Sustainable America Blog

What are fossil fuels?

I imagine some day hundreds of years from now, when a future humanoid describes the fossil fuel era, they may say something like this:

Humans found the decomposed bodies of long dead organisms big and small buried under the ground. They created a way to burn this sludge and create energy that they used to power all kinds of machines. Unfortunately, the burning of this sludge created all kinds of other problems in the air, water, soil and in the bodies of living beings. Then, the humans realized that there were only so many organisms buried under the ground and they couldn’t keep burning them forever.

The term fossil fuels refers to the fuel sources coal, petroleum and natural gas which are all made from the decomposed bodies of once living organisms. It takes millions of years for the bodies of these once living creatures to become the fossil fuels that we use for creating energy today.

We live in a peculiar time. With fossil fuels discovered just a few hundred years ago, we have been depleting a resource that took millions of years to create at a pace that is clearly unsustainable into the future. Yet, until quite recently humankind has not been compelled to change in any significant way. The result is a global economic system that is intimately and perilously dependent on these buried dead organisms.

While there are debates about the reality of Peak Oil, it is clear that we will need to get creative about alternative forms of energy, quickly.

The rising price of oil is unsustainable for America’s economy. In addition, our leaders have acknowledged that our dependency on imported fossil fuels has become a matter of national security. It is clear that alternative renewable energy sources and energy efficiency will be key to creating a sustainable future for America and for the world.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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