Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: By lowering humanity’s reliance on living nature, fossil fuels not only dramatically increased human wellbeing and material living standards but also reduced humankind’s footprint on the world.

Most of humanity has been nasty, brutish, and short, characterized by hunger, conflict, and poverty. For centuries there were little-to-no increases in wellbeing. Then technology was able to amplify what nature could provide. The Industrial Revolution increased population, living standards, and life expectancy. Economic growth became consistent.

Fossil fuels were a necessary component of the Industrial Revolution. Absent fossil fuels, global cropland would have to increase by 150 percent to meet current food demand.

Without fossil fuels, humanity would be unable to feed itself, and what food there was would be costlier. There would be more hunger. There would be insufficient energy and materials available to sustain the economy at more than a fraction of its current level. Public health would suffer, living standards would plummet, human well-being would be drastically diminished, and the population would crash.

Not only have these fossil fuel–dependent technologies ensured that humanity’s progress and well-being are no longer hostages to nature’s whims, but they saved nature from being devastated by the demands of a rapidly expanding and increasingly voracious human population.

Progress today depends on technological change, economic development, trade in goods, services and ideas, and human capital. But technology is the product of ideas, and fossil fuels have been vital for the generation of ideas. 

Fossil fuels have helped give us illumination, which expands our time; machines that preserve our level of energy; better health and longer life expectancies; faster and more voluminous trade in goods and ideas; more rapid communications within a wider network; and a much larger population.

Fossil fuels are critical for maintaining the current level of progress. Perhaps, with help from fossil fuels, new ideas will foster technologies that will enable a natural transition away from such fuels.

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Feature Charticle

Global Progress, 1 A.D.–2009 A.D. (as indicated by trends in world population, GDP per capita, life expectancy, and CO2 emissions from fossil fuels)



  • The trajectory of human progress to date can be broken into at least three periods: 1) The Malthusian Trap: The World through the Middle Ages, 2) Stretching the Malthusian Bonds: From the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment, and 3) Escaping the Malthusian Trap: The Industrial Revolution and Beyond.
  • Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel combustion are correlated with the three indicators of human progress over the last quarter of a millennium. 
  • Virtually every indicator of human well-being, including levels of hunger, infant mortality, life expectancy, education, economic freedom, and child labor, improves as income rises.

Read the full study HERE.