The Coal Question

The Coal Question

Infobox Book |
name = The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines

image_caption = Graph included in the treatise
author = William Stanley Jevons
translator =
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = England
language = English
genre =
publisher = Macmillan & Co. London
release_date = 1865
media_type = Print
pages =
isbn = 978067800/073

"The Coal Question" was a book published in 1865 by economist William Stanley Jevons which explored the implications of Britain's reliance on coal. Given that coal was a finite, non-renewable energy resource, Jevons raised the question of sustainability. "Are we ," he asked rhetorically, "in allowing the commerce of this country to rise beyond the point at which we can long maintain it?" His central thesis was that Britain's supremacy over global affairs was transitory, given the finite nature of its primary energy resource. In propounding this thesis, Jevons covered a range of issues central to sustainability, including limits to growth, overpopulation, overshoot, [William Catton, Overshoot, 1982, University of Illinois Press.] post-global relocalization, [ [ Global Relocalization - A Call to Action (21 June 2004) Post Carbon Institute ] ] energy return on energy input (EROEI), taxation of the energy resource, renewable energy alternatives, and resource peaking (this last subject widely discussed today under the rubric of peak oil).

The Miracle of Coal

In 1865, Britain was the dominant world power, and reliance on coal had played a clear role in creating the country's prosperity and economic strength. Jevons introduces the first chapter of The Coal Question with a succinct description of coal's wonders and of society's insatiable appetite for it:

"Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times. With such facts familiarly before us, it can be no matter of surprise that year by year we make larger draughts upon a material of such myriad qualities — of such miraculous powers."

" applications of coal are of an unlimited character. In the command of force, molecular and mechanical, we have the key to all the infinite varieties of change in place or kind of which nature is capable. No chemical or mechanical operation, perhaps, is quite impossible to us, and invention consists in discovering those which are useful and commercially practicable...."

Limits to Growth and Resource Peaking

Because coal was not unlimited, because its access became more difficult with time, and because the demand grew exponentially, Jevons argued that limits or boundaries to prosperity would appear sooner than was generally realized:

"I must point out the painful fact that such a rate of growth will before long render our consumption of coal comparable with the total supply. In the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress."

In Jevons' day, British geologists were estimating that the country had coal reserves of 90 billion tons. Jevons believed that extraction of much of this amount would prove to be uneconomical. But, even if the entire quantity could be extracted, Jevons argued, exponential economic growth could not continue unabated.

Using historical production estimates, Jevons showed that for the previous 80 years production had grown at a relatively consistent rate of 3.5% per year, or 41% per decade. If this growth rate were to continue, production would grow from approximately 100 million tons in 1865 to more than 2.6 billion tons in 100 years. Jevons then calculated that in that case the country would produce approximately 100 billion tons within this period. [int_{0}^{110} 82.17 (1.035)^t, dt] In short, resources were not sufficient for even 100 years, and long before the 100 years was reached, the growth rate, which was the measure of prosperity, would have to decline. At some point, production would simply hit a peak, which itself meant dire consequences:

"Suppose our progress to be checked within half a century, yet by that time our consumption will probably be three or four times what it now is; there is nothing impossible or improbable in this; it is a moderate supposition, considering that our consumption has increased eight-fold in the last sixty years. But how shortened and darkened will the prospects of the country appear, with mines already deep, fuel dear, and yet a high rate of consumption to keep up if we are not to retrograde."

Even before the peak was reached, high extraction costs could cause Britain to lose the competitive advantage it currently enjoyed in manufacturing and shipping.

British coal production did in fact peak in 1913 but at 292 million tons, about half the amount which Jevons' extrapolation would have suggested. Just under a third of this was exported. Since then, production has dropped to less than 20 million tons. [ [ 2006 statistics of the UK Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform] . ] Current UK resources are estimated at about 400 million tons. [ [ 2007 Annual Report of the UK Coal Authority.] ]

Population and the "Malthus Doctrine"

According to Jevons, coal depletion had serious ramifications for population growth. The population of England had increased by more than 10% each decade for the prior 70 years, not surprising given that coal production was growing at 40% per decade, meaning that the per capita wealth was growing.

