Today, we have already consumed the most easily drainable crude oil and, particularly in Britain, much of the shallowest, most readily mined deposits of coal. Fossil fuels are central to the organisation of modern industrial society, just as they were central to its development. Those, by the way, are distinct roles: even if we could somehow do without fossil fuels now (which we can’t, quite), it’s a different question whether we could have got to where we are without ever having had them.Out of the ashes (Aeon). Fascinating article about culture and technology. It’s a point I like to make: there is nothing that we do with fossil fuels today that we cannot theoretically do without them. What is really at stake is not the ability to use technology but the scale of our civilization – the size of our populations, consumption levels, trade networks, political systems, etc. A lot of us argue that these have gotten too big already anyway, and shrinking them down voluntarily or not would be a good thing for most people (except for elites at the top of the pyramid). But there's no technology to my knowledge that absolutely requires fossil fuels and has no substitute.
So, would a society starting over on a planet stripped of its fossil fuel deposits have the chance to progress through its own Industrial Revolution? Or to phrase it another way, what might have happened if, for whatever reason, the Earth had never acquired its extensive underground deposits of coal and oil in the first place? Would our progress necessarily have halted in the 18th century, in a pre-industrial state?
Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels? And the answer to that question is: maybe – but it would be extremely difficult. Let’s see how.
However, it is doubtful we ever would have achieved our current level of technological sophistication had we not unlocked the energy contained in fossil fuels. It’s a sort of feedback loop: more energy = more surplus = more people = more people a society can support as scientists = more discovery = more intensification = more energy = more surplus.
That is, we got to where we are because we were no longer confined to the harnessing of photosynthetic energy via topsoil. This allowed society to balloon to gigantic proportions that it would not have done otherwise. Then there’s the raiding of the surpluses of the New World and elsewhere by Europeans, which proved the raw materials for the Industrial Revolution (timber, cotton, ores).
The article points out that fossil fuels are used for two principal purposes. 1.) to generate electricity, and 2.) to generate heat for industrial applications such as smelting, heavy manufacturing, etc. These correspond roughly to the first and second industrial revolutions.
When people talk about replacing fossil fuels via solar panels, they are usually referring to using them in the first instance. This is replaceable via sold-state technologies such as solar panels, and fuel cells.or using some other motive power such as windmills and hydroelectric/wave power (essentially both fluid mediums).
They forget about the second, Heavy manufacturing of solar panels, steel, concrete, glass, silicon, or pretty much anything else, required large amounts of heat.
You can’t smelt metal, make glass, roast the ingredients of concrete, or synthesise artificial fertiliser without a lot of heat. It is fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – that provide most of this thermal energy.
If you find yourself among the survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, you could scavenge enough working solar panels to keep your lifestyle electrified for a good long while. Without moving parts, photovoltaic cells require little maintenance and are remarkably resilient. They do deteriorate over time, though, from moisture penetrating the casing and from sunlight itself degrading the high-purity silicon layers. The electricity generated by a solar panel declines by about 1 per cent every year so, after a few generations, all our hand-me-down solar panels will have degraded to the point of uselessness. Then what?
New ones would be fiendishly difficult to create from scratch. Solar panels are made from thin slices of extremely pure silicon, and although the raw material is common sand, it must be processed and refined using complex and precise techniques – the same technological capabilities, more or less, that we need for modern semiconductor electronics components. These techniques took a long time to develop, and would presumably take a long time to recover. So photovoltaic solar power would not be within the capability of a society early in the industrialisation process.Which leads to the following conclusion which for me was the most thought-provoking part of the article:
In our own historical development, it so happens that the core phenomena of electricity were discovered in the first half of the 1800s, well after the early development of steam engines. Heavy industry was already committed to combustion-based machinery, and electricity has largely assumed a subsidiary role in the organisation of our economies ever since. But could that sequence have run the other way? Is there some developmental requirement that thermal energy must come first?Which makes me wonder – what if the principles of electricity generation and harnessing had come first? Theoretically, they were always there to discover, with or without fossil fuels.The Baghdad Battery is an enticing clue that there might have been at least some rudimentary understanding of electricity in ancient times.
