Minerals: Coal from Ugo Bardi’s “Extracted”

Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.

True large-scale coal mining started only during the 18th century in Europe, and in particular in England and France.

Initially coal was considered a poor fuel, but with the development of coking (baking coal to burn off impurities), mineral coal could be used for the same tasks as wood charcoal, but at a much lower price.

That changed many things. For instance, for most of human history iron had been smelted with charcoal, which made it such an expensive commodity that it was used to make little more than weapons and armor.

Now, produced in coal-fired forges, it became so cheap that it was possible to make everyday items in iron, such as pots, pans, and more.

Coal did more than make iron cheap; it powered the steam engine. The first steam engines were used to pump water out of coal mines. They were very inefficient, but it didn’t matter. Coal was inexpensive and abundant. The pumps made it possible to extract more coal, and more coal could power more pumps, leading to more coal being extracted.

With time, the steam engine became efficient enough that it could power ships and locomotives as well as factories. As William Stanley Jevons wrote in 1865, “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 coal, Britain experienced the first industrial revolution. An awesome complex of factories, people, and machines became the inner powerhouse of the British Empire. The idea spread quickly to other countries. France had started her coal revolution perhaps even earlier than Britain; in fact the French Revolution that started in 1789 was born from the need to get rid of the old landed aristocracy to make room for a new, coal-based economy. Germany, too, developed its national mines, and slowly the revolution spread to eastern Europe, to Poland and Russia, and later on to North America.

But the domain of King Coal was not destined to last forever. Coal was perhaps the first important mineral resource of modern times to show depletion problems. England’s production peaked in the 1920s and was soon followed by Germany’s. France would peak a couple of decades later, but without ever approaching the production magnitude that England and Germany had achieved.

Coal had created the European world empires; its decline was to spell their demise. [ My comment: Just as deforestation had collapsed empires before this, see John Perlin’s “A forest journey” for the rise and fall of civilizations when wood was the main energy resource.]

King Coal was abdicating, at least in Europe. The history of coal didn’t end with the decline of the European producers. The lead was picked up by new producers in North America, China, and Australia, and coal is now the fastest growing energy resource in the world. But the importance of coal was destined to decline anyway thanks to the appearance of a new mineral commodity: crude oil, which was more versatile, more powerful, and easier to transport. The modern history of crude oil starts around the mid-19th century, and it had a very humble beginning.

 

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