"For the present our cheap supplies of coal, and our skill in its employment, and the freedom of our commerce with other wide lands, render us independent of the limited agricultural area of these islands, and take us out of the scope of Malthus' doctrine. We are growing rich and numerous upon a source of wealth of which the fertility does not yet apparently decrease with our demands upon it. Hence the uniform and extraordinary rate of growth which this country presents. We are like settlers spreading in a rich new country of which the boundaries are yet unknown and unfelt."

However, as the growth in coal production slowed, the population growth might easily surpass the production growth, leading to a drop in living conditions:

"Now population, when it grows, moves with a certain uniform impetus, like a body in motion; and uniform progress of population, as I have fully explained before, is multiplication in a uniform ratio. But long-continued progress in such a manner is altogether impossible — it must outstrip all physical conditions and bounds; and the longer it continues, the more severely must the ultimate check be felt. I do not hesitate to say, therefore, that the rapid growth of our great towns, gratifying as it is in the present, is a matter of very serious concern as regards the future."

It is worth noting that in contrast to Malthus 's view that resource growth was linear, Jevons took resource growth as being exponential, like population. This modification of Malthus's theory did not alter the conclusion that population would at some point reach the resource limit and that prosperity, in terms of per capita consumption, would therefore fall.

Measures to Restrain Consumption

Given that energy depletion posed long-term dangers for society, Jevons analyzed possible mitigation measures. In so doing, he considered the phenomenon that has come to be known as Jevons' paradox. As he wrote:

" It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth."

Jevons argued that the greatest invention of the era, Watt's steam engine, had been merely an efficiency improvement over prior designs. Like many innovations that followed, such as improved methods for smelting iron, the result of the efficiency gain was to reduce the effective cost of energy and in so doing to broaden use of the application, leading to great increases in the total amount of energy consumed.

Jevons also considered and rejected other measures that might reduce consumption, such as coal taxes and export restrictions. Similarly, although he deplored the wasteful practice of burning away low quality coal at the mine site, he did not support conservation legislation.

An alternative that he did consider practical was tightened government fiscal policy, based on using tax revenue to reduce the national debt. Tightened fiscal policy would have the effect of slowing economic growth, thereby slowing coal consumption, at least until the debt was erased. Still, Jevons admitted that the overall impact of such a measure, even if it were implemented, would be minimal. In short, the prospect that society would voluntary reduce consumption was dim.

Energy Alternatives

A glaring mistake among Jevons' predictions for the future was his view that petroleum would not become a significant energy source. But, foreshadowing modern debates on energy alternatives, Jevons did consider many alternatives that are still being considered a century-and-a-half later. He reviewed the possibilities of wind and of tidal forces, and he explained that such sources of intermittent power could be made more useful if the energy were stored, for example by pumping water to a height for subsequent use as hydro power. He reviewed biomass, namely timber, and commented that forests covering all of England could not supply energy equal to the current coal production. He also mentioned possibilities for geothermal and solar power, pointing out that if these sources did become useful, England would lose its competitive advantages in global industry.

Regarding electricity, which he pointed out was not an energy source but a means of energy distribution, Jevons noted that hydroelectric power was feasible but that reservoirs would face the problem of silt build-up. He discounted hydrogen generation as a means of electricity storage and distribution, calculating that the energy density of hydrogen would never make it practical. To his credit, he accurately predicted that steam would, for the long term, be the most efficient means of generating electricity.

ocial Responsibililty in Time of Prosperity

Jevons held that despite the desirability of reducing coal consumption, the outlook for implementing signficant constraints was dim. Still, English prosperity should at least be seen as imposing responsibilities on the current generation. In particular, Jevons proposed applying the current wealth to righting social ills and to creating a more just society:

"We must begin to allow that we can do today what we cannot so well do tomorrow....

"Reflection will show that we ought not to think of interfering with the free use of the material wealth which Providence has placed at our disposal, but that our duties wholly consist in the earnest and wise application of it. We may spend it on the one hand in increased luxury and ostentation and corruption, and we shall be blamed. We may spend it on the other hand in raising the social and moral condition of the people, and in reducing the burdens of future generations. Even if our successors be less happily placed than ourselves they will not then blame us."

