From wood to fossil fueled civilizations — the greatest tragedy mankind will ever know

[ These are my notes from this book about how we went from an organic sustainable economy to a temporary fossil-fueled one.  It’s one of the few books I’ve found that explains what life was like before fossil fuels in a biophysical way that focuses on energy and population.  This book might even convince an economist that there are limits to growth, since it explains why a biomass-based society couldn’t exponentially grow, but that might be hoping for too much (since neoclassical economics is a religion but this book is based on science).

Wrigley also compares the Western European marriage system, where couples were much older because they had to wait until they could support themselves, which might require say, the parents to die, since the land was not subdivided usually but went to the first male child.  But in Eastern European countries, most women were married at a very young age not long after puberty, and ended up having far more children as well. 

The Western European marriage system prevented the outcome Malthus had predicted in his first writings — that inevitably the standard of living was bound to be depressed to bare subsistence level and misery for most of the population.  He later saw that in fact marriage systems could prevent this from happening and wrote about it in later books.

Wrigley closes his book with the following warning:

“The industrial revolution may come to be regarded not as a beneficial event which liberated mankind from the shackles which limited growth possibilities in all organic economies but as the precursor of an overwhelming tragedy – assuming that there are still survivors to tell the tale.”

P.S. I discovered this book in the excellent list at the BioPhysical Economics Policy center: https://biophyseco.org/resources/books/

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Wrigley, E. A.  2016. The Path to Sustained Growth: England’s Transition from an Organic Economy to an Industrial Revolution. University of Cambridge.

The three centuries between the reigns of Elizabeth I and Victoria, are conventionally termed the industrial revolution. At the beginning of the period England was not one of the leading European economies. It was a deeply rural country where agricultural production was largely focused on local self-sufficiency. In part this was a function of the low level of urbanization at the time. England was one of the least urbanized of European countries: the only large town was London. The market for any agricultural surplus was limited other than close to the capital city.

Before the industrial revolution, prolonged economic growth was unachievable. All economies were organic, dependent on plant photosynthesis to provide food, raw materials, and energy. This was true both of heat energy, derived from burning wood, and mechanical energy, provided chiefly by human and animal muscle. The flow of energy from the sun captured by plant photosynthesis was the basis of all production and consumption. Britain began to escape the old restrictions by making increasing use of the vast stock of energy contained in coal measures, initially as a source of heat energy but eventually also of mechanical energy, thus making possible the industrial revolution.

In organic economies negative feedback between different factors of production was common. For example, if the population increased it would involve at some point taking into cultivation marginal land, or farming existing land more intensively, or increasing the arable acreage at the expense of pasture, changes which tended to reduce labor productivity, inhibiting further growth and reducing living standards. In early modern England the rising importance of a fossil fuel as an energy source meant that many of the relationships which involved negative feedback in organic economies changed: positive feedback became more common. The growth process tended to foster further advance, whereas in organic economies the reverse was the case.

If the woolen industry was flourishing and the demand for wool therefore rising, more land would be devoted to sheep pasture, but this must mean less land available to grow corn for human consumption, or less land under forest. Expanding the production of woolen cloth must at some point create difficulties for the supply of food, or of fuel for domestic heating, or for the production of charcoal iron. If the land was the source of virtually all the material products of value to man, expansion in one area of the economy was all too likely to be secured only by shrinkage elsewhere.

Most of the raw materials used by industry in organic economies were also vegetable, such as wood, wool, cotton, or leather. Even when the raw material was mineral, plant photosynthesis was essential to production, since converting ores into metals required a large expenditure of heat energy that came from burning wood or charcoal.

Coal is a stock, not a flow. Each ton of coal dug from a mine marginally reduces the size of the stock, and the same is true of all fossil fuels. Drawing upon a stock will ultimately lead to its exhaustion.

On this estimate of woodland productivity, therefore, it would be necessary to reserve 2 million acres of land for forest to produce the same quantity of heat energy each year as could be secured from burning 1 million tons of coal.

The advantage gained by employing draught animals was perhaps greatest in relation to overland transport. The output in terms of ton-miles performed during a working day by a man with a sack on his back or pushing a wheelbarrow is almost derisory compared with what is possible by a man with a horse and cart on a firm road surface. In many agricultural systems draught animals were essential. This was normally true of the cultivation of cereals such as wheat. If the yield per acre of a cereal is modest, it may be beyond the physical capacity of one man to cultivate a large enough area by his own efforts to support himself and his family. The land had to be ploughed by oxen or horses.

