That fossil fuels are bad for people and the planet is a cardinal tenet of both mainstream and radical environmentalism. Cato Institute scholar Indur Goklany offers a dramatically different assessment in Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity.
Global average life expectancy (the best single indicator of health) hardly changed through most of human history, averaging 20-25 years during 1 A.D. to 1750. Similarly, global per capita output (the best indicator of material welfare) was equivalent to an estimated $470 in 1 A.D., even lower — $400 — in 1000 A.D., and only $640 in 1750. Through most of human history, the vast majority of people were “mired in poverty.” Thomas Malthus’s gloomy prediction that economic growth would only lead to overpopulation, famine, and death seemed to bespeak the wisdom of the ages.
However, the industrial revolution and the associated advances of science and technology freed humanity from its Malthusean trap. Goklany summarizes:
From 1750 to 2009, global life expectancy more than doubled, from 26 years to 69 years; global population increased 8-fold, from 760 million to 6.8 billion; and incomes increased 11-fold, from $640 to $7,300. Never before had the indicators of the success of the human species advanced as rapidly as in the past quarter millennium.
Fossil fuels are the chief energy source of modern civilization. Accordingly, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have increased rapidly along with life expectancy and per capita income. Goklany illustrates these trends with a graph that bears a striking resemblance to a hocky stick.