Technology without fossil fuel

Okay, I polled the twitters and enough people said that musing about worldbuilding was more interesting than it was masturbatory. So, in that case:

Assume that I desire a world different from ours in tech, but quite advanced in its own way. Does it make sense for this world to not have fossil fuels, and thus not have (or have a very different, less dirty) industrial revolution? Could it get to a point where it has, let’s say, widespread electric (or similar) power, intensive agriculture, and advanced medical technology (or at least around our level)? What differences would be implied for their culture? What sort of lifestyle would they have?

Example: lack of fossil fuels implies fewer/different plastics, and thus not having cheap synthetic fabrics. Clothing would be less disposable, people would own less of it, and it would be made/repaired with greater care.

For extra credit: does the scenario change if a) their environment is physically/geographically constrained so as to limit growth, and/or b) the society did not develop independently, but was seeded by another high tech one (e.g. us) so that they started out already having reasonably good non-fossil-fuel energy sources.

4 thoughts on “Technology without fossil fuel

  • Big

    Hmmm, now you’ve got me thinking what a distopian “solar-punk” future might look like? What if the steam age never happened, and wind/solar/hydro/wave/tide power drove an equally bad environment-destroying industrial revolution? Nobody bothering to dig for coal or drill for oil, but every single river is dammed, every bit of coastline covered in wave generation gear, every hilltop bristling with wind turbines, all the prime farm and forest land shadowed by solar collectors. I wonder how much more high voltage power grid infrastructure would litter the landscape to provide all the power to a modern-sized big city without _any_ fossil fuel?

    big (Yeah, its not _your_ story/world, but I suspect it’ll reduce my productivity thinking about it today‚Ķ)

  • Mark Smith

    I love thought exercises like this — it is fun, interesting, stretches the creative muscles, etc. Also, I love worldbuilding in general. La la la.

    So. First, I will reference a book that kind of explored a related idea. “Dies the Fire” by S. M. Stirling explores a world wherein something catastrophic happens to the laws of physics and high-energy reactions become impossible. In his universe, this also precludes electricity, gunpowder, and similar — but he does (somewhat) explore the lack of burning oil for power.

    To be fair, the book is a “take our society as-is and then do this thing to it” so goes in the post-apocalyptic direction. It’s not a great fit for your question here, which is society-design-ground-up, but on the chance it’s helpful…

    Now back to the question!

    The original step of fossil fuels was coal, which has been used for thousands of years. It burned well and hot and helped early metalwork to take shape. We didn’t get down to using crude oil and stuff until much more recently. The real advantage of the fossil fuels is how much energy is contained in each unit — it’s hard to get that much energy out of anything else.

    Assuming a lack of fossil fuels doesn’t mean we don’t have energy sources, though. We still get to magnify our human power, we just go in a different direction with it because the supply and demand curves are different. Right now we have ubiquitous cars, airplanes, trains — transportation! — because of how cheap it is per-unit to power them with fossil fuel.

    Similarly, on a material level, plastics don’t come about until much, much later when we learn how to turn corn into a faux-plastic. But you got that already. Other materials are affected — but mostly the industrial metals industry. Producing some metals — aluminum in particular! — is incredibly electricity intensive. Steel is better, but still no walk in the park without lots of heat and/or power. (Interchangeable mostly since it’s just high amounts of energy you can convert back and forth.)

    So — a world without ready mass-produced aluminum means that we set back airplanes. You don’t get any commercial airlines — well, you can make small wood frame ones I guess, but then you run back into the lack-of-fuel problem. The power-to-weight ratio is too bad for steam engines to be practical for airplanes.

    A world without major industrial production of metal also means that you don’t have skyscrapers as we know it. You just can’t build that high with wood. I guess you can do something like the pyramids — but I expect those become impractical and undesirable once you leave the social system of a monarchy/absolute rulership.