If the produce of 5 acres of land is needed to feed a working horse, the area available to feed people is reduced commensurately. As Cottrell remarked: ‘Where land is plentiful, population sparse and draught animals available, there may be an economy in substituting draught animals for manpower; but with increased population and competition for land for the production of food and feed, the situation may be reversed, the survival of man being more important than the feeding of work animals.’ It was an unfortunate feature of organic economies after the neolithic agricultural revolution that a period of growth and prosperity when the population was rising tended to restrict the area that could be devoted to growing fodder for draught animals unless productivity per acre was rising sufficiently to offset the population rise.

Domestic heating in towns. Bairoch estimated that each town dweller typically needed between 1.0 and 1.6 tons of firewood each year, which Van der Woude et al. estimated would represent the annual product of 0.5 to 0.8 hectares of woodland, or roughly 1.25 to 2 acres. For simplicity, I assume that 1.6 acres would cover the firewood needs of the average town dweller.

A town with 10,000 inhabitants, therefore, would need access to the annual growth of wood taking place in woodland covering 16,000 acres. For an urban population totalling, say, half a million people and therefore needing 650,000 tons of firewood a year, it would be necessary to devote the wood growth of roughly 800,000 acres to meeting their domestic heating needs. The same quantity of heat energy could be secured from burning approximately 325,000 tons of coal, since burning 1 ton of coal produced as much heat as 2 tons of dry firewood.

The switch from wood to coal therefore enabled approximately 800,000 acres of woodland to be used instead to produce food, or wool and hides, rather than fuel.

The classical economists saw all activity giving rise to material production as involving three component elements: capital, labor, and land. The quantity of capital and labor available to allow production to take place might in principle be increased as necessary and without apparent limit, but the same was not true of land. The area of land was limited and could not be increased. Advances in technology might permit significant improvements in aggregate output. The output from any given area of land might be increased by the introduction of a new crop, as when the potato arrived from the Americas; or by innovations which reduced the proportion of arable land kept in fallow each year; or the area of land under cultivation might be increased by drainage of marshland, enclosure of heath, or reclamation from the sea, but the general problem was permanent and insoluble. If growth occurred it must at some point increase the pressure on the land since the land was the source of all food and the great bulk of the raw materials of industry. If either poorer land was taken into cultivation or existing land used more intensively, this must tend to involve declining returns both to capital and labor, and eventually growth would grind to a halt or be reversed.

Ricardo made it clear that his gloomy conclusion was due not to institutional shortcomings, the character of economic systems, or the failure of human judgement, but to the operation of the laws of nature. He summarized his analysis in a manner that left no grounds for optimism about the secular trends of real wages or profit levels. His reasoning excluded any possibility of the type of sustained growth that came to be termed an industrial revolution: Whilst the land yields abundantly, wages may temporarily rise, and the producers may consume more than their accustomed proportion; but the stimulus which will thus be given to population, will speedily reduce the laborers to their usual consumption. But when poor lands are taken into cultivation, or when more capital and labor are expended on the old land, with a less return of produce, the effect must be permanent. A greater proportion of that part of the produce which remains to be divided, after paying rent, between the owners of stock and the laborers will be apportioned to the latter. Each man may, and probably will, have a less absolute quantity; but as more laborers are employed in proportion to the whole produce retained by the farmer, the value of a greater proportion of the whole produce will be absorbed by wages, and consequently the value of a smaller proportion will be devoted to profits. This will necessarily be rendered permanent by the laws of nature, which have limited the productive powers of the land.

To someone sitting in a congregation today the sentence in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, may occasion mild surprise. It is seldom a grave concern in societies that have been transformed in the wake of the industrial revolution, but would have had pressing and immediate relevance from time to time for congregations in Tudor times. Poverty and the difficulty of securing an adequate supply of basic food were ever-present features of organic economies.

Adam Smith had previously expressed it bluntly: Every species of animals naturally multiplies in proportion to their means of subsistence, and no species can ever multiply beyond it. But in civilized society it is only among the inferior ranks of people that the scantiness of subsistence can set limits to the further multiplication of the human species; and it can do so in no other way than by destroying a great part of the children which their fruitful marriages produce.

