Near the edge of the Kalahari, an enormous cave named Wonderwerk shelters archaeologists, and other animals, from the South African sun. This old cave is, in fact, ancient. Wonderwerk was home to our distant ancestors over one million years ago. We know this because they left things behind: stone tools and animal bones. More exciting still, they left ashes. Locally burned plants and bone fragments that Boston University researchers suggest were burned onsite, rather than wind-swept in from elsewhere. This astounding discovery, published in 2012, makes us sit up and take notice. It means that Homo sapiens were not the first to control fire. Our distant ancestors were. And with that, our primitive, ancestral society turned a corner.
Ancestors such as the cave-dwelling masters of fire in Wonderwerk, and later others across our globe, show us the potential impact of one discovery. Controlling fire greatly elevated the chance of survival for all future descendants. It helped shape our diet and our society. The campfire became an environment of order in a chaotic prehistoric world. Without this hallmark discovery (I won’t say “spark of genius”), mankind as we know it would not exist. It is perhaps shocking then, given what we now know, that for the hundreds of thousands of years that followed, ancient and not so ancient ancestors only burned wood.
The means of generating heat using alternatives to wood had been available throughout human history. But coal was not used until the Chinese began heating their homes with the black stuff during the Bronze Age (3490 BCE). Coal was discovered by the ancient Greeks to be useful in metalwork and separately by the Aztecs in ornamental manufacture. In Britain, it was not the Industrial Revolution but rather the Romans who kick-started coal use and trade. They exploited the bituminous coal for smelting. Before the Industrial Revolution, around 1830, this energy source was not mined extensively. But as with every empire, the Romans and British alike, a technological leap presents an opportunity to sustain a growing population and, what’s more, the empire itself could grow.
The British Empire could at first use their home-“grown” coal resources to defend itself during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1820), and it could sustain and improve the quality of life for the masses at home (albeit miserable by the standards of Britain today). At the same time, the new colonies were explored for more coal to feed a budding national energy industry. Make no mistake: the quality of life for most British people improved dramatically with better transportation alone. At the same time, the horrors and advancements of British Imperialism played out.
Sticking with coal, who would trade places with a condemned nineteenth-century chimney sweep or a coal miner? I wouldn’t. But without these workers, and without a coal-powered technological breakthrough, Britain and Europe would be very different places today (and not for the better). Coal looks and feels, and actually is, dirty. If, like me, you have visited an operational coal mine, you will know that it sticks to your clothes, shoes, and skin. But historically, the coal mine was dangerous and caused heavy death counts. Despite the dangers and deaths, the coal mining industry and community thrived, so much so that coal became symbolic of working-class culture. I will resist any temptation to discuss the long-debated relationship between historic suffering and improved modern well-being. So instead, let us consider coal as a historic transition from energy poverty to industrialization. Flawed but necessary, coal fueled societal success, as it does today.
Technology opens the door to societal change. But to further understand energy transitions, we must understand the cultural relationship between a resource and the society it powers. The observed relationship between coal and the working class is clear from a debate in which George Bernard Shaw proposed that no more London homes should be built without baths installed. The Tories famously protested and, with projected snobbery, claimed that the poor would not bother to use baths, that they want to smell, and that they would keep coal in them (Shaw replied: “I don’t want them to have a bath for their sake. I want them to have a bath for my sake,” perfectly balancing selfishness and altruism). The working classes and the poor at this time were distinctions without much of a difference. But coal miners had it bad, even by the occupational standards of their day. To understand the life of a coal miner, it is worth rereading George Orwell’s account, written in 1937:
The place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space. Everything except the fire, for there is no fire down there except the feeble beams of Davy lamps and electric torches which scarcely penetrate the clouds of coal dust.
No, thank you. That would be my worst nightmare. And yet, the resource has been intrinsically necessary during war and peace time, and without a clear alternative, our predecessors were reliant on this coal supply. If this was primarily a political essay, I would write at length about the profound resilience of each mining community, about their Conservative opposition, about privatization and the methods of privatization, about the unions, and about the “Enemy Within.” But this is a discussion about our innate dependence upon energy resources. And I must reemphasize that coal, though necessary, is an inefficient method of electricity generation by current standards. This fact was increasingly realized throughout the mid-twentieth century, and as Orwell wrote his account, other fossil fuels were being exploited on a major scale.
