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So the idea of worlds like this has been brought up a few times, about how human technology would have developed without fossil fuels, but the question I have is whether it is plausible for a world like this to develop. Could humans(or human like aliens) evolve early enough that there is not actually a reserve of fossil fuels?

To clarify, I'm talking about this issue from the perspective of geology and biological evolution, not human technology. Given the long timeline of life on Earth before humans, which was responsible for creating the deposits of fossil fuels, would it be possible for a group like humans to have evolved early enough that fossil fuels never fully formed?

For the purposes of this question, I'm not wondering about how tech would develop, just about whether this is plausible as an evolutionary history on a planet like Earth.

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  • $\begingroup$ Unless I am mistaken you are asking if a planet with life on it for as long as the Earth have no oil or coal? Because half the answers are interpreting your question as "Can civilization as we know it develop without fossil fuels." Please clarify again (even though I know your last paragraph is already a clarification but people are still giving a mix of answers. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 4 '20 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen you are correct. Does my second clarification help? $\endgroup$ Sep 5 '20 at 18:25
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The short answer is no, not really.

Since you specified biologically formed fossil fuels, I assume you are mainly talking about coal, oil, and gas. These are produced from organic matter over millions of years. Coal is mainly formed from plant matter whilst oil and gas are mainly formed from algae and plankton. This page states that 20% of oil comes from the cenozoic (66-0MYA), 10% comes from the paleozoic (541-252MYA) and the rest from the mesozoic (252-66MYA). Plankton is an umbrella term for microscopic marine organisms but they have existed along with algae since the precambrian era (>541MYA). This would suggest that oil formations will predate your civilisation regardless. I couldn't find out how it takes for oil to form but the presence of cenozoic oil shows that large amounts of oil can form in 60 million years and presumably a lot less.

The first coal formations known are from ~350MYA, which is also when the first vertebrates started to move onto land. Before this, insects were present on land but the organic matter that produces coal may have been what allowed fish to move onto land.

So in terms of human-like aliens, the answer is no. You could however, look towards molluscs, which first appeared around 500 million years ago. Since insects first appeared on land not long after this, you could have some kind of intelligent and amphibious mollusc evolve just before plants start becoming widespread. These may have the intelligence to form civilisations before coal deposits start to form but oil would probably still exist. Whether it would be humanoid enough for you, I don't know but octopodes do actually walk on two legs already.

The only other solution I can think of is to have live on your planet evolve from a chemical composition that doesn't form fossil fuels as we know them, perhaps something other than carbon-based. You would have to research the science of this yourself though.

Edit: Having fossil fuels present doesn't necessarily mean they will be harvested. Gunpowder for example was used a thousand years before fossil fuels so perhaps your civilisation found other ways around things without ever needing them? Wood and plant oils would also fill the same roles.

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The presence of fossil fuels would depend mostly on if the world has a large amount of carbon-based lifeforms that are creating complex hydrocarbons that can be turned into fuel. If it turns out life chose other complex structures that don't burn quite as nicely, that would totally be a totally fair reason for not using fossil fuels.

Note that much of human existence worked without access to fossil fuels. If humans never realized how to effectively harvest fossil fuels, we may have skipped burning them altogether and moved straight to renewable or nuclear power generation.

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    $\begingroup$ Given the amount of industry that necessarily precedes most renewable and all nuclear power generation, it is not entirely clear whether fossil fuels could have been skipped along the way. I don't know much about renewable, but nuclear power requires serious mining, refining, enriching, construction, and transport of materials prior to reactor start-up. Without another power source, you definitely can't skip straight to nuclear power (unless you were in Oklo, Gabon at the exact right time :) ) $\endgroup$
    – Sol
    Sep 2 '20 at 3:49
  • $\begingroup$ Fossil fuels are a short cut. They could start with sunflower oil on a massive scale to burn. Not sure if it'll replace everything oil curremtly does, but it certainly can be used as a replacement for diesel. Current diesel can even be diluted with sunflower oil in a diesel emgine (which is highly illegal as you don't pay lots of tax). They just need a good reason to go from burning wood to those oils. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Sep 2 '20 at 5:38
  • $\begingroup$ "life chose other complex structures that don't burn quite as nicely" - virtually any conceivable organic structure would burn quite nicely after it had stayed isolated for some time. Are you suggesting that the answer here is beyond the carbon-based life? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Sep 2 '20 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ To add on to the sunflower oil comment, palm oil is can also be harvested with primitive technology and is much more efficient at producing oil. $\endgroup$
    – Zac Walton
    Sep 4 '20 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ I think the OP is asking about the Earth itself, not human civilization or technology. In other words, can a planet with life on it for as long as the Earth have no oil or coal. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 4 '20 at 13:39
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Depends on the definition of a fossil fuels. Most importantly, is wood a fossil fuel? It regrows, so I'm guessing not, but this assumption is open to debate.

