A non-fossil alternate history for
civilization and computing

For some years now, I have been thinking about the question of what kind of civilization we'd have now if we never had found the fossil fuels to power our steam engines with. This counterfactual speculation has led me to all kinds of interesting details and possibilities, so I think I should probably summarize this alternate world now, even though the project will probably never be "finished".

I have attempted to be realistic, but I've also concentrated on the cultural history and what the world would "feel like" rather than on exact political or economical details. The computing-related speculations in the end are of course something I think I can justify quite well and may even be worth considering to those interested in permacomputing.

This scenario is not intended to be utopian. It certainly has its problems but the problems are largely different from ours. But I still think it could very well function as a historical background for a Solarpunk-like utopian world. I have always felt that the hopeful imagery of Solarpunk would work better if the history hadn't gone so wrong in the first place.

This idea is close to Pargman & al's Coalworld project with the difference that they put the point of divergence in the 1970s whereas mine is much earlier. I was unfamiliar with this project until I saw their Computing within Limits paper titled "Meeting the future in the past - using counterfactual history to imagine computing futures" (from 2018, but I saw it in 2021). An important point here is that it is difficult to envision different kind of futures when we've had a past like this, so counterfactual scenarios could help unleash our imagination.

Summary of the alternate history in general:

Computing-related differences