Oil, Greed, and Politics
If coal is the rock that fuels empires, then oil and gas make superpowers. The history of coal, oil, and gas differ and perhaps, to many, this is why they have unequal public images. In 2018, the former Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, vowed to decarbonize the United Kingdom and reach what is currently being called “net-zero” by 2050. During the Labour Party’s leadership election campaign in 2020, Rebecca Long-Bailey MP promised to achieve the same goal by the 2030s. But their own rash promises would trip them both up. Corbyn would aim for a carbon-neutral future by banning oil and gas, but he also wanted to reopen coal mines in Durham, North East England. By this time, coal was well known to be a worse polluter than oil and much worse than natural gas. Among my friends and fellow scientists, this was a clear example of Corbyn’s scientific inconsistency. One may assume that Long-Bailey learned from her mentor’s hypocritical approach. So, when asked the same question in 2019, she assured the voting public that she would “keep every coal mine firmly closed.” Yes, her account is more environmentally considerate and consistent, but Long-Bailey found herself in a separate predicament. She was now a Labour Party leadership hopeful in favor of shutting coal mines. (Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly.) As for Kier Starmer, he avoids firm convictions in the specifics. Maybe the interviewee is doomed either way. Perhaps they could all have formulated more scientifically literate answers. But, more importantly, these examples expose a deeply entrenched discriminatory attitude in relation to different fossil fuels.
With an environmental focus, one can distinguish the differences between fossil fuels easily: natural gas should be prioritized over oil, and they both should be prioritized over coal. But through the lens of socioeconomics, the view is quite the reverse. Shutting coal mines sends an unwelcome message to the largely Labour-voting mining communities whereas Corbyn’s protestation of natural gas well-sites, such as the one at Preston New Road in Lancashire, is not greeted with the same hostility.
Coal’s reputation is one with links to imperialism and working-class solidarity, but oil, as they say, is a different story. From John D. Rockefeller to Rex Tillerson, oil’s reputation is one of fueling greed. Daniel Day Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, based on Upton Sinclair’s book Oil!, shows the maddening effect of wealth, competition, and power on a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century “oil man.” At this time, the American energy industry was in its infancy. Modern day energy giants such as ExxonMobil have their roots in the 1870 organization the Standard Oil Company of Ohio started by Rockefeller himself. But oil was discovered outside of America too. British geologists discovered economically producible oil in Iran, changing the future of the Middle Eastern region forever and eventually sowing the seeds to the formation of BP. The pop cultural link between oil and greed may never dissipate, and I suspect it won’t. However self-serving the oil industry is in general can be debated, but it must also be remembered that nobody “chooses” the location of an oil resource, and a country that discovers an abundance of economical oil can profit from the sheer circumstance of geological location.
Of course, wars are fought over oil. But just as it is greedy, at best, to unjustly annex energy resources from another region or country, so too might it be responsible to keep oil from murderous dictators who aim to use it for their own purposes. Christopher Hitchens thought so, and through this route, we revisit Orwell, who, in his writings, identified the three main threats to twentieth-century civilization—imperialism, fascism and Stalinism—three labels for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. All are fueled by the annexation of resources in other countries, driven by deadly orthodoxies.