In other words, could the second industrial revolution have happened before, or in place of the first?
In Mumfordian terms, could we have leaped directly to the Neotechnic era from the Eotechnic area without the interventing Paleotechnic era? Could we have bypassed Megatechnics in favor of something simpler?
For example, many people know that the internal combustion engine preceded the widespread use of petroleum. The first gasoline engines ran on vegetable oil. Today, fryer grease and cooking oil can be recycled into biodiesel. Henry Ford was a great proponent of expanding soybean production because he wanted to use it as the feedstock to design the bodies of his cars.
The early diesel engines had complex injection systems and were designed to run on many different fuels, from kerosene to coal dust. It was only a matter of time before someone recognized that, because of their high energy content, vegetable oils would make excellent fuel. The first public demonstration of vegetable oil based diesel fuel was at the 1900 World’s Fair, when the French government commissioned the Otto company to build a diesel engine to run on peanut oil. The French government was interested in vegetable oils as a domestic fuel for their African colonies. Rudolph Diesel later did extensive work on vegetable oil fuels and became a leading proponent of such a concept, believing that farmers could benefit from providing their own fuel. However, it would take almost a century before such an idea became a widespread reality. Shortly after Dr. Diesel’s death in 1913 petroleum became widely available in a variety of forms, including the class of fuel we know today as “diesel fuel”. With petroleum being available and cheap, the diesel engine design was changed to match the properties of petroleum diesel fuel. The result was an engine which was fuel efficient and very powerful. For the next 80 years diesel engines would become the industry standard where power, economy and reliability are required.http://www.biodiesel.com/biodiesel/history/
Diesel engines can operate on a variety of different fuels, depending on configuration, though the eponymous diesel fuel derived from crude oil is most common. The engines can work with the full spectrum of crude oil distillates, from natural gas, alcohols, petrol, wood gas to the fuel oils from diesel oil to residual fuels. Many automotive diesel engines would run on 100% biodiesel without any modifications. This would be such a potential advantage since biodiesel can be made so much more cheaply than it takes to have traditional diesel fuel from your fuel station's pump...Pure plant oils are increasingly being used as a fuel for cars, trucks and remote combined heat and power generation especially in Germany where hundreds of decentralised small- and medium-sized oil presses cold press oilseed, mainly rapeseed, for fuel.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diesel_engine#Fuel_and_fluid_characteristics
I’m going from memory here, so please correct me if I got anything wrong, but all of this is detailed in David Blume’s encyclopedic ethanol tome, “Alcohol Can Be a Gas.” Blume’s book devises a method by which the by-products of farming can produce significant amounts of ethanol without taking land out of production and without the massive inputs of fossil fuels utilized to make ethanol today. That is, it is theoretically possible to have a net-positive EROEI production of alcohol fuel for engines without taking land out of production (although much less EROEI than petroleum provides, or course). If corn were first fermented, its starch could be used for alcohol and the remainder fed to cattle — far more efficient for food, fuel and land use.
Could this fuel have powered an alternative industrial revolution without fossil fuels? Complex gearing and high manufacturing tolerances were already an outcome of clock making. Could medieval tinkerers and gearmakers have put together rudimentary internal combustion engines powered by alcohol and vegetable oil? Could cars and trucks have been zooming along the old Roman roads between cities in the Middle Ages? Of course, the tricky thing here is rubber –as Lewis Mumford points out, a critical and often missed component of modern industry. No rubber, no hoses and no tires. However, there is some evidence that bicycles we invented during the medieval/early modern period. See:
Bikes can be made out of wood:
Easy-to-ride pedal-less wooden bike revives an early form of bicycling (Treehugger)
Ajiro Bamboo Velobike: A "Grown Vehicle" That's Farmed, Not Factory-Made (Treehugger)
Could pedal-powered farms, factories, washing machines and motors have made an appearance back in the Middle Ages? How would that have changed history?
