The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (1865) was a book by economist William Stanley Jevonsthat explored the implications of Britain’s reliance on coal . [1] [2] Given that coal was a finite, non-renewable energy resource, Jevons raised the question of sustainability . „Are we wise ,“ he asked rhetorically, „in allowing the business of this country to rise beyond the point at which we can long maintain it?“ His central thesis was the supremacy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and IrelandThe global 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, [3] energy return on energy input ( EROEI ), renewable energy alternatives, and resource peaking-a subject widely discussed today under the rubric of peak oil.

The significance of coal

Let us introduce the first chapter of the Coalition Question with a brief description of coal’s wonders and of society’s insatiable appetite for it:

„Coal in truth stands not beside purpose 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 feasible or easy;.. Without it we are thrown back These facts can be used in such a way that we can make sure that we have a better understanding of these matters.

„… in the command of force, molecular and mechanical, we have the key to all the infinite types of change in place or kind of which nature is capable. may well be impossible to use, and the invention is useful and useful.

I think further argues that coal is the source of the UK’s prosperity and global dominance.

Limits to growth and resource peaking

Jevons‘ graph extrapolating to 1970 the exponential growth of coal production.

Because coal was not unlimited, because its access became more difficult with time, and because the demand grew exponentially ,

„I must point out the breadth of such a rate of growth that we will experience in the future.“ progress. „

In Jevons‘ day, British geologists were estimating that the country had coal reserves of 90 trillion tons. I believe that this extraction of much of this amount would be uneconomical. But, even if the whole country could not be extracted, it could be argued, exponential economic growth could not continue unabated.

Using historical production estimates, we have shown that for the previous 80 years production has grown at a relative rate of 3.5% per year, or 41% per decade. If this growth rate were continued, production would grow from approximately 100 million tones in 1865 to more than 2.6 billion tones in 100 years. I would then calculated that it would produce approximately 100 billion tones within this period. [4] 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 consequences:

„Assume our progress to be checked within half a century, yet it is unlikely that this is unlikely or unlikely. 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.

Even before the peak has been reached, the UK is enjoying a competitive advantage .

British coal production did not peak in 1913, but was at 292 million tones, about half the amount Ivons extrapolation suggests. Just under a third of this was exported. Since then, production has dropped to less than 20 million tones. [5] Current UK resources are estimated at about 400 million tones. [6]

Population and the „Malthus Doctrine“

According to Jevons, coal depletion had serious ramifications for population growth. The population of the United Kingdom has increased by 40 per cent per year, it has grown at a rate of 40 per cent per capita .

„For the present of our coal market, and our skill in its employment, and the freedom of trade,“ said the author, „the independent agricultural market of these islands, and the use of Malthus‘ We are growing rich and numerous upon a source of wealth, which is why we are so rich in the world. country of which the boundaries are yet unknown and unfelt. „

However, the growth in production slowed down, the population growth easily surpassed the production growth, leading to a drop in living conditions:

„Now population, when it grows, with a certain uniform impetus, as a body in motion, and uniform progress of population, as long as it is fully explained. is altogether impossible – it must be outstrip all the conditions and bounds of the future is in the present, is a matter of very serious concern as regards the future. „

In contrast to Malthus ‚ view that resource growth was linear, Jevons took resource growth as being exponential, like population. This modification of Malthus’s theory did not allow for the conclusion that unrestrained population growth would inevitably surpass the nation’s ability to expand its resources. Prosperity, in terms of per capita consumption, would therefore fall. Moreover, because the primary resource was non-renewable, it would be more dramatic than Malthus envisioned:

A farm, but far pushed, will under proper cultivation continue to yield forever a constant crop. But in a mine there is no reproduction, and the produce ounce pushed to the utmost will soon begin to fail and sink towards zero. So far, we are going to be wealthy and we need to go back.

The Jevons Paradox

Main article: Jevons paradox

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

„It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economy is less profitable.“

Ive described the historical development of engine technology and their contribution to the efficiency of the world (or „economy“). James Watt’s 1776 invention of the steam engine . Like many innovations that follow, such as improved methods for smelting iron, greater economy broadened use and increased energy consumption.

„Whatever, therefore, drives to increase the efficiency of coal, and to diminish the cost of its use, directly tends to increase the value of the steam-engine, and to enlarge the field of its operations.“

I also consider and consider other measures that might reduce consumption, such as coal taxes and export restrictions. Similarly, it does not matter the wasteful practice of burning down the mine site, he did not support conservation legislation.

An alternative that he did not consider practical tax policy. Tightened fiscal policy would have the effect of slowing economic growth, thus 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 voluntarily reduce consumption was dim.