Running on Fumes
Throughout World War II, coal, oil, and gas were extracted and used globally to fuel the Axis and Allied powers. Many major battles were fought in the pursuit and protection of fossil fuels. Blitzkrieg without petrol is not all that thunderous, evident from the Battle of the Bulge—a catastrophic failure for the undersupplied German offensive. The same went for the Japanese front: Marshal Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, after studying English at Harvard University from 1919–1921, learned the economic might of the United States after seeing, firsthand, U.S. oil fields that spanned for hundreds of miles. His lone voice was drowned out as he discouraged war with the Americans, and the Japanese advanced south, with the goal of taking oil from lucrative fields in the Philippines. Once achieved, they could power their long-term offensive. And then, the Axis ran out of the stuff. Or, more accurately, most of their energy resources were taken from them. The Axis could not produce and distribute fuel fast enough to power their offensive. Resources were still in the ground, in Allied hands, or used in excess or inefficiently. The Nazis were forced to produce oil using a technique called “hydrogenation,” which gets oil from liquefying powdered coal. Even using slave labor, this was an expensive technique. Adolf Hitler could only obtain one ton of oil from six tons of coal, which would have been completely unfeasible in any global economy of its day. This dangerous and inefficient technique caused 13,000 deaths at the Politz synthetic fuel plant in Germany alone. The result was that the Nazis, starved of energy resources, could not fuel the war they started. No oil meant no tanks; it meant untrained pilots, higher risk, and less and less time. Destroying this hydrogenation fuel plant at Politz was the beginning of an Allied victory and the end of a Nazi conquest.
Germany, Ukraine, Aleppo—oil and gas fields are the area of the board that each side wants to occupy in any conflict. Or, in the case of this coming European winter, one side may simply cut off their rival’s supply. In 1991, following Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait, the United States–led coalition forces, with a fierce Kuwaiti Resistance, drove the occupying Ba’athist invaders back. But on their way out, the Iraqi forces set more than 600 Kuwaiti oil wells on fire. More than 600. Kuwaiti water resources, economics, and coastlines were destroyed with long-lasting environmental damage. The Ba’athist Party, led by a now deceased tyrannical madman and his crime family, decided to poison the air, land, and sea with oil. In their arrogance, they did it with the world watching through satellite imagery. The world could watch this through more enlightened eyes, with new access to a growing knowledge and appreciation for the damaging effects of oil on any environment. As our understanding of oil and its polluting capabilities continued to expand, a discussion of increasing sophistication loomed: Are the negatives of an oil pollutant outweighed by our reliance on its amazing array of uses?
Enough on warfare. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), set up by a post-war Labour Government, was powered by (you bet) fossil fuels. The NHS continues to use imported coal, oil, and gas, and among those treated today include patients weakened by the effects of air pollution. In 2019, Public Health England said that each year between 28,000 and 36,000 people die due to long-term exposure to air pollution. This is no small thing. Air pollution causes asthma, cancer, heart and lung failure, as well as brain damage. If your heart strings remain untugged, then perhaps reflect upon the monetary loss. How many millions of pounds does the British taxpayer spend to treat the victims of air pollution? One source of grief among environmental activists, Sir David Attenborough among them, includes the challenging enterprise of monetizing environmental protection. But alongside the obvious moral obligations related to improving wellbeing, there is a quantifiable and avoidable economic cost linked to minimizing pollution. One death caused by air pollution is too many, but it is also too costly.
The transportation of oil further tarnished the industry’s public image as environmental concerns grew in the latter half of the twentieth century. In 1996, there was an episode of The Simpsons about an oil tanker that spills millions of gallons of oil on Baby Seal Beach. In this episode (“Bart after Dark”), cleaning up after an oil spill proves too large a task for Marge and Lisa, who are literally working against the tide and getting nowhere. It is true that in reality oil spills devastate an environment. If you were to search for the Castillo de Bellver or Exxon Valdez oil spills of 1983 and 1989, respectively, on the internet you can see the sheer scale of these catastrophes for yourself. Of course, this is not at all desirable for the oil company either. Every gallon of crude oil spilled at sea is lost profit, and that’s before environmental and employee compensation payments. However, it is worth emphasizing that it is still profitable for coal, oil, and gas companies to transport these fuels across oceans and borders, in many cases over thousands of miles. Oil spills are even calculated into an energy company’s finance projections. Additionally, product transportation is a global enterprise, and it is still worth the time and effort for many businesses as they satisfy the global demand for things such as apples in July and avocados in December. A beach slick with crude oil and air thick with smog is terrible. Pollution is not just damaging, but it is destructive and sometimes irreparable. However, it is this technology, these fossil fuels, that we use every day. It is the lights that we write by, the electricity that powers our phone and our ovens. Fossil fuels run hospitals, a growing space industry, and a transport sector. We are for now, each of us, utterly dependent upon our fossil fuel consumption. But from watching the news and talking to climate change activists, I hear a reoccurring opinion. The opinion usually expresses concerns over the negative impacts of fossil fuels, and this concern is quickly followed by demands that fossil fuel production be discontinued. “Leave them in the ground,” some say. Others say, “Just stop” and risk imprisonment for their protests. Perhaps this will one day be a viable request and perhaps it is less romantic to advocate for transitions or the coincidentia oppositorum (“coincidence of opposites”) rather than revolutions. But this is a matter for the head, not the heart, and so it helps to stay astute.
