Fossil fuels - a history

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Fossil fuels – a history


A short history of depending on fossil fuels.

For many thousands of years our energy came, in the end, from the sun.

Our energy came from plants. They gave us fuel for human and animal labour, and the wood or dung burnt for cooking or to stay warm.

Our energy came from wind and water power, used for grinding corn and sailing ships, and came, in the end, from the sun.

Coal gave power to the steam engine. Later there was oil and gas buried in the ground.

This sunshine started a new fossil economy, helped capitalism, and gave us the idea that this could have no end.

Fossil fuels helped capitalists to organise workers. Fossil fuels started machines to do the work of humans.

Fossil fuels helped European colonialists with coal-powered ships and railways to take new lands across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, to extract resources.

In the 20th century, petrol and petrochemicals increased consumer buying and cars. There was technology for electric transport from water and wind from the beginning but cars came first. Plastics, made from oil and gas, were everywhere in a hundred years after the invention of Bakelite in 1907. Greenhouse gases filled the atmosphere. The fossil economy did have limits after all, but Big Oil tried to hide them. 1712 First commercial steam engine – the Newcomen. They used coal-powered machine mostly for pumping water from coalmines. In the early 1800s, they used them as trains.

1825 ‘First truly automatic machine in the world’ – for steam-powered cotton spinning, using coal. It helped to stop worker strikes in Preston and Glasgow, UK, in the 1830s. 80 per cent of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel came from Britain now.

1886 Karl Benz built world’s first car.



1887 First wind turbines built to make electricity. In Denmark they were popular and made some electricity in the early 1900s. There was hydroelectric power now already for ten years.



1914 The British Navy changes from coal to oil, signing a 20-year deal with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP).

1916 First of three federal road acts in the US begins ten years of road building, helping the car industry but not the railways.

1936 General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, and Mack Truck start a company to buy electric streetcar systems in 45 US cities. They shut down 100 in the next ten years. In 1949 a federal jury finds General Motors and friends guilty of shutting down the systems.

1939 World War Two begins, starting a big expansion of oil infrastructure including refineries and pipelines for militaries.

1945 The war ends. Oil companies begin to work to make new demand after the end of military action means refineries are producing too much.

1950 Over half of the use of global fossil fuels comes from North America now.

1952 Solar panels invented.

1953 CIA supports a coup to stop democratically elected Iranian President Mohammad Mossadeq when he was trying to nationalize the country’s oil fields.

1958 A British Overseas Airways Corporation plane makes first passenger jet flight across the Atlantic.

1965 Scientists warn US President Lyndon B Johnson that CO2 may cause climate change. They mention the report at the annual meeting of the American Petroleum Institute.



1973 Arab countries cut production and begin an oil embargo against the US and other countries who supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. This leads to oil conservation and support for renewables through the 1970s, with a small increase in solar in the US and energy efficiency technologies. After Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, support goes down.

1979 Iranian revolution takes a lot of oil production out of world markets, and the price increases. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher begins the privatization of BP.

1992 Rio Earth Summit with 154 states signing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.



1997 The Kyoto Protocol - industrialised countries agree to reduce greenhouse gas.

2009 Shell says it will not invest any more in wind or solar power.

2011 BP complains it can’t ‘make any money on the sun’ as it closes down its solar panel factories.



2015 The Paris Agreement limits global warming to 1.5°C.



2018 Greta Thunberg starts school climate strikes around the world. In the UK Extinction Rebellion starts and forces democratic bodies to declare climate emergencies.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)