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Old Tuesday, November 13, 2007
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Post Environmental Effects of the Fossil Fuel Age

Environmental Effects of the Fossil Fuel Age

Over the last two centuries, human activity has transformed the chemistry of Earth’s water and air, altered the face of Earth itself, and rewoven the web of life. Why has this time period, more than any other, brought so much widespread environmental change? The reasons are many and complex. But a major influence surely is the use of fossil fuels, which has made far more energy available to more people than had ever been available before.

By 1990, humans were using about 80 times as much energy as was being used in 1800. The great majority of this energy was derived from fossil fuels. The availability and use of this new energy source has allowed people to produce more and consume more. Indirectly, this energy source caused a rapid increase in population as people developed much more efficient means of agriculture—such as mechanized farming—that required the use of fossil fuels. Improved farming techniques brought about an increase in food supply, which fostered the population growth. By the end of the 1990s, the human population was about six times what it was in 1800. Widespread changes to the environment resulted from other factors as well. The breakneck pace of urbanization is a factor, as is the equally dizzying speed of technological change. No less important a factor in environmental change is the heightened emphasis of modern governments on economic growth. All of these trends are interrelated, each one helping to advance the others. Together, they have shaped the evolution of human society in modern times. These growth trends have recast the relationships between humanity and other inhabitants of Earth.

For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings and their predecessors have both deliberately and accidentally altered their environments. But only recently, with the harnessing of fossil fuels, has humankind acquired the power to effect thorough changes on air, water, soils, plants, and animals. Armed with fossil fuels, people have changed the environment in ways they never had in pre-modern times—for example, devastating natural habitats and wildlife with oil spills. People have also been able to bring about environmental change much more rapidly, through acceleration of old activities such as deforestation.

Origins of Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuels include coal, natural gas, and petroleum (also known as oil or crude oil), which are the petrified and liquefied remains of millions of years’ accumulation of decayed plant life. When fossil fuels are burned, their chemical energy becomes heat energy, which, by means of machines such as engines and turbines, is converted into mechanical or electrical energy.
Coal first became an important industrial fuel during the 11th and 12th centuries in China, where iron manufacturing consumed great quantities of this resource. The first major usage of coal as a domestic fuel began in 16th-century London, England. During the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century, coal became a key fuel for industry, powering most steam engines.

Coal was the primary fossil fuel until the middle of the 20th century, when oil replaced it as the fuel of choice in industry, transportation, and other fields. Deep drilling for petroleum was pioneered in western Pennsylvania in 1859, and the first large oil fields were tapped in southeastern Texas in 1901. The world’s biggest oil fields were accessed in the 1940s in Saudi Arabia and in the 1960s in Siberia. Why did oil overshadow coal as the fuel of choice? Oil has certain advantages over coal. It is more efficient than coal, providing more energy per unit of weight than coal does. Oil also causes less pollution and works better in small engines. Oil is less plentiful than coal, however. When the world runs low on oil, copious supplies of coal will remain available.

Modern Air Pollution
The outermost layer of the Earth’s living environment is the atmosphere, a mixture of gases surrounding the planet. The atmosphere contains a thin layer called ozone, which protects all life on Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. For most of human history, people had very little effect on the atmosphere. For many thousands of years, humans routinely burned vegetation, causing some intermittent air pollution. In ancient times, the smelting of ores, such as copper ore, released metals that traveled in the atmosphere from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea as far as Greenland. With the development of fossil fuels, however, much more intense air pollution began to trouble humanity.

Before widespread use of fossil fuels, air pollution typically affected cities more than it did rural areas because of the concentration of combustion in cities. People in cold-climate urban areas kept warm by burning wood, but local wood supplies were soon exhausted. As a result of the limited supply, wood became expensive. People then burned comparatively little amounts of wood and heated their homes less. The first city to resolve this problem was London, where residents began using coal to heat their buildings. By the 1800s, half a million chimneys were releasing coal smoke, soot, ash, and sulfur dioxide into the London air.

