In the deep ocean, occasionally, a whale carcass falls to the bottom of the sea. Most of the time, in the state of nature, creatures have just about enough to survive. But the first creatures to find the whale have more food than they could ever eat. These scavengers live lives of extraordinary plenty — some of the smaller, faster-breeding species might do so for several generations. There is enough to go around a thousand times over. For a while.
And then the whale is gone, and the creatures go back to their lives of crushing pressure, constant darkness, and an eternal knife-edge struggle for survival. As Thomas Malthus had it in his bleak vision: organisms, which increase exponentially in number, will rapidly outgrow their resources, which can only grow arithmetically. So of course, the excess population which has grown up on this brief glut must die off
We are currently living in a time of whalefall, suggests the scientist Vaclav Smil in his new book, How the World Really Works. He doesn’t use the word, of course: credit for the macabre whale metaphor must go to Scott Alexander. But modern humans are animals, products of evolution like any other, and yet we noticeably do not spend every minute of every day struggling to get the material required to survive. Instead, we build cathedrals and watch football, we make art, we waste time on Twitter. And that is because we live on the gigantic, blessed whale carcass that is our fossil fuel inheritance.
For Smil, our discussions about climate and energy are hamstrung, because so few people actually understand how the world really works. Material lands in front of us in pre-packaged, convenient forms — shrink-wrapped pork chops, winter strawberries, lights that turn on when you flick a switch, phones made of plastic and metal. The world is a set of black boxes that we use but, in most cases, do not understand. So when we say “we need to cut back our carbon emissions”, most of us don’t really grasp the implications of doing so.
But somehow, all these incomprehensible processes are keeping us alive, and we should find it astonishing that they are able to do so. The demand for material – for energy and nutrients – is greater than it has ever been. The world’s population has exploded: in 1800, there were about 1 billion humans. In 1950, there were 2.5 billion. Now there are 7.7 billion. In my parents’ lifetime, the number of humans alive has trebled. But amazingly, the amount of material available to each of them has increased even more, and that is in large part because of our use of fossil fuels.
In 1800, almost all the energy used globally was in the form of human and animal muscles, for mechanical work, or plant matter, burned for heat and light. Coal, the first widely used fossil fuel, was just starting to be used in steam engines in the UK, but it was negligible overall. By 1900, fossil fuels were the source for half our energy. By 2000, they were the source of 87%.
Read More: How long can humans survive?