Energy, Insecurity, and Autonomy
In the latter half of the twentieth century, offshore drilling using weatherproof platforms and rigs pushed the frontier of global oil and gas exploration. Hundreds of thousands of offshore workers, including my father an electrician, helped construct oil and gas rigs in the North Sea. With increased access to newly discovered oil resources, the Norwegians, Britons, and Dutch invested in a renaissance of applied geology and engineering. Meanwhile, the Americans invented directional drilling. A drill that can turn corners while still in the ground promoted new discoveries, this time in the United States. The impact of directional drilling cannot be overstated. But know that the Americans owe their current status of World Superpower to this monumental invention and their enormous fields of natural gas.
Despite the inventions and discoveries, many countries, including Britain and America, continue to import coal today. In fact, worldwide coal consumption is growing. In 2017, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recorded an increase in global coal consumption from approximately 100 to 150 quadrillion British thermal units between 1995 and 2015. The disposable wealth of Russian and Chinese coal, oil, and gas is only now gaining wider appreciation as they supply a global demand and transport fossil fuels en masse by boats, trains, and automobiles. For anyone who has not yet read Tim Marshall’s bestselling book Prisoners of Geography, my favorite example of the quandary in his book’s title concerns the differences between so called pro-Russian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, and Armenia) and pro-Western countries (Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Albania, and Romania). However, countries that can produce their own energy, such as Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan, do not ally themselves with either side and can afford to remain “neutral.” Their self-sufficiency grants them some small hope of autonomy.
These examples show how a country’s energy security controls their political decisions. It is in the interest of most governments to minimize their reliance on imported resources or trade with fair, egalitarian countries. I write from my desk in the United Kingdom where approximately three quarters of our total gas imports are provided via pipelines connected with Norway. According to the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS), most of the U.K.’s natural gas imports use pipelines or are transported by boat as liquefied natural gas (LNG). As of 2019, LNG accounted for one fifth of the total supply of natural gas, supplied predominantly from Qatar. But what about the rest of the European continent? Russia was the largest provider of natural gas to the European Union (EU) in 2019, providing over a third (39.4 percent) of all EU natural gas imports. The Norwegians provided just under a third (29.6 percent). The remaining 31.1 percent of all EU imports came from Algeria (11 percent), Qatar (7.2 percent), Nigeria (4.1 percent) and others (8.8 percent). The EU refers to all these countries as “Extra-EU Importers” because they are not EU members. The war in Europe has changed little about the EU’s gas dependency. Between April 2021 and April 2022, Russia provided the EU with 31 percent of their gas imports. In short, these global transactions illustrate how the EU has never been self-sufficient with regard to natural gas supply, and they are heavily dependent on the reserves of Russia and Norway.