If wood isn't a fossil fuel, we didn't touch fossil fuels until we started burning coal to stay warm. They sat in the ground unused until well after human society was established. And post coal, much of humans interactions with coal could've been replaced with more wood, or we could just move to warmer climates.

If wood is a fossil fuel, it is a bit trickier as we couldn't survive in colder climates easier. We couldn't cook food, which was important to our development. The migration out of Africa might not have survived, or the ice age might have killed us off.

So assuming wood isn't a fossil fuel, humanity will reach the industrial age exactly the same as it did in our world.

Harnessing steam power would've been much harder without coal, but we already discovered hydro and wind power at this point, the industrial revolution would've been different, slower, and more dispersed, but it still would happen.

We may have stripped forests down more to provide fuel for the industrial revolution, rather than using coal. The lack of trees may actually be worse for the environment than emitting all the carbon from coal. I don't know how to calculate which is worse.

We had electric motors and batteries before we had the petrol car. Early prototype cars were fully electric. The first electric lightbulb in a home was hydroelectric powered. Diverting to fossil fuels certainly sped up our development these last few centuries, but we would still be on the same path were they never in the ground.

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    $\begingroup$ By definition wood is not a fossil fuel. Though most fossil fuel was created from wood and other vegetation. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Sep 2 '20 at 12:14
  • $\begingroup$ I think the OP is asking about the Earth itself, not human civilization or technology. In other words, can a planet with life on it for as long as the Earth have no oil or coal. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 4 '20 at 13:39
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It appears that oil and gas are largely the remnants of marine based life, mostly algae. I don't see a way how to have algae without rather much of them ending up as oil/gas. Maybe you find a weird trick with plate tectonics that avoids the conditions under which biomass is turned into oil and gas but I'm doubtful.

Coal on the other is mostly land based, woody biomass. And there is a serious theory that most of this formed before modern fungi (mold), that could break down cellulosue, developed, and that since these funghi are about no new coal is formed. Maybe you can somehow restrict land based life for a long time (maybe only a small island is ice free?) so that only comparativly little land-based biomass exists before fungi can evolve to break it down, you'd avoid coal.

ETA: Maybe most existing oil and gas reserves developed from marine biomass that could not be degraded organically due to an anoxic event, possibly triggered by vulcanism.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was going to write something similar. I assume there is something that eats dead algae/plankton today before it can be covered by sediment and turn into oil/gas, just like trees on land, so the answer is the same for both: earlier evolution of these decomposes. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Sep 4 '20 at 13:11
  • $\begingroup$ This is exactly the sort of thing I was thinking of. $\endgroup$ Sep 5 '20 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenS You may be right, this (havent read in full, see image p 6) indicates that only a small amount of marine carbon ends up as new sediment ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WG1AR5_Chapter06_FINAL.pdf $\endgroup$
    – mart
    Sep 7 '20 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenS While reading about the likely ecological collapse looming in our future, I stumbled across anoxic events and it appears you are right - most of the time something eats dead algae, provided the oceans arent anoxic. $\endgroup$
    – mart
    Sep 18 '20 at 7:57
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Why not?

Given that coal was started to be used from the High Middles Ages onwards, and only later in really large scale. So, we can assume, that Humanity lived rather fossil-free until the medieval times.
May I am missing something, but I am quite convinced that coal was the first fossil fuel that found wide scale use.

One could argue about peat, however I consider peat to be the wood of the unforested regions, since it tends to be used quite locally as a fuel.

Humanity has developed a quite good fuel in the form of charcoal.

Without coal, there will be less steel over the course of time, since steel production is limited to the sustainable output of charcoal. However, why wouldn't Humanity advance?

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the OP is asking about the Earth itself, not human civilization or technology. In other words, can a planet with life on it for as long as the Earth have no oil or coal. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 4 '20 at 13:35

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