In times of prosperity the population would rise quickly, outpacing production. Living standards would therefore fall and, as the bulk of the population became poorer, mortality would rise, eventually to the point where it matched the level of fertility. The population would therefore cease growing and the laboring poor would hover on the verge of destitution.

What was distinctive about the system when compared with other marriage systems was that decisions to marry were strongly affected by economic circumstances. This in turn was the result of the convention that on marriage a couple should create a new household. Instead of joining an existing household, a couple on marriage was expected to establish a new one. This involved accumulating the resources necessary to acquire and equip a household. For many couples it was necessary to save from income over a period of time to make the marriage possible. If incomes were depressed or irregular it took longer to do so than in more prosperous times. As a result the average age of marriage might rise or fall in sympathy. In western Europe societies, moreover, a significant fraction of each rising generation never married, and this proportion was also influenced by economic circumstances. In other societies the timing of marriage was governed by the prevailing conventional norms that meant that the vast majority of women married young.

It was frequently the case that celibacy was almost unknown and the average age of marriage for women was far lower than in western Europe, often close to the attainment of sexual maturity. The fact that in western Europe between a tenth and a fifth of each generation never married, combined with a relatively late average age at marriage for women, implied that fertility levels were normally lower than in other societies. This generalization is too sweeping. Fertility levels were influenced by many factors other than age at marriage and celibacy levels. Relatively modest levels of general fertility sometimes prevailed through the effect of social and personal conventions and practices very different from the west European system. And the west European marriage system itself took varying forms. Nevertheless, Malthus’ recognition that the ‘preventive checks of moral restraint’ implied the possibility of stationing a society at some distance from the Malthusian precipice is relevant to any consideration of the circumstances in which escape from the constraints of an organic economy might occur.

Jevons’ book, The coal question. The first edition was published in 1865. His subject was the ‘Age of Coal’. He remarked: Coal in truth stands not beside, but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material source of the energy of this 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 on the laborious poverty of early times.

He was deeply concerned about the depletion of coal reserves generally and the export of coal in particular: To part in commerce with the surplus yearly interest of the soil may be unquestioned gain; but to disperse so lavishly the cream of our mineral wealth is to be spendthrifts of our capital – to part with that which can never be reproduced.  In short, the export of corn was less hazardous than the export of coal because the former was the product of an energy flow, whereas the latter was an exhaustible stock.

If mechanical energy had continued to be provided almost exclusively by human and animal muscle, the constraints of an organic economy would have continued to limit growth. Because draught animals were the most important single source of mechanical energy in early modern England, increasing use of mechanical energy would only have been possible by devoting a larger and larger acreage to animal fodder.

In the mid-19th century, it was 270 times larger than it had been in the 1560s, and 20 times larger than in 1700.

The annual growth rate for coal production varied between 1.2 and 1.9 per cent per annum throughout the period from the 1560s to 1800, with only limited variation. In the final half-century 1800 to 1850/4, however, the annual rate of growth accelerated markedly to 3 per cent, in part a reflection of the fact that coal was an increasingly important source of mechanical as well as heat energy.

The total rose massively between the mid 16th and mid 19th centuries. In 1560–9 the annual average figure was 65 petajoules, a quantity roughly equivalent to the energy contained in 2.2 million tons of coal. Three centuries later, in 1850–9, energy consumption had risen to 1,833 petajoules, a total more than 28 times as large as the earlier figure. The very large increase in energy consumption that took place was mainly due to the rapid expansion in coal production over the three centuries in question. Coal provided an annual average of 7 petajoules in 1560–9; in 1850–9 the equivalent figure was 1,689 petajoules.

Coal supplied only 11% of total energy consumption in the 1560s, rising to 33% in the 1650s, 61% in the 1750s, and no less than 92% in the 1850s.

Peat represents an accumulation of the product of plant photosynthesis over thousands of years; coal a similar accumulation over millions of years. Sieferle estimated that in the 17th century 0.3–0.5 per cent of the stock then existent in the Netherlands was used annually, suggesting that over the century as a whole approaching half of it was consumed.