The development of steam engines in the 18th century introduced coal to industry. The resultant growth from the Industrial Revolution meant more steam engines, more factory chimneys, and, thus, more air pollution. Skies darkened in the industrial heartlands of Britain, Belgium, Germany, and the United States. Cities that combined energy-intensive industries such as iron and steel manufacturing, and coal-heated buildings, were routinely shrouded in smoke and bathed in sulfur dioxide. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of the United States’ major industrial cities at the time, was sometimes referred to as “Hell with the lid taken off.” The coal consumption of some industries was so great that it could pollute the skies over entire regions, as was the case in the Ruhr region in Germany and around Hanshin, the area near Ōsaka, Japan.

Early Air Pollution Control
Efforts at smoke abatement were largely ineffective until about 1940, so residents of industrial cities and regions suffered the consequences of life with polluted air. During the Victorian Age in England, dusting household surfaces twice a day to keep up with the dustfall was not uncommon. Residents of industrial cities witnessed the loss of pine trees and some wildlife, due to the high levels of sulfur dioxide. These people suffered rates of pneumonia and bronchitis far higher than those of their ancestors, their relatives living elsewhere, or their descendants.

After 1940, leaders of industrial cities and regions managed to reduce the severity of coal-based air pollution. St. Louis, Missouri, was the first city in the world to make smoke abatement a high priority. Pittsburgh and other U.S. cities followed during the late 1940s and 1950s. London took effective steps during the mid-1950s after the killer fog, an acute bout of pollution in December of 1952, took some 4,000 lives. Germany and Japan made strides toward smoke abatement during the 1960s, using a combination of taller smokestacks, smokestack filters and scrubbers, and the substitution of other fuels for coal.

Even as smoke abatement continued, however, cities acquired new and more complex air pollution problems. As cars became commonplace—first in the United States during the 1920s and then in Western Europe and Japan during the 1950s and 1960s—tailpipe emissions added to the air pollution already flowing out of chimneys and smokestacks. Auto exhaust contained different kinds of pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and lead. Therefore cars, together with new industries, such as the petrochemical industry, complicated and intensified the world’s air pollution problems. Photochemical smog, which is caused by sunlight’s impact on elements of auto exhaust, became a serious health menace in cities where abundant sunshine combined with frequent temperature change. The world's worst smog was brewed in sunny, car-clogged cities, such as Athens, Greece; Bangkok, Thailand; Mexico City, Mexico; and Los Angeles, California.

In addition to these local and regional pollution problems, during the late 20th century human activity began to take its toll on the atmosphere. The increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere after 1850, which were mainly a consequence of burning fossil fuels, raised the efficiency with which the air retains the sun's heat. This greater heat retention brought the threat of global warming, an overall increase in Earth’s temperature. Yet another threat to the atmosphere was caused by chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons, which were invented in 1930 and used widely in industry and as refrigerants after 1950. When chlorofluorocarbons float up to the stratosphere (the upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere), they cause the ozone layer to become thinner, hampering its ability to block harmful ultraviolet radiation.

Water Pollution
Water has always been a vital resource for human beings—at first just for drinking, later for washing, and eventually for irrigation. With the power conferred by fossil fuels and modern technology, people have rerouted rivers, pumped up deep groundwater, and polluted the Earth’s water supply as never before.

Irrigation, though an ancient practice, affected only small parts of the world until recently. During the 1800s, irrigation practices spread quickly, driven by advances in engineering and increased demand for food by the world’s growing population. In India and North America, huge networks of dams and canals were built. The 1900s saw the construction of still larger dams in these countries, as well as in Central Asia, China, and elsewhere. After the 1930s, dams built for irrigation also served to generate hydroelectric power. Between 1945 and 1980, most of the world's rivers that had met engineers’ criteria for suitability had acquired dams.