When mechanical clockwork finally took off, it spread fast. In the first decades of the 14th century, it became so ubiquitous that, in 1324, the treasurer of Lincoln Cathedral offered a substantial donation to build a new clock, to address the embarrassing problem that ‘the cathedral was destitute of what other cathedrals, churches, and convents almost everywhere in the world are generally known to possess’. It’s tempting, then, to see the rise of the mechanical clock as a kind of overnight success.
But technological ages rarely have neat boundaries. Throughout the Latin Middle Ages we find references to many apparent anachronisms, many confounding examples of mechanical art. Musical fountains. Robotic servants. Mechanical beasts and artificial songbirds. Most were designed and built beyond the boundaries of Latin Christendom, in the cosmopolitan courts of Baghdad, Damascus, Constantinople and Karakorum. Such automata came to medieval Europe as gifts from foreign rulers, or were reported in texts by travellers to these faraway places.Robots came to Europe before the dawn of the mechanical age. To a medieval world, they were indistinguishable from magic (Aeon)
On the face of it, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that a progressing society could construct electrical generators and couple them to simple windmills and waterwheels, later progressing to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams. In a world without fossil fuels, one might envisage an electrified civilisation that largely bypasses combustion engines, building its transport infrastructure around electric trains and trams for long-distance and urban transport.
What if this had happened before the industrial revolution? Electromagnetic induction at is base, rotating a magnet around a wire. In theory, You could have theoretically hooked up some of those 5,624 waterwheels mentioned in the Domesday Book to electric generators. The Dutch could have hooked them up to their 1,000-plus windmills. You could had and had lightbulbs lighting up Canterbury Cathedral in 1350 and streetlights lining the streets of Bruges and Antwerp in 1500.
The waterwheel never played a major role in the Muslim world, not for lack of knowledgeability—Muslim hydraulic engineering was far ahead of European—but for want of fast flowing streams. Large dams and intricate irrigation systems aided agriculture in Moorish Spain, but the waterwheel was used only for grinding grain and raising water. In Christian Europe, in contrast, the vertical wheel, including the powerful overshot type, was finding important new applications. Once more the monasteries led the way. The great Benedictine abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland pioneered the use of waterpower for pounding beer mash as early as 900. The new Cistercian reform movement launched in 1098 at Cîteaux, in Burgundy carried on the Benedictine tradition of promoting technology by founding waterpowered grain mills, cloth-fulling mills, cable-twisting machinery, iron forges and furnaces (where the wheels powered the bellows), winepresses, breweries, and glass-works. The edge-runner mill, long known to China, was adopted for more efficient pressing of olives, oak galls and bark for tannin, and other substances requiring crushing.
One of the earliest widespread industrial applications of the waterwheel was in fulling cloth; the trampling feet of the fullers were replaced by heavy wooden hammers lifted and dropped by the turning waterwheel. One effect was to draw the fullers into the countryside, where they further profited by freedom from the sometimes restrictive regulations of the towns. Another effect was the spread of the knowledge of gearing. Hemp production required a similar pummeling action to break up the woody tissues of the dried stalks and free the fibers for manufacture of ropes and cords. The existence of a waterpowered hemp mill is documented in the Dauphiné, in southeastern France, as early as 900.
By the late eleventh century, waterpower was pounding, lifting, grinding, and pressing in locations from Spain to central Europe. In several applications of waterpower, notably in lifting and dropping hammers, the camshaft made its earliest Western appearance, diffused from China (as Joseph Needham believes) or independently invented, as seems not unlikely. The cam, a small projection on the horizontal shaft of a vertical waterwheel, caught and lifted the falling hammer, which dropped of its own weight. Usually a pair or more of cams on the same shaft operated alternately.
Waterpower spurred construction of dams, at first on a small scale to create millponds and millraces but increasingly on a larger scale. The Arabs, who in their era of conquest had learned about dam building from India and the Near East, brought their knowledge to Spain, where a few Roman dams still operated...By the twelfth century, dam building had crossed the Pyrenees in a spectacular form. At Toulouse, forty-five mills were driven by streams controlled by three dams in the Garonne. The principal one, mentioned in a document of 1177, was probably the largest dam then existing. Thirteen hundred feet long, it was built diagonally across the river by ramming thousands of giant oak piles into the riverbed to form palisades that were then filled with earth and stone.