The use of peat as an energy source was feasible only where the cost of transport could be kept to a minimum, and this constraint is especially severe in the case of peat because of its greater bulk in relation to its energy potential. Van der Woude et al. made a calculation that brings home forcefully how strong this constraint was in an organic economy: Water transport was essential to the economical digging and transporting of this bulky commodity. Had road transport been used to bring the peat to its urban markets, 110,000 horses would have been required, and to feed these horses 230,000 hectares – one third of the nation’s arable land – would have been withdrawn from the production of crops destined for human consumption.

Coal transport

The great bulk of both coal and grain were consumed at a distance from their points of production and therefore in both cases their cost at the point of consumption included significant transport costs.

A country’s grain crop required millions of acres.  As a result, the transport network needed to take grain to market was dendritic, that is, resembling the structure of a tree. The route from the farm to a neighboring village represented a twig which linked first to a thin branch and then through thicker branches to boughs, before finally reaching the main trunk.

Whereas the coal pitheads were a scattering of points covering only a few acres rather than millions of acres. In contrast the transport network needed to bring coal to the settlement or industrial plant where it was consumed was linear in character. Large volumes moved from the mine head to a limited number of final destinations,

The fact that coal production was punctiform, that coal was bulky and heavy, and that its transport to market was often linear rather than dendritic in character, created a powerful incentive to invest in transport improvements. In particular, it transformed the economics of canal construction. A large proportion of canal construction was explicitly undertaken to reduce the cost of coal in centers that promised to become large-scale consumers if the price could be lowered.

Canals passing through predominantly rural areas brought many benefits to farms close to the canal route by reducing the cost of lime, marl, coal, and other bulky or heavy materials, but they seldom proved profitable investments if largely dependent on rural custom, since traffic volumes were modest compared to canals linking coalfields to industrial and commercial centers.

Ironically, although the nature of coal production and its rapidly increasing scale encouraged major improvements in transport facilities, until the early decades of the 19th century the transport improvements were all made subject to the limitations inherent in organic economies. The mechanical energy source used in moving raw materials and finished goods by road and canal remained animal muscle, and therefore the scope for increasing the scale, speed, and reliability of transport facilities remained limited. It was only with the construction of a national railway system in the middle decades of the 19th century, using coal rather than muscle as its source of mechanical energy, that transport could achieve advances to parallel those already long achieved in the branches of industry in which cheap and abundant heat energy was the key to rapid expansion.

In organic economies it was always the case that the size of the urban sector was strongly influenced by the productivity of agriculture. City dwellers needed food and drink no less than those living in the countryside and since they produced little food themselves, they depended upon the existence of a rural surplus. If, for example, the agricultural sector produced 25% more food than would cover the needs of the rural population, the food needs of an urban population that constituted a fifth of the total population could be satisfied. Agricultural productivity set limits to the urban growth that could take place, but agricultural productivity was itself strongly influenced by urban demand. In the absence of a substantial urban sector, in rural areas there was little incentive to produce an output greater than that needed to meet local needs. In other words, agricultural productivity and urban growth might be characterized by either negative or positive feedback. If the urban sector was trivially small and stagnant there would be minimal incentive for increased agricultural output since any surplus over local rural needs would be unable to find a market. If, however, the urban sector was significant and growing it created an incentive to increase agricultural output, thus ensuring that demand and supply remained in balance as urban growth progressed. Positive feedback between urban growth and improved agricultural productivity was always possible in organic economies. If it occurred, however, although the level of urbanization might increase for a time, matched by an increasing rural surplus, the positive feedback could not continue indefinitely, because of the implications of the fixed supply of land which the classical economists described so effectively.

The size of London’s population meant that the area needed to satisfy its food requirements was large even in 1600. Gras estimated London’s annual consumption of grain as 0.5 million quarters (4 million bushels) at the beginning of the 17th century when the population of the city was about 200,000. This suggests that each Londoner was consuming 20 bushels annually on average.  Chartres considered that food and drink, bread and beer, contributed roughly equally to the total of grain consumed. The gross yield per acre of a combination of grains at the time is not known with any certainty. I assume a figure of 12 bushels per acre for a mixture of wheat and barley, the two main food and drink cereals. When calculating the acreage of arable land needed to supply the food and drink needs of the population, however, the gross yields are misleading. Account must be taken of two factors that reduce it considerably. Net yield may be taken as 9 bushels after allowing for the reservation of 3 bushels as seed for the next harvest. Furthermore, about 30% of the arable acreage was fallowed each year. This means that the quantity of grain available for consumption from each arable acre should be taken as only 6.3 bushels (9 × 0.7 = 6.3).15

