Our addiction to fossil fuels can kill us

The Industrial Revolution marked the start of a massive human use of fossil fuels. The stored energy from several hundred million years of plant growth began to be used at roughly a million times the rate at which it had been formed. The effect on human society was like that of a narcotic. There was a euphotic (and totally unsustainable) surge of growth of both population and industrial production. Meanwhile, the carbon released by the burning of fossil fuels began to duplicate the conditions that lead to the 5 geologically-observed mass extinction events during each of which more than half of all living species disappeared forever.

We all know that drug addicts can die from their addiction. The world’s scientists are unanimous in telling us that unless we take immediate action to kick the habit, our addiction to fossil fuels will kill human society and much of the biosphere.

Immediate action is needed to save the future

The central problem which the world faces in its attempts to avoid catastrophic climate change is a contrast of time scales. In order to save human civilization and the biosphere from the most disastrous effects of climate change, we need to act immediately. But it is difficult to mobilize public opinion behind urgently needed action because the most severe effects of global warming belong to the long-term future. Immediate action is needed because without it, feedback loops, such as the albedo effect and yjr drying out and burning of tropical rain-forests, will take over, making human efforts futile.

Greta Thunberg told to “study economics”

At the 2020 Davos Forum, teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg urged business leaders to divest from the catastrophic activities of the fossil fuel industries. She was rebuked by the US Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchen, who said, “After she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us”.  Thunberg’s response to tweet a UN graph showing that the world’s remaining carbon budget will be used up by 2027 unless emissions are curbed. “You don’t need a college education to understand the graph”, she said.

The exchange is interesting because it shows the stark contrast between the demands of our current economic system, and what has to be done to save human civilization. Economics has been called “the science of growth”, but growth is killing us. The size of the human footprint has become too large for our environment to support.

Our entire economic system is currently based on the use of fossil fuels, but our addiction to coal, oil and gas will surely kill us unless we can kick the habit in time. Mnuchen is saying, “You will damage the economy”. Thunberg is saying, “Perhaps so, but we have to stop emissions immediately to save the long-term future of human society and the biosphere”.  We can gain hope from the fact that, if massive government subsidies to fossil fuels were removed, renewables would already be cheaper than fossil fuels, and the urgently-needed transition to renewables would be driven by economic forces alone.

Trump was tried for the wrong crimes

The impeachment trial of Donald Trump has now come to an end, with no witness allowed, and Republican senators voting along strict party lines to acquit the  obviously guilty president. Many people, myself included, feel that Trump was tried for minor crimes, whereas he ought to have been tried for his major ones.

There is so much wrong with Donald Trump that one hardly knows where to start. He is a bully, braggart, narcicist, racist, mysogenist, habitual liar and tax evader, in addition to being demonstrably ignorant.  He has contempt for both domestic and international law, as well as the US Constitution. In the words of Michael Moore, he is a “part-time clown and full-time sociopath”. However, it is Trump’s climate change denial, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and sponsorship of the fossil fuel industry that pose the greatest threats to human society and the biosphere. The general support of the Republicn Party for the fossil fuel industry is the reason why Prof. Noam Chomsky called the party “the most dangerous organization in history”.

Destroying the world for profit

Does it make sense to destroy the world for the sake of profit or personal advantage? This is exactly what our governments and business leaders are doing today. This is what very many ordinary people are doing. But does it make sense?

Does it make sense to saw off the branch on which you are sitting? Does it make sense to jockey for a place at the Captain’s table on board an iceberg-struck Titanic? Whoever contributes to the destruction of the world has to live in the world that they have destroyed.

Perhaps a short-term advantage can be gained; perhaps a small private Utopia can be created by acts that harm the general future; but all individual fates will sink like stones in a deep sea, if society as a whole sinks. Individual fates will be lost in the general fate. There will be no protection for anyone, if the world as a whole goes to pieces. We must hope that the world’s leaders will wake up and begin to think about the long-term future. After all, they too love their children and grandchildren.

John Scales Avery is a theoretical chemist at the University of Copenhagen. He is noted for his books and research publications in quantum chemistry, thermodynamics, evolution, and history of science. His 2003 book Information Theory and Evolution set forth the view that the phenomenon of life, including its origin, evolution, as well as human cultural evolution, has its background situated in the fields of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and information theory. Since 1990 he has been the Chairman of the Danish National Group of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Between 2004 and 2015 he also served as Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy. He founded the Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes, and was for many years its Managing Editor. He also served as Technical Advisor to the World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (19881997). He can be reached at To know more about his works visit this link.



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  1. David Kennedy says:

    The argument put forward about the disastrous ‘long-term’ effects of burning fossil fuels is irrefutable. Why then do highly-educated, and otherwise powerful, humans fail to act to avoid the inevitable consequences? Life normally seeks to survive, otherwise, it would quickly perish. There is obviously something irrational with human thought processes.
    The enormous changes that have taken place in knowledge of the physical world over the last seventy years or so, have given humans unprecedented power over nature, at least in the short-term. These changes do NOT only concern the use of fossil fuels, but include, in particular, technologies involving all of the known radiation spectrum from the extremely short to the very longest of electromagnetic waves. They include our burgeoning knowledge of the genetic basis of life and how it can be manipulated, thus opening up untold possibilities to tamper with life forms, thus circumventing either evolution or ‘intelligent creation’ – human-controlled genetic change is unlikely to be ‘intelligent’, but almost certainly to be guided by the ‘free market’, i.e the pursuit of greed.
    And this gives us the answer to the conundrum of why humans act irrationally: the susceptibility of the human brain to uncontrollable addictions, especially to greed and pleasure.
    We shall NOT prevent bio-catastrophe until we can control our basic addictions.

  2. David Anderson says:

    We have a problem: A perpetual “Disney World” view if our existence reigns. So the question needs to be asked: Is the problem the result of an evolutionary cranial Homo sapiens imperfection?

    Could it be that there are inherent cranial/neurological deficiencies in our DNA makeup; so deeply embedded that we as a species are unable to comprehend ourselves as a threat to our future existence? Is this the reason our response to our desecration of the planet and its biosphere is now so muted?

    Is it that the pattern of our thought process laboriously pieced together over two million years, then given full expression ten thousand years ago beginning with the bronze/iron/agricultural age is now working against us; now holding us back from action that would assure our continuance?

    Could it be that these elements in our thought process are so dangerous as to now be bringing on our end? And finally there is the question: How could we, the most clever and brilliant primate on this planet be bringing this upon ourselves?

    That should now be the study assignment of all of us.

  3. David Kennedy says:

    David Anderson, you ask the right questions. While the will to survive is undoubtedly strong, humans frequently do things that limit their survival prospects. This repeated harmful behaviour is difficult to overcome. Although it is not impossible to cure certain addictions, it is very difficult. They must first be recognised as addictions that are harmful, and then there must be a steadfast, personal determination to overcome them. Smoking, drinking, gambling, drug abuse, eating disorders and sexual appetites are some of the most common addictions that have been well-studied. I am not sure whether greed, or the lust for power have been scientifically studied in a similar way even though they are ubiquitous – maybe part of the will to survive?
    Our ready addiction to the benefits of technology is widespread and perhaps not recognised for what they are.