Millraces similarly expanded into hydropower canals in the twelfth century. The monastery of Clairvaux dug a 3.5-kilometer (2-mile) millrace canal from the river Aube to the abbey, while the Cistercians of Obazine chipped one 1.5 kilometers through solid rock.
Medieval engineers were the first to exploit the waterpower supplied by ocean tides. Tidal mills are recorded in Ireland as early as the seventh century, in the Venetian lagoon before 1050, near Dover in Domesday Book, and a little later in Brittany and on the Bay of Biscay. The practical value of tidal mills was limited by their short operating periods (six to ten hours a day), the eccentric working hours imposed on the millers, and the vulnerability of the mills to storm damage.
In the last twenty years of the twelfth century, an entirely new prime mover appeared simultaneously on both sides of the English Channel and the North Sea. Nothing like the windmill in its vertical European form had ever been seen. Though some scholars believe it to have derived from the horizontal windmill of Persia, perhaps diffused through Muslim Spain, the weight of evidence favors an independent origin, possibly in East Anglia, where it replaced unsatisfactory tidal mills and supplemented the scanty waterwheels. Reversing the waterwheel's arrangement, the windmill placed the horizontal axle at the top of the structure, to be turned by sails, gearing it to the millstones below. The immediate problem of keeping the sails faced into the wind (or out of it in a gale) was solved by balancing the mill on a stout upright post, on which it could be turned, none too easily, by several sturdy peasants gripping a large boom.Frances and Joseph Gies; Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, pp. 113-117
The same thing could be said for wireless technology. What if we had discovered wireless before harnessing fossil fuels? Would lords have radio telescopes with vacuum tubes set up in the towers of their castles sending HAM-radio transmissions to fellow lords and distant armies? Could packet radio have sent dispatches to diplomats in distant Cathay from the royal courts Europe? Would radio towers and radar be high on the masts of sailing ships today?
Indeed, one does not even require silicon for mechanical computing, a simple power source will do. Could mechanical computers have been invented before the steam engine? In addition to the Antikythera Mechanism, rudimentary mechanical computers were built by Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz and most famously, Charles Babbage in 1837 when electricity was still a novelty (although his Analytical Engine was designed but never actually built) .
Could the Ancient Romans Have Built a Digital Computer? (Gizmodo)
You could also harness solar power directly without fossil fuels: “An alternative is to generate high temperatures using solar power directly. Rather than relying on photovoltaic panels, concentrated solar thermal farms use giant mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto a small spot. The heat concentrated in this way can be exploited to drive certain chemical or industrial processes, or else to raise steam and drive a generator.”
In fact, this was invented by Augustin Mouchot in the 1800’s.
Back to the article. "...when it comes to generating the white heat demanded by modern industry, there are few good options but to burn stuff. But that doesn’t mean the stuff we burn necessarily has to be fossil fuels." It spends a good time talking about combustion for industrial uses, and specifically the substance that was most commonly utilized for that purpose before coal – charcoal. It uses Brazil as an example of large-scale charcoal production, Brazil having much more available wood than fossil fuels, so they’ve scaled-up to industrial production:
Long before the adoption of coal, charcoal was widely used for smelting metals. In many respects it is superior: charcoal burns hotter than coal and contains far fewer impurities....The Brazilian enterprise has scaled up this traditional craft to an industrial operation. Dried timber is stacked into squat, cylindrical kilns, built of brick or masonry and arranged in long lines so that they can be easily filled and unloaded in sequence. The largest sites can sport hundreds of such kilns. Once filled, their entrances are sealed and a fire is lit from the top. The skill in charcoal production is to allow just enough air into the interior of the kiln. There must be enough combustion heat to drive out moisture and volatiles and to pyrolyse the wood, but not so much that you are left with nothing but a pile of ashes. The kiln attendant monitors the state of the burn by carefully watching the smoke seeping out of the top, opening air holes or sealing with clay as necessary to regulate the process....Around two-thirds of Brazilian charcoal comes from sustainable plantations, and so this modern-day practice has been dubbed ‘green steel’. Sadly, the final third is supplied by the non-sustainable felling of primary forest.Theoretically, this is carbon neutral- because the carbon released is equal to that sequestered by trees. This is very similar to biochar.
