Human agency enjoys the pole position in explaining historical phenomenon. From the genius of Napoleon, Churchill, and Roosevelt to the Enlightenment philosophers and scientists who brought us rationalism, empiricism, secularism, and new technologies, the West has no shortage of heroes. These great men harnessed the resources of the nation state, birthed a liberal economic order of free trade, and helped establish Western dominance and a liberal international order in the last two decades.
Yet Western values have not produced universal rationality, nor have they created a more peaceful world. As a graduate student in history, I was never satisfied with the prominence given to human agency and was attracted to more structural explanations of why changes have taken place over time. This brought me to energy and a fascination with the role of fossil fuels in enabling the West’s military and economic rise over the last two hundred years. Before fossil fuels, energy came from human and animal labor, wind and water mills, and wood and other biomass. The change to coal permitted the Industrial Revolution to begin in earnest in the early 1800s and then, particularly with the advent of oil, increasing movement of people and goods.
Coal and then oil allowed Western powers, who besides the United States and arguably Russia depending on your viewpoint are less populous and have less land and fewer resources than non-Western powers, to enjoy an exponential advantage, something that humanity has never experienced before. This rise, however, has brought tremendous costs. By framing the problem of climate change as one that dovetails with the rise of the West, we can begin to grapple with what is truly going on, what the fallout will be, and what activities might ease the fall.
The giant leap
The growth of world population, economy, and energy use over the last two hundred years has been truly exceptional. The world population grew from 1 billion in 1820 to 7.6 billion in 2018.
Economic growth, while notoriously difficult to measure, has been equally spectacular. GDP-per-capita figures for the United Kingdom show a clear take off beginning in the nineteenth century, then accelerating greatly in the twentieth.
Energy and fossil fuel use have followed similar chronologies as population and GDP-per-capita growth. Coal overtook traditional biofuels in the nineteenth century with oil and natural gas growing in spectacular fashion in the twentieth.
The last two decades have coincided with tremendous growth in population, wealth and energy use, alongside the rise of the West. The data is perhaps most remarkable for the period since 1950. Many have referred to Western Europe’s economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s as an economic miracle. While postwar recovery economic growth tends to be robust across most cases, the existence of cheap, abundant fossil fuels from the Middle East and elsewhere played a central role.
The explosion after the Second World War tells us two things. First, Enlightenment philosophy predated the tremendous growth in human population and economic activity. By the data above, energy and technology had more consequence than philosophy. Second, even if cultural and intellectual factors helped the West separate initially, fossil fuels arrived at the moment when the West was ascending and helped amplify the extent of its dominance.
Ships or fuel?
I have argued previously that the national security interests of Britain and the United States drove these hegemons to embrace coal and oil for their navies in a quest to maintain world power. Britain is an island, as is the United States for practical purposes, since two vast oceans separate it from any viable competitor. Naval power has been the sine non qua for these hegemons, and fossil fuel dominance has underpinned their naval power. Naval power, in turn, allows hegemons to scour the globe to secure fossil fuel supplies.
Two counterfactuals about fossil fuels and naval power are fun to imagine. The first is ancient Athens, which initially rose to power through its naval genius. Athens attracted allies, much like Britain and the United States, partly through coercion but also through the attractiveness of the system of free trade that it backed in the Aegean. Its main challenger, Sparta, was a land-based force and could not compete with Athens until it committed to building up its own naval skills and ships. Sparta finally defeated Athens due to the latter’s manpower and ship shortage, as well as Persian backing. It seems fair to say that Athens would have maintained its superiority with fossil-fuelled ships.
The second is Ming China, whose emperor funded seven overseas expeditions from 1405 to 1433. Naval investments halted thereafter, as the emperor must have deemed this not worth the cost. This decision was regretful four centuries later, when Western gunboat diplomacy helped keep China, Japan and other Asian peoples subservient and open for trade. Catching up in a naval arms race in the era of fossil fuels still eludes Asian powers. Japan was a partial exception but foundered in the Second World War because of its lack of oil supplies.
What goes up, always comes down, unless it’s lighter than air
These lyrics come from a children’s song about gravity that my wife and I used to play for my now five-year-old daughter. The fossil fuel binge and concomitant explosion in economic growth and population took humanity to new heights, enabled the rise of the West, and ensconced it, for now. The developments of the last two hundred years are incredible accomplishments, but they have also wrought horrendous consequences.
The gravity of this binge is already weighing down the West and the planet. World power is slowly shifting to non-Western countries, particularly as fossil fuels slowly lose their strategic importance. More importantly, fossil fuels have wrought serious destruction on the planet’s atmosphere and environment.
Ideas are the only things that can overcome gravity. Carbon capture and sequestration, renewables, energy efficiency, and carbon markets are all viable ways to bring us a soft landing. It has not been my intention to chastise the West for turning to fossil fuels, but to compel us to appreciate how much of the West’s rise was due to them. By being aware of our past, we can better understand our current predicament.