Because they provided electric power as well as irrigation water, dams made life easier for millions of people. Convenience came at a price, however, as dams changed established water ecosystems that had developed over the course of centuries. In the Columbia River in western North America, for example, salmon populations suffered because dams blocked the annual migrations of the salmon. In Egypt, where a large dam spanned the Nile at
Aswan after 1971, many humans and animals paid the price. Mediterranean sardines died and the fisherman who caught these fish lost their business. Farmers had to resort to chemical fertilizers because the dam prevented the Nile’s spring flooding and the resultant annual coating of fertile silt on land along the river. In addition, many Egyptians who drank Nile water, which carried increasing amounts of fertilizer runoff, experienced negative health effects. In Central Asia, the Aral Sea paid the price. After 1960 this sea shrank because the waters that fed into it were diverted to irrigate cotton fields.

River water alone did not suffice to meet the water needs of agriculture and cities. Groundwater in many parts of the world became an essential source of water. This source was available at low cost, because fossil fuels made pumping much easier. For example, after 1930 an economy based on grain and livestock emerged on the High Plains, from Texas to the Dakotas. This economy drew water from the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground reservoir. To meet the drinking, washing, and industrial needs of their growing populations, cities such as Barcelona, Spain; Beijing, China; and Mexico City, pumped up groundwater. Beijing and Mexico City began sinking slowly into the ground as they pumped out much of their underlying water. As groundwater supplies dwindled, both cities found they needed to bring water in from great distances. By 1999 humanity was using about 20 times as much fresh water as was used in 1800.

Not only was the water use increasing, but more of it was becoming polluted by human use. While water pollution had long existed in river water that flowed through cities, such as the Seine in Paris, France, the fossil fuel age changed the scope and character of water pollution. Water usage increased throughout this era, and a far wider variety of pollutants contaminated the world’s water supplies. For most of human history, water pollution was largely biological, caused mainly by human and animal wastes. However, industrialization introduced countless chemicals into the waters of the world, complicating pollution problems.

Efforts to Control Water Pollution
Until the early 20th century, biological pollution of the world's lakes and rivers remained a baffling problem. Then experiments in filtration and chemical treatment of water proved fruitful. In Europe and North America, sewage treatment and water filtration assured a cleaner and healthier water supply. As late as the 1880s in Chicago, Illinois, thousands of people died each year from waterborne diseases, such as typhoid fever. By 1920, though, Chicago's water no longer carried fatal illnesses. Many communities around the world, especially in poor countries such as India and Nigeria, could not afford to invest in sewage treatment and water filtration plants, however.

As was the case with air pollution, the industrialization and technological advances of the 20th century brought increasing varieties of water pollution. Scientists invented new chemicals that did not exist in nature, and a few of these chemicals turned out to be very useful in manufacturing and in agriculture. Unfortunately, a few of these also turned out to be harmful pollutants. After 1960 chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) turned up in dangerous quantities in North American waters, killing and damaging aquatic life and the creatures that eat these plants and animals. After 1970, legislation in North America and Europe substantially reduced point pollution, or water pollution derived from single sources. But nonpoint pollution, such as pesticide-laced runoff from farms, proved much harder to control. The worst water pollution prevailed in poorer countries where biological pollution continued unabated, while chemical pollution from industry or agriculture emerged to complement the biological pollution. In the late 1900s, China probably suffered the most from the widest variety of water pollution problems.

Soil Pollution
During the era of fossil fuels, the surface of Earth also has undergone remarkable change. The same substances that have polluted the air and water often lodge in the soil, occasionally in dangerous concentrations that threaten human health. While this situation normally happened only in the vicinity of industries that generated toxic wastes, the problem of salinization, or salting, which was associated with irrigation, was more widespread.

