This Thanksgiving season, the Manhattan Contrarian gives thanks for a number of blessings in his life, including one of life’s greatest joys, a new grandchild. Another particular blessing that “makes an enormous contribution to my well-being, productiveness, and enjoyment of life – and to everyone else’s well-being, productiveness, and enjoyment of life,” Francis Menton notes, is fire.
I’m speaking of course about man’s control of fire. Or, as we say in up-to-date terminology, the use of fossil fuels.
We don’t know when early people first learned to control and use fire. But just the initial step without doubt brought large immediate benefits: the ability to cook food, and the ability to provide warmth in cold weather. Somewhat later, the use of fire also brought the ability to obtain metals like copper and then iron from rock. And it has been on up from there.
Carbon – the Miracle Element
Today, we would, say that earth, air and water are forms of matter, but fire is a process — the process by which the elements carbon and hydrogen combine with oxygen, releasing energy and sending carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H20) into the atmosphere. Carbon is indeed the miracle element. Of more than 100 elements, carbon is the only one that is the basis of life. All life on earth forms itself out of CO2, removed from the atmosphere by plants through the process of photosynthesis that is essentially the reverse of fire. Look around you and what you see is mostly carbon-based life forms (plants, animals) or things made from carbon-based life forms (wood, cloth, etc.).
Wood Same as Coal, Oil, Natural Gas
Chemically, coal, oil and natural gas start as being fundamentally the same thing as wood — principally carbon and some hydrogen that can be burned — but differ from wood mainly in having far fewer impurities, where the term “impurities” refers to things other than carbon and hydrogen, like nitrogen and sulphur. In a burning process, the impurities end up in the atmosphere as pollution — ash, particulates, smog and haze (SO2, NOX). With far less in the way of impurities, the fossil fuels would appear to be greatly superior to wood as an energy source, both because the useful stuff (carbon and hydrogen) is more concentrated, and because the resulting pollution is greatly reduced. Not to zero of course. Nothing in this world is perfectly pure.
Blessings from Fossil Fuels
Here Francis Menton gives random examples of some to the blessings bestowed on man from fossil fuels:
- During the 1790s, Philadelphia was the U.S. capital. Abigail Adams, according to McCullough’s biography of Adams left Philly during the summer months, to escape of the unbearable plague of stinging black flies. Today, summers in Philly are devoid of any meaningful number of stinging black flies. Why? Autos powered by gasoline replaced horses, and flies that bred in the horse manure covering the city’s streets all but disappeared.
- Much of U.S. and Europe heat and cook using fossil fuels, mainly oil and natural gas. Not so in 3rd world countries, where wood or even manure is often used, and inadequate ventilation leads to dangerous indoor air pollution. From Mr. Menton: “Health Effects of Ambient Air Pollutions in Developing Countries,” 2017: “The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that, in the year 2012, ambient air pollution was responsible for nearly seven million deaths, representing more than 10% of all-cause deaths and more than doubling previous estimates.”
- Thanks to the use of fossil fuels to power equipment to mechanize agricultural production, the percent of American labor force engaged in agriculture in 1880 went from 83% to 2%. The difference freed up 80% of the labor force to produce other things, which resulted in a multiplication of the income of the average American.
- Been to Europe lately? Noodle about on your computer (try going a day without your computer if you think electricity is no big deal) and you can find round-trip flights for well under $500 in about 7 hours or less – both a consequence of inexpensive fossil fuels. “In the days of wind-powered trans-ocean travel, the trip across the Atlantic took one to three months (you never knew which) and only the wealthy could afford to do it.”
Electrical grid for Millions from Wind and Sun?
“After years of massive government subsidies and promotion from the great and the good, the International Energy Agency is just out with a report touting that the share of wind and solar in world primary energy production is — get ready for this — 1.1%,” reports Mr. Menton.
Fossil Fuel Production Rapidly Growing
The people who believe in tooth fairy economics are demanding (!!!!!) that all fossil fuels be eliminated from the U.S. economy by 2030. Sorry, this will not happen. Actually, fossil fuel production is rapidly growing, as it needs to do to provide for a growing world economy. U.S. production of crude oil recently went back above 10 million barrels per day for the first time since the 1970s.
Instead, we get endless wailing and gnashing of teeth and demands for atonement for our supposed sins.
Check in at the NYT?
If you can stand it, check out the latest from the New York Times just today, “U.S. Climate Report Warns of Damaged Environment and Shrinking Economy.” Really, where do these dummies think our economy comes from? It’s just embarrassing.
For much more from Francis Menton click here.
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