What if there were no fossil fuels?
Maybe lignin-digesting bacteria evolved earlier, some antediluvian civilization burned up our oil reserves, or those damn Alien Space Bats vaporized them. Anyway, Earth doesn’t have enough coal, gas, or oil to support an industrial revolution. How does that change history?
Things might look pretty similar to OTL history until the 1400’s with the few pre-industrial uses of coal and petroleum being replaced by charcoal, peat, and pitch. We might expect glassblowers, blacksmiths, and the makers of lime to have trouble though as the forests of Europe began to run out. We might further expect a bigger timber industry in the New World, especially in the North. As its peat reserves ran out, Holland might also invest more in its American colonies as a source of fuel. France might also fight harder to keep Acadia. Rather than the Beaver Wars, we have the Lumber Wars.
The Lumber Wars aren’t confined to the New World. The Russian Empire holds vast tracks of timberland, but lacks the power to hold them effectively. German states encourage local rebellions and pay tinpot dictators gold for their wood, while British ships bite chunks out of Russia’s Pacific coast before turning around and swallowing up Japan, Korea, and Manchuria in the process.
By the mid-1700s, the confusingly and unoriginally named British colonies of America (actually the Atlantic coast of North America, minus French, Spanish, and Dutch claims), California (the Pacific coast from OTL *Oregon to *Alaska), and Pacifica (from the Japanese archipelago in the east to Lake Baikal and the Vitim River to the west) are the heart of a global trade network of manufactured goods, gaining population densities that European cities, lacking coal for heating, cannot attain.
But they are also starting to run out of trees. In the southern British Pacific lands and in British California, the bamboo-charcoal trade is booming, but in above about 40 degrees North, pine plantations cannot keep up with demand.
The accelerated deforestation in North America would result, ironically enough, in global warming. An eighteenth-century temperature and precipitation map (if there were anyone around with capacity to make one) would look like this
Desertification and extreme weather causes societal breakdowns in the Middle East, Northern Africa, India, and Central Asia, sending rampaging hordes into west into Europe and (for the first time) east into the British Pacific colonies. Lines are drawn. Then redrawn. Aid is called for and not given. A creaky little global conflict results in millions dead, and the collapse of contraction of the European colonial empires.
The big winners of the Storm Wars are the three new independent federal republics of America, California, and Pacifica. As a block, these countries form the world’s dominant military and economic power, much to the dismay of their respective slaves, vassals, and serfs.
Technological development is slowed by social instability and more expensive energy, but it is not halted. By the mid-1800s, wind and water are the primary sources of power in Europe and extra-Pacific Asia, and much effort is being made to turn that power into heat. Arab engineers, meanwhile, can reliably produce solar forges capable of melting glass, and municipal solar ovens are a feature over much of the former Ottoman Empire, as well as Spain and some of its former colonies, but their industrial use is severely limited by their incapability of storing energy.
Alcohol may be distilled from plant material and burned, but that distillation requires heat, itself. The process cannot succeed commercially in cloudy Europe and religious strictures prevent most of the Muslim world from using their solar forges as distilleries. In Mexico, however, alcohol becomes the standard means of storing solar power, to the extent that the nation can turn a tidy profit exporting its solíquido.
Desperate for their own “liquid sunshine,” Europeans turn to fermentation. Offal (composed mostly of human sewage) is collected in cesspools, through which run pipes of water connected to a building’s heating system. Fermentation-heating is far from perfect, but attempts to improve it lead to the discovery of methane. Produced by the bacteria that break down cellulose, methane can be burned, and more importantly stored and transported.
Between fermentation-methane and solar alcohol, charcoal alternatives finally become effective enough to threaten the timber barons of America, California, and Pacifica. A second colonial scramble ensues as great powers vie for access to sunny deserts and vegetation-rich jungles. Armed with newly developed weapons like motorized tanks and mass-produced fire-arms, would-be conquerors square off over their patches of exhausted land and wait for the balance to change.
The discovery of electricity is only a few years away.
This alternate history timeline is dedicated to my friend Paul, who works in the United Arab Emirates 😉