To provide 20 bushels for each Londoner therefore meant securing the grain output from about 3.2 acres of arable land, implying that London’s ‘footprint’ in meeting the grain needs of its 200,000 inhabitants in 1600 extended to 640,000 acres, or 1,000 square miles. On the same assumptions in 1800 with a population of 960,000 London’s grain ‘footprint’ would have covered 3,100,000 acres or 4,800 square miles; and the national urban requirement in 1800, when the national urban population total was 2,380,000, would have been 11,900 square miles, an impressively large total, given that the total arable acreage in England and Wales is estimated to have been 11.5 million acres, or 18,000 square miles. Moreover, the urban ‘footprint’ resulting from the urban demand for food is considerably understated by this calculation since meeting the urban demand for meat, cheese, butter, fruit, and vegetables would have enlarged its size substantially; and providing fodder to feed the horses used to transport rural produce to the towns would have extended the ‘footprint’ still further.

It seems plain that if the circumstances of urban food provision, determined by cereal yields per acre, which prevailed throughout Europe in, say, 1500 had continued to hold good thereafter, urban growth in England would have come to a halt well short of the level it had actually reached in 1800. What, then, had changed?  A remarkable advance in net agricultural output per acre. For example, gross grain yields roughly doubled between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 19th, rising from 12 to 24 bushels per acre. Allowing again 3 bushels for seed, the net yield was 21 bushels at the end of the period. The proportion of arable land that was fallowed each year had declined substantially to c. 16 per cent. As a result, the net output secured from an acre of arable land used for grain production rose to 17.6 bushels per acre (21 × 0.84 = 17.6) from 6.3 bushels two centuries earlier. London’s claim on arable land in 1800, therefore, may be taken as 1,100,000 acres, or 1,700 square miles compared with a figure of 4,800 square miles if the yield per acre and fallowing percentage had remained at their levels two centuries earlier. The comparable figure for the English towns as a whole is 2,700,000 acres, or 4,200 square miles compared with 11,900 square miles if yields had not changed. In 1800 the national urban population total in towns with 5,000 or more inhabitants had risen 7-fold from 1600 but an area only two-and-a-half times as large as in 1600 could supply their grain requirements.

The area of land involved in meeting urban grain and fuel needs rose in round numbers from 2,000 square miles in 1600 to 4,500 square miles in 1800, a rise of 125 per cent during a period when the urban population rose from 335,000 to 2,380,000, or by more than 600 per cent.

In organic economies it was normal for 70–80% of the workforce to be employed on the land, reflecting the fact that labor productivity in agriculture was low.

Ten peasants might produce enough food for their own families and perhaps two or three other families who were then able to engage in textile manufacture, handicrafts, building, retailing, transport, etc., but the surplus in question was limited and might prove fragile in hard times.

Equally, the absence of a large urban demand for food meant that there was little incentive for a peasant farmer to increase his output since there was no guarantee that it would find a market.

It has been estimated that to meet its firewood requirements, ‘A town of 10,000 inhabitants would need to witness the annual arrival of between 10,000 and 16,000 horse-drawn carts’ carrying the firewood in question.

There were almost 110,000 shoemakers in England in 1831. They were the largest occupation in the retail trade and handicraft category in the 1831 census. One man in thirty of all male workers in England at that date was a shoemaker. In the tertiary sector clerical work was largely sedentary, and in most other tertiary sectors the level of energy expended was modest by the standards of agricultural work. Given the scale of occupational change between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries, an unchanging average level of calorie intake would imply an improvement in the average nutritional level. It also suggests that a fall in the level of calorie intake did not necessarily mean worsening nutrition.

An autumn peak in marriages was characteristic of a farming year predominantly concerned with the harvesting of corn. In pastoral parishes the peak was in the late spring or early summer. In both farming types, the peak of marriages followed the season of the year in which the demand for labor had been at its height. In arable areas this occurred when the grain had been harvested, in pastoral areas when lambing and calving had taken place.

