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Not sure where to post this question, but it struck me the other day that the major driving force behind our modern industrial society is owed nearly entirely to the harnessing of petroleum power in the form of coal and primarily oil products.

As I understand it, the current explanation for these deposits' existence is the carboniferous period when plants basically evolved woody structures that allowed them to grow trunks and grow tall. Nothing at the time could digest these structures so they piled up when the trees died and eventually were buried in large amounts and became the various petroleum reserves we find under the surface of the earth.

Well, how likely is it that this specific path of evolution (or lack thereof on the part of organisms that would consume the dead plants) happens on many other planets, resulting in essentially a gigantic reserve of "free" energy buried and waiting to be exploited by a society of intelligent organisms?

Is this almost a necessary occurrence for industrial civilization? Couldn't this explain the apparent lack of interstellar civilizations? That it's such a rare thing to have all this free easy access energy already stored up for a civilization to access?

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As I understand it, the current explanation for these deposits' existence is the carboniferous period when plants basically evolved woody structures that allowed them to grow trunks and grow tall.

This is a minor point, but you're writing about coal rather than petroleum. Most geologists think petroleum is also of biogenic origin, but resulted from sea-based rather than land-based life.

Regarding the larger issue,

Is this almost a necessary occurrence for industrial civilization?

This is the Rare Earth Hypothesis versus the hypothesis that life (including intelligent life) is common. The answer for now is we do not know. Extrapolating from a sample size of one is typically a bad idea. What we do know is that planets are common.

Whether planets that can support even primitive life are common, we do not know. Whether planets that cam support intelligent life are common, we do not know. Whether intelligent life can pass beyond the chimpanzee / dolphin / crow / octopus stage (these are all intelligent species) to something that resembles human intelligence, we do not know. Whether human-level intelligence requires resources like coal / petroleum / metals to become space-faring or space-communicative, we do not know.

There are lots of science fiction stories of resource-poor planets where that prevented intelligent species from advancing. There are also lots of science fiction stories of resource-poor planets where the intelligent species overcame those limits. But that's science fiction. Science fact is that we do not know.

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