Misunderstanding and Masochism
Forgive me if I speak too much or too long about Britain, but it is the country I know best, and a good example all the same. A British geologist I know a little and respect a lot first proposed that rocks in Lancashire might be an economical natural gas target. After much investment, a private company with the unfortunate name Cuadrilla began to investigate the subsurface for natural gas. The company name reflects the friendship group (or “Cuadrilla” in Spanish) of the founders, but it can also mean gang. It also has the word drill in its name, and to most people’s ear it sounds like there are four drills in operation. It does sound a bit like Godzilla (Perhaps Lancashire Gas Company would have been a better fit). I talk with my students about my experience studying with and briefly working for this U.K. shale gas company. They know, and so should you, that Cuadrilla aimed to extract natural gas from the same country they wished to supply and, yes, make money doing it. A supply of natural gas within the United Kingdom would minimize their reliance on natural gas imports and minimize transportation, and it would obey the proximity principle of sustainability. There’s more. Geologists know that methane (CH4) is made up of four hydrogen atoms for every one carbon atom. With modern technology, we can get hydrogen fuel from methane. In fact, the infrastructure was, by sheer coincidence, already in place. There was also a usable pipe just 100 meters from their exploration site in Preston New Road, North West England. If the methane was produced and used, then even still it is better environmentally than transported LNG from Qatar.
But the company was faced with protests, backed by multinational businesses such as Lush and celebrities such as the tax “boycotting” Emma Thompson who rallied against them—all for moral purposes of course. Some locals and out-of-towners set up camp to protest. The brands Friends of the Earth and Extinction Rebellion encouraged and funded protests. Believe it or not, employees of Cuadrilla were well aware of Russia’s aggressive tactics back then because they funded protests and encouraged a brass-necked disinformation campaign. This long-drawn out event deserves its own book. The subject is filled with misnomers and unknowns, as well as politics and disorder. However, it is important for this current piece that we address this debate, primarily because it is a stunning example of the inconveniences that block our progress toward a future that is less reliant on fossil fuels, namely the unwillingness of climate change protestors to accept gas as a transition away from coal and oil pollutants.
If you were to visit the Preston New Road anti-fracking protester campsite in Lancashire during the 2019 protests, it would be all too easy for us to point out the hypocrisies of the camp’s residents. As with today’s “Just Stop Oil” protestors, they ate goods made using fossil fuels and slept in plastic tents that of course were made using machines. The personal sacrifice of the long-term campers was immediately obvious to me, although it may have qualified as masochism. Many were sincere and did not sacrifice their values, yet they held hypocritical or unrealistic convictions I could not agree with. But some were more violent, and the fanatics would spit on our windscreens as we drove past. These protestors slept rough in the Lancashire weather. They sheltered in a small metal hut that fit three at the side of the A583 to keep lookout. I would occasionally drive past their campsite and see their rain-soaked shanty-like hut and think, “If that’s what life looks like without fuel, then I’ll keep driving.” It is at least clear to me that the abandonment of industry altogether is out of the question and, at any rate, unattainable.
After writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy experienced a crisis of personal identification. Originally a wealthy man, he began donating his possessions and claimed that the public owned his works. This was no joke. It was a sincere attempt to abandon property altogether and adopt the wandering lifestyle of an ascetic. A life avoiding any indulgence, to me, is unthinkable, and I can imagine the same goes for most others. Tolstoy’s actions show us the masochistic urge to abandon indulgences is borne from a guilt complex, and his life choice incidentally risked the security of his own children. Like Tolstoy, there will be those who wish to abandon their earned or inherited fortunes and find meaning in a simpler, perhaps even primitive, idea of utopia. But in my estimation, this is at best unwise. Just as many sensible people aim to use technology as the tool for improved well-being, some may wish to abandon progress altogether and crawl back into the Wonderwerk Cave with the rest of the ascetics. But I would argue humanity has gained too much to throw it back. Most of us want to enjoy the benefits of an industrialized twenty-first century, with its improved health care, travel privileges, and eating strawberries in winter. The problem is most of us want to enjoy our lifestyle with minimal damage to the environment. Get used to this Catch-22. It will follow us into the twenty-second century.
 I should add a proviso. The control of fire by man is one of the most debated subjects in Palaeolithic archaeology, but consensus is growing to accept that the regular controlled use of fire was established by 400–300 thousand years ago (kilo annum, or ka) and widely established by 100 ka.
Near the edge of the Kalahari, an enormous cave named Wonderwerk shelters archaeologists, and other animals, from the South African sun. This old cave is, in fact, ancient. Wonderwerk was home to our distant ancestors over one million years ago. We know this because they left things behind: stone tools and animal bones. More exciting …