Jevons also eloquently articulated several social ills that particularly concerned him:

"The ignorance, improvidence, and brutish drunkenness of our lower working classes must be dispelled by a general system of education, which may effect for a future generation what is hopeless for the present generation. One preparatory and indispensable measure, however, is a far more general restriction on the employment of children in manufacture. At present it may almost be said to be profitable to breed little slaves and put them to labour early, so as to get earnings out of them before they have a will of their own. A worse premium upon improvidence and future wretchedness could not be imagined."

Modern day projects echoing Jevons' social concerns in the face of declining global resources include:
* The City of Portland Peak Oil Task Force. [ [ Peak Oil Task Force ] ]

Global Developments after Jevons

As Jevons predicted, coal production could not grow exponentially forever. UK production peaked in 1913, and the country lost its global superiority to a new giant of energy production, the United States, a turn of events that was also predicted by Jevons.

Although UK production could not continue to grow at the annual rate of 3.5%, the world's fossil fuel consumption did grow at this rate until about 1970. According to Jevons, UK coal production in 1865 was estimated as being equal to production in the rest of the world, giving a rough world estimate of 200 million tons. According to the US Department of Energy, global fossil fuel consumption in 1970 was 200 Quad BTU, or 7.2 billion tons coal equivalent. [ [ World Primary Energy Production by Source, 1970-2004] ] Thus, consumption grew by a factor of 36, representing average annual exponential growth over 105 years of about 3.4%. [sqrt [1/105] {36}-1=3.4%] In the 34 subsequent years, to 2004, consumption has only grown by a factor of 2.1, or 2.2% per year, an indication, according to organizations such as ASPO that global energy resources are thinning. [sqrt [1/34] {2.1}-1=2.2%]

The quantity of the world's remaining energy resources is a matter of dispute and serious concern. Between 2005 and 2007, despite the trebling of oil prices, oil production remained relatively flat, [ [ December 2007 International Petroleum Monthly] ] a sign according to many that oil production has peaked. [see] Studies by Dave Rutledge of the California Institute of Technology, [ [ Dave Rutledge website] ] and by the Energy Watch Group of Germany [ [ Energy Watch Group Reports] ] indicate that global coal production will also peak within the current generation, perhaps as soon as 2030. A parallel study by the Energy Watch Group also indicates the limited supply of uranium. Like UK coal production 200 years ago, the production of uranium has first targeted high quality ores, and remaining sources are less dense and more difficult to access.

ee also

* Coal phase out
* Jevons paradox
* Peak oil
* Thomas Malthus



* Some of Jevons's works are available on the Library of Economics and Liberty website:: [ The Coal Question] (also available [ here] )
* Malthus, "An Essay On The Principle Of Population" (1798 1st edition) with "A Summary View" (1830), and Introduction by Professor Antony Flew. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-043206-X.
* Joel E. Cohen, How Many People Can the Earth Support?, 1995, W. W. Norton & Company.
* Howard Bucknell III. Energy and the National Defense, 1981, University of Kentucky Press
* William Catton, Overshoot, 1982, University of Illinois Press.
* Mathis Wackernagel, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, 1995, New Society Publishers.
* Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australian Lands and People, 2002, Grove Press.
* Michael Williams, Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis, 2002, University of Chicago Press.
* Garrett Hardin, The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia, 1999, Oxford University Press.
* Walter Youngquist, Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations & Individuals, 1997, National Book Company.
* Heinberg, Richard. Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, 2004, New Society Publishers.
* Kunstler, James Howard. The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century, 2005, Atlantic Monthly Press.
* Odum, Howard T. and Elisabeth C. A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies, 2001, University Press of Colorado.
* Stanton, The rapid growth of human populations 1750–2000, 2003.
* Bartlett, A., Scientific American and the Silent Lie, 2004
* Meadows et al., Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update, 2004.
* Diamond, Jared, Collapse, 2005.

External links

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