    Putting these things together, I would expect that a society that grows up in this kind of environment matures more slowly overall. But if you assume that they’ve gotten to a tech level near ours, then this could have been the timeline:

    * Metals did not advance very quickly, because of the lack of coal/easy energy to create extremely high heats.
    * Agrarian knowledge did continue to expand, though. Yes, we’ve had advances in the productivity of farms because of tractors and fertilizers, but the underlying knowledge of what to plant, where, how, crop rotation, etc would have continued.
    * Genetics science would have happened. Gregor Mendel was a monk and discovered genetics/heredity in the mid-19th century.
    * Astronomy would be relatively unaffected. We would know about the stars, heliocentrism, nebula, etc. Telescopes and magnifying glasses and microscopes are made out of glass and elbow grease, so we wouldn’t have lost much here.
    * Communities would stay smaller. You can’t pack as many people into small spaces without the modern advances in transportation/distribution and productivity of farms.
    * Subsistence farming would have stayed on longer and would continue. Small family farms would still be popular. Or small groups of people working together to do things.
    * Currency and math (and hence banking, economics, similar fields) are unaffected.
    * I could see a barter system still being available — since communities are so much smaller and more self-contained, currency means less. IMO it’s a system designed to promote equitable exchange among people who don’t know each other. But if you’re only ever really dealing with the people who live in town, you don’t need some government mandated system of currency.
    * An atmosphere more like the canonical American “South” — in that people are friendly, nosy, and support each other. Or like the bar in Cheers — everybody knows your name. Tight knit and friendly with eachother.
    * Suspicious of outsiders, as insular, self-reliant groups tend to be.


    Electricity still happens, it just happens slower. Original leyden jars and the like didn’t involve fossil fuels IIRC. You still get a lot of that science, you just have to be more inventive about how to generate it. It becomes scarcer and used more for real needs than just wants. Solar, wind powered, tidal, wood-burning steam turbines, etc. All of these are doable and probably the predominant source of electricity.

    On the home front, this probably means that hot-water, refrigeration, and lighting become more scarce. It’s probably normal to live by the sunlight hours, which also fits in better with the more work-the-land kind of approach. There is probably more respect of different jobs. Animals are still important — horses, cows, etc. People probably still have relationships with them.

    But electricity enables communications and electronics. Ultimately, electronics don’t use as much power as the rest of what we do like heating/cooling, lighting, etc. Cooking uses lots of power but you can still do that over fire, so I imagine we invent really interesting wood-burning or pellet-burning stoves and ovens. Maybe even communal ovens that can be lit and are more efficient in the use of fuel?

    So a world where you have the easy ability to communicate between groups, but it’s harder to move goods and people. Most people live and marry in their village. Family is super damn important.

    I would like to imagine the old tradition of barding and traveling to tell tales and stuff exists.

    Crap, and I have to run to go home. Uh, this is really neat. I don’t know if anything I’ve said here is helpful or interesting, but thanks for opening it up. :)

    a) changes things probably, more competition, probably a more integrated system of government. population pressure.

    b) yes — I think it would ultimately end up in a similar place, but if we have the ability to create lots of energy, we could move in the same direction as the real society we have. “Path of least resistance” kind of thing, right?

  • fluffy

    In the “Unity” setting of my comics, the entire world is a generational spaceship that is overrun by the sentient descendents of the animals left behind by the humans who previously inhabited it. They have never known an energy shortage, as they get their energy via induction fields and photovoltaic energy off of the fusioning plasma surging through the core of the ship (which is also their light source). Some creatures do use seed oils for lamps and the like although that’s rare; the technocrats in the South are purely induction-based, and while their materials are finite, their energy is practically unlimited.

    The current story arc (which I really need to find the energy to work on some more) is what happens to that society when the plasma flow stops.

  • Skud Post author

    @Big, I love that idea and would like to subscribe to your newsletter. Moar plz. (I suspect it would start with wind/water mills in the medieval period and continue from there, to bigger/better ones, then when you start getting electricity generation in the 18th-19th century they just skip straight to that rather than going through coal.)

    @Mark: good points re: aluminium etc. (Random note: the decorative silver leafwork in the lobby of the Library of Congress in DC is actually the rare-and-expensive-at-the-time aluminium, not actually silver.) In re: skyscrapers: agreed, if you start from nothing, but if you do the option B “seed” society, you might be able to do something equivalent with, idk, carbon fibre or something.

    In re: cooking, we only really need a lot of our cooking practices because of a) hygiene and the avoidance of food-borne pathogens, b) the way our society developed dried grains as a way to survive variations in food resources, and c) I’ll go out on a limb here and add poor dentistry. If you have a “seed” society with hydroponics and good health science, you don’t actually need as much cooking as we’re used to for historical reasons, and people could eat a more raw diet. As an aside, you know that medieval European towns generally had communal ovens, right? And that the general practice was to heat them as hot as you could and bake bread in them first at high temp, and then as the oven naturally cooled over the course of the day, you’d bake more delicate things like pastries and cakes until towards the end of the cool-down you’d do things like custards.

    @fluffy “find the energy”, ha. I see what you did there!

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