Although irrigation has always brought the risk of destroying soils by waterlogging and salinization—the ancient middle-eastern civilization of Mesopotamia probably undermined its agricultural base this way—the modern scale of irrigation has intensified this problem around the world. By the 1990s, fields ruined by salinization were being abandoned as fast as engineers could irrigate new fields. Salinization has been the most severe in dry lands where evaporation occurs the fastest, such as in Mexico, Australia, Central Asia, and the Southwestern United States.

Soil erosion due to human activity was a problem long before salinization was. Modern soil erosion diminished the productivity of agriculture. This problem was worst in the 1800s in the frontier lands newly opened to pioneer settlement in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and elsewhere. Grasslands that had never been plowed before became vulnerable to wind erosion, which reached disastrous proportions during droughts, such as those during the 1930s in the Dust Bowl of Kansas and Oklahoma. The last major clearing of virgin grassland took place in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the 1950s, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to convert northern Kazakhstan into a wheat belt. Fossil fuels also played a crucial role at this time, because railroads and steamships carried the grain and beef raised in these frontiers to distant markets.

By the late 20th century, pioneer settlement had shifted away from the world's grasslands into tropical and mountain forest regions. After 1950, farmers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America increasingly sought land in little-cultivated forests. Often these forests, such as those in Central America or the Philippines, were mountainous and subject to heavy rains. In order to cultivate this land, farmers deforested these mountainsides, which exposed them to heavy rains and invited soil erosion. Erosion caused in this manner stripped soils in the Andes of Bolivia, in the Himalayas of Nepal and northern India, and in the rugged terrain of Rwanda and Burundi. Depleted soils made life harder for farmers in these and other lands.

The impact of soil erosion does not stop with the loss of soil. Eroded soil does not simply disappear. Rather, it flows downhill and downstream, only to rest somewhere else. Often this soil has lodged in inconvenient places, silting up dam reservoirs or covering roads. Within only a few years of being built, some dams in Algeria and China became useless because they were clogged by soil erosion originating upstream.

Animal and Plant Life
Human activity has affected the world's plants and animals no less than it has the air, water, and soil. For millions of years, life evolved without much impact from human beings. However, as early as the first settlements of Australia and North America, human beings probably caused mass extinctions, either through hunting or through the use of fire. With the domestication of animals, which began perhaps 10,000 years ago, humanity came to play a more active role in biological evolution. By the 1800s and 1900s, the role that human beings played in species survival had expanded to the extent that many species survive only because human beings allow it.

Some animal species survive in great numbers thanks to us. For example, today there are about 10 billion chickens on Earth—about thirteen to fifteen times as many as there were a century ago. This is because people like to eat chickens, so they are raised for this purpose. Similarly, we protect cattle, sheep, goats, and a few other domesticated animals in order to make use of them. Inadvertently, modern civilizations have ensured the survival of certain other animals. Rat populations propagate because of all of the food available to them, since humans store so much food and generate so much garbage. Squirrels prosper in large part because we have created suburban landscapes with few predators.

Even as modern human beings intentionally or unintentionally encourage the survival of a few species, humans threaten many more. Modern technology and fuels have made hunting vastly more efficient, bringing animals such as the blue whale and the North American bison to the edge of extinction. Many other animals, most notably tropical forest species, suffer from destruction of their preferred habitats. Quite inadvertently, and almost unconsciously, humankind has assumed a central role in determining the fate of many species and the health of Earth’s water, air, and soil. Humans have therefore assumed a central role in biological evolution.

The environmental history of the last two centuries has been one of enormous change. In a mere 200 years, humanity has altered Earth more drastically than since the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Our vital air, water, and soil have been jeopardized; the very web of life hangs on our whims. For the most part, human beings have never been more successful nor led easier lives. The age of fossil fuels is changing the human condition in ways previously unimaginable. But whether we understand the impact—and are willing to accept it—remains an unanswered question.
About the author: John R. McNeill is a professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the author of Global Environmental History of the Twentieth Century among numerous other publications.
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