It can also be used to produce building materials like shou-sugi-ban.
As Low Tech Magazine has documented, you could power factories with wind power and water power as well as fossil fuels.
Another option is wood gasification:
Another, related option might be wood gasification. The use of wood to provide heat is as old as mankind, and yet simply burning timber only uses about a third of its energy. The rest is lost when gases and vapours released by the burning process blow away in the wind. Under the right conditions, even smoke is combustible. We don’t want to waste it. Better than simple burning, then, is to drive the thermal breakdown of the wood and collect the gases. You can see the basic principle at work for yourself just by lighting a match. The luminous flame isn’t actually touching the matchwood: it dances above, with a clear gap in between. The flame actually feeds on the hot gases given off as the wood breaks down in the heat, and the gases combust only once they mix with oxygen from the air. To release these gases in a controlled way, bake some timber in a closed container. Oxygen is restricted so that the wood doesn’t simply catch fire. Its complex molecules decompose through a process known as pyrolysis, and then the hot carbonised lumps of charcoal at the bottom of the container react with the breakdown products to produce flammable gases such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide.The resultant ‘producer gas’ is a versatile fuel: it can be stored or piped for use in heating or street lights, and is also suitable for use in complex machinery such as the internal combustion engine.Biogas can power cars as well as motrocycles. Planes are hard without fossil fuels given the power/weight ratio, but hydrogen from electrolysis can produce gas for dirigibles.
And what if medieval Europe had solved two problems simultaneously - sanitation and energy. Human waste can be harvested for energy in a variety of ways. Many cultures harvested it for the purposes of fertilizer, but imagine a medieval rural economy where the waste of animals was placed in gas digesters to make enough methane to power a self-sufficient manor.
And, even more fascinating, what if the scientific revolution had occurred first?
Theoretically, there was nothing stopping it from occurring before the industrial revolution once a few breakthroughs happened (glass, alloys, etc.). It was sort of like trying to start a lighter - there was a spark in Ancient Greece, in Ancient Rome, in Ancient China, in Ancient India, in the Islamic world, in the Medieval period, and the Renaissance, but for some reason it only caught fire and kept going and spreading in the late 1600's in Western Europe, and continues to burn in the present without going out as before. It was more of a philosophical change in world view, and not dependent upon fossil fuels. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes the three most transformative revolutions for our species as the cognitive, agricultural and scientific, not even mentioning the Industrial Revolution.
What if it had happened earlier? Could we have had antibiotics and variolation to deal with the Black Death? Could we gave had a world where artisans were making calculators along with clocks in their workshops? Where power looms were hooked up to electric generators powered by waterwheels? Could the Broad Street pump maps have been made of a well in a medieval village? Could medieval alchemists have morphed into true chemists and made bioplastic from hemp, and rubber from dandelion roots? Could lords have had sages working on immoratality potions by looking at telomeres under microscopes? Could Renaissance physicians have been splicing DNA in Bologna in 1500? Or is everything so interconnected that could history have only unfold the way that it did?
It's a fascinating thought.
What if we had been able to partake of the benefits of science without being forced into factories and filling the air with coal ash? What if the scientific revolution had been yoked to Renaissance humanism instead of Capitalist productivism? And if we did have the scientific revolution first, would have gone down the industrialization route now that we know how destructive it is to people the planet?
The innovations of the central Middle Ages in agriculture, power sources, handicraft production, building construction, and transportation were accompanied by dramatic developments in the realm of pure science. "The tenth century, though on the surface a time of invasion, cruelty, barbarism, and chaos," writes Richard C. Dales, "is nevertheless the turning point in European intellectual history in general and the history of science in particular."