Energy alternatives

Jevons considered the feasibility of alternative energy sources, foreshadowing modern debates on the subject. Whereas it is possible that these sources of intermittent power can be used, it may be more useful if the energy is stored. He has reviewed biomass, and is commenting on the fact that it covers the whole of the UK. He also mentioned possibilities for geothermal and solar power, pointing out that these sources would become useful, the UK would lose its competitive advantages in global industry. He was not aware of the future importance of natural gas or petroleum have been developed after their book has been published.

Considering electricity, which he pointed out was a source of energy, it should be noted that hydroelectric power was feasible but that it would have 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. He predicted that steam would remain the most efficient means of generating electricity.

Social responsibility in time of prosperity

I believe that despite the desirability of reducing energy consumption, the outlook for implementing significant constraints is still low, the UK’s prosperity should at least be seen as imposing responsibilities on the current generation. In particular, Jevons Proposing applying the current wealth to the right to social society

„We must begin today that we can not do today.

„Reflection will show that we should not be in a position of trust in the world of wealth, but we should not be allowed to do it. In the future, we are going to be happier than ever before, and we are going to be happier. we will not then blame us. “ [7]

I also think of several social ills that particularly concerned him:

„The ignorance, improvidence, and grossish drunkenness of a school of education,“ „The ignorance, improvidence, and grossish drunkenness of the future. At present it may be said to be profitable to breed little slaves and to put them to work early, worse premium upon improvidence and future wretchedness could not be imagined. „

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. The UK has been developing oil resources in the Middle East and is used by the fuel for power generation.

Although UK production could not continue to grow at the rate of 3.5%, the world’s fossil fuel consumption was growing until 1970. According to Jevons, UK coal production in 1865 was estimated to be equal to production in the rest of the world. the world, giving a rough estimate of 200 million tons. According to the US Department of Energy , global fossil fuel consumption in 1970 was 200 BTUs , or 7.2 billion tons of coal equivalent. [8] Thus, spending grew by a factor of 36, representing average annual exponential growth over 105 years of about 3.4%. [9]In the 34 subsequent years, to 2004, consumption grew 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. [10]

The quantity of the world’s remaining energy resources is a matter of dispute and serious concern. Between 2005 and 2007, despite the production of relatively flat oil, [11] has reported that oil production has peaked. [12] Studies by Dave Rutledge of the California Institute of Technology , [13] and by the Energy Watch Group of Germany [14] indicate that global coal production will also be present, possibly as soon as 2030. A parallel study by the Energy Watch Group also indicates the limited supply of uranium; this report states that like UK coal production 200 years ago, the production of uranium has been targeted, and the remaining sources are less dense and more difficult to access.

Fetter states that at least 230 years of proven uranium reserves are available at present worldwide, and using uranium extraction from seawater, up to 60,000 years of uranium are available. Further, using advanced breeder reactorsand nuclear reprocessing , the 230 years of proven uranium reserves may be extended up to 30,000 years; Similar gains are achievable from the 60,000 years of uranium reserves from seawater. [15]

See also

  • Coal phase out
  • Jevons paradox
  • Peak oil
  • Thomas Malthus
  • The Limits to Growth
  • UK environmental law
  • UK enterprise law


  1. Jump up^ See Jevons, William Stanley (1865). The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (1 ed.). London & Cambridge: Macmillan & Co . Retrieved 12 November 2014 . via Google Books
  2. Jump up^ See Jevons, William Stanley (1866). The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (2 ed.). London: Macmillan & Co . Retrieved 12 November2014 . via Google Books
  3. Jump up^ Catton, William (1982-06-01). Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change . University of Illinois Press . ISBN  978-0-252-00988-4 .
  4. Jump up^ {\ displaystyle \ int _ {0} ^ {110} 82.17 (1.035) ^ {t} \, dt}
  5. Jump up^ „Energy Trends and Quarterly Energy Prices“ (PDF) . UK Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. December 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-03-04.
  6. Jump up^ 2007 Annual Report of the UK Coal Authority.
  7. Jump up^ Jevons, W. Stanley, The Coal Question, 2nd revised edition, 1866, Macmillan and Co., page xxv
  8. Jump up^ World Primary Energy Production by Source, 1970-2004
  9. Jump up^ {\ displaystyle {\ sqrt [{105}] {36}} – 1 = 3.4 \%}
  10. Jump up^ {\ displaystyle {\ sqrt [{34}] {2.1}} – 1 = 2.2 \%}
  11. Jump up^ December 2007 International Petroleum Monthly
  12. Jump up^ see
  13. Jump up^ „Dave Rutledge website“ . Retrieved 18 September 2014 .
  14. Jump up^ Energy Watch Group Reports
  15. Jump up^ Fetter, Steve (2009-01-26). „How Long Will The World’s Uranium Supplies Last“ . Scientific American . Retrieved 2010-12-16 .