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There’s an interesting article over at Forbes by Alex Epstein called “How Fossil Fuels Cleaned Up Our Environment” that posits the use of fossil fuels, and particularly the ability to create cleaner methods of doing so after the 1970 Clear Air Act, made the environment much more clean and healthy.

The immediate response from those snowed by decades of enviro-doomsaying would be a violent “That’s bullshit!”…but one of the points I frequently bring up in my history classes is what life as like in a major city (or even a small town) in the late 1800s. Epstein does a nicer job by taking it back further to the time of Newcomen, the man that invented the steam engine.

Thomas’s reaction would be disbelief that such a clean, healthy environment could exist.

“How is this possible?” he would ask. “The air is so clean. Where I come from, we’re breathing in smoke all day from the fire we need to burn in our furnace.”

“And the water. Everywhere I go, there’s this water that tastes so good, and it’s all safe to drink. On my farm, we get our water from a brook we share with animals, and my kids are always getting sick.”

“And the weather. It isn’t that much different, but you’re so much safer from it. You can move a knob to make it cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cold.”

“And you have to tell me, what happened to all the disease? Where I’m from, we have insects all over the place giving us disease—my neighbor’s son died of malaria—and you don’t seem to have any of that here. What’s your secret?”

I’d tell him that the secret was his invention: a method of transforming a concentrated, stored, plentiful energy source into cheap, plentiful, reliable energy so we could use machines to transform our hazardous natural environment into a far healthier human environment.

That isn’t overstating it. Imagine, for a moment, the world of 1880s New York City. The place is a sty, using that in the most pejorative way possible. There has only recently been the creation of the nather Stasi-like Sanitation Corps, with their white military-style uniforms, but they can only do so much…the place is lit with coal gas, or whale oil which throws massive amounts of crud into the air so you can see a few yards from the light source (although the evil Standard Oil Company has been dropping Pennsylvania kerosine prices so quickly that whaling is no longer a real option for lighting…saving whales.) Electricity is still a soul-lifting experiment in the theater district. You heat your place with coal or wood — both of which dump a lot more smoke and filth into the air than a modern coal-fired electrical plant ever could. You get around on foot, or by horse-drawn vehicles. There are more than a quarter million working horses in NYC…and they piss and poop. A lot. The roads are a flood of mashed shit. There are places every few blocks to stable the animals. More pee, more poo. And when a horse “breaks down” (dies), you have a big traffic jam waiting on the butcher to come get the carcass out of the middle of the street.

It’s dirt, smoke, stink, and pestilence.

But within a few decades the quality of life improves thanks to electricity (powered by the Niagara hydroelectric dam or local coal or diesel-fired generators; you get around on electric trams or trains, or gas-powered cars and trucks. “They stink!” cries the twerp whose never lived in worse than modern conditions. “Things were so much better when we all did farming, and lived naturally…” or when we worked from sun up to sundown for almost no money, only to worry if too much or little rain would fall, if it would be too warm or cold, and if we were lucky you lived to your 40s, bent and broken physically instead of dying of some horrific disease we don’t have thanks to Louis Pasteur and vaccinations.

Can we make these power sources cleaner? Yup. Can we find alternatives to them? Yup…but because we have the production infrastructure powered by hydrocarbons now. As solar improves (and it’s becoming a viable alternative source…but it’s much better suited to individual production and use), and other alternative forms roll out, the environment will improve.

Ultimately, however, that’s only possible because we moved away from animal and less energy dense sources to hydrocarbons. So yes…Epstein’s right.

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