Challenge question (and answer): Could you pollute before fossil fuels?

January 15, 2022 by Joshua
in Nature

I used to think polluting was an inevitable consequence of living. The best we could do was minimize it.

But thinking about our ancestors who lived for hundreds of thousands of years in a region, they weren’t polluting. It seems to me the concept of pollution must be recent.

I’ve been challenging people with the following question: can you pollute without fossil fuels? Or a similar question: could people before fossil fuels pollute at all?

It’s easy to pollute with fossil fuels: artificial fertilizers, pesticides, forever chemicals, greenhouse gases, and so on. Without them, it’s not so easy. One person suggested the methane that cows emit, but methane as part of the ecosphere’s carbon cycles isn’t a problem. The carbon in it comes from plants and plants recapture it. It’s only pollution when fossil fuels cause increase concentrations first.

I’ve come up with two answers.

Before I share them, I’ll take some vertical space on the page to give you a chance to pause and think for yourself.

Can you think of examples?

Alright, I’ll share mine.

  1. Lead pipes in ancient Rome apparently contributed to health problems, maybe to the point of contributing to the decline of the empire.
  2. When cities grew large enough, before cars, horses used as transportation left enough poop in high enough concentrations as to create health hazards.

Otherwise, I can’t think of examples. I’ve stopped thinking simply living means polluting. On the contrary, we can live without polluting. We choose not to.

Kuwait invasion oil fire
Kuwait invasion oil fire

Edit from reader feedback

Two suggestions from readers lead me to update: poop and poisonous chemicals that don’t come from fossil fuels.


Regarding poop, human or otherwise, like fire it can hurt and help. Poop can spread cholera, dysentery, and other diseases. It can also fertilize. In fact, if we don’t use it to fertilize, we perpetually strip nutrients from the ground and turn soil to lifeless dirt.

Pople pooped for hundreds of thousands of years without it being pollution. Like greenhouse gases, It becomes pollution when it reaches high concentrations. Until the twentieth century and maybe even today in some places, human manure was valued and communities had devised systems to process it into fertilizer. Here’s an article I read a while ago about fish ponds that turned poop into fertilizer and fish, a system used by cities around the world, today forgotten; Urban Fish Ponds: Low-tech Sewage Treatment for Towns and Cities. It begins:

In the mid 20th century, whole cities’ sewage systems safely and successfully used fish to treat and purify their water. Waste-fed fish ponds are a low-tech, cheap, and sustainable alternative

I conclude that poop became a problem as a result of population densities supported by fossil fuels.

Two suggestions from readers lead me to update: poop and poisonous chemicals that don’t come from fossil fuels.

There are many chemicals that poison us that mining brings from harmlessly underground to the surface and concentrates them. I suspect most mining resulting in such chemicals came after the Industrial Revolution and requires fossil fuels. I would guess that mining for marble to build with thousands of years ago didn’t produce dangerous chemicals, but would include it as a source if I learned otherwise.

As for other mining results, if they required fossil fuels for creating the mines and the human activity that created demand for the materials, I’d say they fall within resulting from fossil fuels. If mining processes preceding the Industrial Revolution caused pollution, I should expand my original challenge statement from “fossil fuels” to something like “extracting non-renewable resources”.

Recall, humans lived for hundreds of thousands of years without extracting non-renewable resources. In a thousandth that time, from the steam engine until today, we have reached where we may cause our own extinction. We mistakenly believe we live with more health, longevity, abundance, equality, or stability, but the evidence points otherwise. Except for a very brief few generations, humans from the Agricultural Revolution lived worse than those before. As for these recent few decades, that health and abundance has been supported by fossil fuels whose pollution is lowering Earth’s ability to sustain life. If we don’t reduce our consumption and population fast, nature will do it for us, with great suffering and premature death.

In other words, we can live sustainably with greater health, longevity, abundance, equality, and stability than we do today. I wouldn’t have believed it either.

Edit 2: a complementary question

I posted a complementary question: Challenge question: Can you use fossil fuels without polluting?

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1 response to “Challenge question (and answer): Could you pollute before fossil fuels?

  1. Pingback: Challenge question: Can you use fossil fuels without polluting? » Joshua Spodek

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