One of the Middle Ages' most important creations, the medical school, was founded at Salerno in the eleventh century, when by no coincidence the earliest cultural contacts with Islam occurred. General higher education had its beginnings in the cathedral schools founded in the tenth through twelfth centuries in Paris, Chartres, Rheims, Orleans, Canterbury, and other cities. Emphasis varied. Partly because of the Church's need to determine the dates of its movable feasts, astronomy was a favored subject... The cathedral schools' teaching was not tor the clergy alone; by the twelfth century, some fathers enrolled sons to prepare them for careers in the law and other secular callings, including the growing governmental bureaucracies. The abacus, coming into wide practical use during the eleventh century, was introduced into the Norman-English exchequer in the twelfth.
In the mid-twelfth century, the "precocious humanism" nurtured by Gerbert, his pupil Richer, and other scholars met and merged with another current, the growing importance of the professions of law and medicine, to create the first universities, at Paris and Bologna. From its beginnings, the University of Paris as well as its early offshoot, Oxford, articulated "productive ideas concerning nature as a fit subject of study." Scholars such as Peter Abelard (1079-1142) formulated "a new approach to the systematic study of science" (Tina Stiefel) even before the works of Aristotle became available in Latin.
But it was the Muslim-assisted translation of Aristotle followed by those of Galen, Euclid, Ptolemy, and other Greek authorities and their integration into the university curriculum that created what historians have called "the scientific renaissance of the twelfth century." ... Two chief sources of the translations were Spain and Sicily, regions where Arab, European, and Jewish scholars freely mingled. In Spain the main center was Toledo, where Archbishop Raaymond established a college specifically for making Arab knowledge available to Europe.
The twelfth century also witnessed the tardy introduction to Europe of the second of the great "false sciences," alchemy, whose sister, astrology, had remained known and practiced in unbroken continuation since Roman times. Once regarded as a pair of fruitless medieval exercises in superstition and charlatanism, the two have gained stature with the maturing of the history of science...The first Arabic treatise on alchemy to be translated into Latin was rendered by Robert of Chester in 1144, quickly followed by several more as the new science caught on. Alchemy had two aspects, theoretical and practical. The first involved and mystical theorizing led nowhere, but the practice of alchemists in their laboratories became the direct ancestor of modem chemistry and chemical technology.
Practicing alchemists pursued two aims: the conversion of base metals into gold, usually by means of the elusive "philosophers' stone," and the discovery of the "elixir of life" (also known as the "most active principle" or the "fountain of youth"), which would confer immortality. The first kind of research, based on the hypothesis that gold is the sole pure metal and that all the others are impure versions of it, led to accumulation of knowledge about physical and chemical reactions, while the second kind gradually turned into iatrochemistry, the search for healing drugs.
Medieval alchemists, Arabic and European, introduced no wholly new equipment into their laboratories, but they created a multiplicity of furnaces and stills. Furnaces of varying sizes were needed partly to accommodate the diversity of fuels—charcoal, peat, dried dung—and partly to provide the varied temperatures required for calcination (reduction of solids to powder) of different substances. Bellows were much employed, causing alchemists in France to be nicknamed souffleurs (blowers). A parallel collection of stills served the alchemists' other principal technique, distillation (boiling and condensation to separate compound substances). The typical still was a tall vessel shaped like a church spire, mounted on a short tower; the fire in the lower part heated liquid whose steam condensed in the upper part and was guided by a long spout to another vessel. Early stills lacked an efficient cooling device, and volatile liquids were usually lost. The still in which condensation was effected outside the still head may have been invented by a physician of Salerno named (for the city) Salernus (d. 1167). One product of the process, alcohol, strengthened by distilling, found a variety of uses, as a solvent, a preservative, and the basis of brandy, gin, and whiskey, at first taken medicinally, later recreationally.
Both astrology and alchemy remained sources of interest to intellectuals long after the Middle Ages, but the importance of the magical element in medieval science has been exaggerated. "The striking thing about the [twelfth] century," in the words of Richard Dales, "is the attitudes of its scientists... daring, original, inventive, skeptical of traditional authorities ... determined to discover purely rational explanations of natural phenomena," in short, portending "a new age in the history of scientific thought.Frances and Joseph Gies; Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, pp. 158-164