “unprecedented, catastrophic climate change.” They actively prevent countries from acquiring the energy and other technologies that made their own nations healthy and prosperous.
European Union and United Nations agencies, the World Bank, multilateral development banks, Greenpeace and similar groups, and even the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) restrict energy and infrastructure loans to wind, solar, and biofuel projects. They refuse to support coal-fired units and even gas-fired power plants that would utilize natural gas that is being “flared” and wasted in nearby oil fields. Nuclear and hydroelectric power receive similar contempt.
No factory, hospital, school, Internet server, or Greenpeace office could function on the expensive, unreliable “renewable” energy that these carbon colonialists impose on impoverished countries. Third World families are not threatened by climate and weather fluctuations, which are no worse than what they have confronted numerous times throughout their history—and exist primarily in headlines and computer model “projections.”
Average global temperatures have barely budged for 20 years; seas are rising at the rate of seven inches per century; droughts and storms have not increased in number or intensity for 50 years; and Harvey in 2017 was the first major (categories three to five) hurricane to make U.S. landfall in a record 12 years.
Families in the world’s poorest countries are threatened by climate and sustainability policies that deprive them of the energy, gainful employment, living standards, health and longevity that we in the already-developed nations view as our birthright. Indeed, the best way to ensure “climate resilience” is to have strong economies, modern technologies, and modern homes and infrastructures that are built to withstand nature’s onslaughts.
Rather than being sustainable or renewable, wind and solar energy require vast amounts of land, concrete, steel, copper, rare earth elements, lithium, cobalt, petrochemicals, and other raw materials—and thus extensive mining, processing and manufacturing via fossil fuels. In one of the most fraudulent “sustainability” and “climate protection” projects ever undertaken, American and Canadian companies are cutting down thousands of acres of forest habitats, and turning millions of trees into wood pellets, which they truck to coastal ports and transport on oil-fueled cargo ships to England. There the pellets are hauled by train to the Drax Power Plant and burned to generate electricity, so that Britain “can meet its renewable fuel, sustainability and climate targets.”
The same ostensibly pro-environment agencies restrict malaria reduction programs to narrowly defined “capacity building” and “integrated, multi-faceted” insect control efforts that emphasize bed nets and drugs which are often counterfeit or becoming ineffective. They prohibit insecticides, larvicides, and DDT. It’s akin to telling cancer patients they should eat more broccoli but avoid chemotherapy because their hair will fall out.
Under extreme “Agro-Ecology” principles, activists and aid agencies oppose the use of hybrid and genetically engineered crops, chemical fertilizers and insecticides, even tractors and other machinery. These policies reduce crop yields per acre, require that more land be cultivated to feed people, and demand far more back-breaking, dawn-to-dusk labor.
Such policies and practices can no longer be tolerated.
Poor countries should no longer do what rich countries are doing now that they are rich. They should do what rich countries did to become rich, beginning with safeguarding individual freedom and property rights, thereby stimulating creativity and problem-solving. And banks, wealthy nations, U.N. agencies, and true “civil society” and “human rights” groups should do everything possible to help them along.
Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power – Black Death and other books and articles on energy, climate change, economic development and human rights.