It was increasingly the case that market-orientated farming was determining land use rather than a ‘peasant’ focus on local self-sufficiency.

This change may well have been greatly expedited by the very large acreage that passed from royal to private hands following the dissolution of the monasteries. Clay suggested that: ‘If estates granted away to courtiers and royal servants in the mid-16th century are also included, perhaps 25 per cent of the land of England had passed from royal into private hands by 1642. He considered that royal estates had been poorly managed.

The demographic characteristics of a society may have an important bearing on its prevailing standard of living and economic growth prospects. This was an issue explored by Hajnal in his remarkable essay on marriage in western and Eastern Europe, published in 1965. He was intent on exploring the nature and significance of the west European marriage system.

The differences between the two marriage systems are striking. They are especially pronounced in the case of women. In the western pattern, approaching half of the women in the age group 25–29 are unmarried, and this remains true of roughly a sixth of women even in the 45–49 age group. In eastern Europe in both these age groups the proportion of women who had never married was negligible. Hajnal provided evidence that what was true of eastern Europe was true of almost all societies elsewhere in the world for which he had reliable data. The difference in proportions ever married in the two systems clearly implies wide differences in the average age at first marriage.

The mean age at first marriage for women was 19.7 years in Serbia. In the west European marriage system the average female age at first marriage, though it varied considerably, was 3-8 years later in life.

Even though exponential growth was physically impossible in organic economies, the prevailing standard of living was not foredoomed to be depressed close to bare subsistence for the mass of the population in societies in which the west European marriage system had become established. In drawing attention to this fact, exemplified in the economic history of countries in north-west Europe, Hajnal emphasized that he was essentially re-expressing views which Malthus had propounded as a mature thinker.

If the prevailing fertility level is somewhat lower, because marriage takes place later in life and a proportion of each generation remains single, and if marriage decisions are influenced by prevailing economic conditions – in short, if fertility as well as mortality is sensitive to the level and trend of living standards – a different outcome is readily possible.

Given the nature of organic economies, the potential disadvantages of a society in which fertility is high and invariant are clear. The poor will indeed always be with you. But this is only a limiting possibility. There were many circumstances that might cause fertility to fall well short of the highest level attainable. Clearly this will be true where, as in the west European marriage system, there is a high average age at marriage for women and conventions that lead to a proportion of each rising generation of women never marrying.

What is remarkable about the populations of pre-industrial western Europe is that they not only evolved a set of social rules, which effectively linked their rate of family formation with changes in their environment, but also managed to secure such low fertility that they achieved both a demographically efficient replacement of their population, and an age-structure which was economically more advantageous than the age-structures generally to be found among non-industrial societies today.

At one extreme there were societies in which every woman was married at or close to the age of arriving at sexual maturity unless she was seriously handicapped physically or mentally. The timing of marriage for women was determined by physiological change. At the other extreme in the west European marriage system, economic circumstances played a major role in influencing the timing and frequency of marriage. The social convention that brought this about lay in the expectation that on marriage the newly married couple would set up a new household rather than joining an existing household as was the norm in many other organic societies. This created an economic hurdle to be surmounted before a marriage could take place.

Rather than the timing of marriage being governed by reaching or approaching sexual maturity, it was strongly influenced by the time spent by the couple in securing an adequate sum in advance of marriage to enable them to create a new household. This meant that the average age at marriage for women was characteristically in the mid-20s rather the mid to late teens. Family sizes were therefore significantly smaller. With a mean birth interval of 30 months, for example, marriage at 25 rather than 18 would reduce completed family size by 2.8 children on average. If the economic barrier to be surmounted was severe, or saving was difficult and parents were unable or unwilling to assist, it also meant that a proportion of both sexes would never marry because they had failed to assemble the wherewithal to do so.

In peasant communities, for example, the ability to marry might depend upon gaining access to a holding. If holdings were not subdivided this would result in an unchanging number of married couples.

When living costs rose because a bad harvest caused grain prices to soar, marriages were delayed. Long-term economic trends that affected living standards might also influence the timing and extent of marriage. Worsening economic circumstances tended to produce a rise in the proportion of men and women remaining single; and those who did marry would do so later in life.

An implication of relatively high mortality is that fertility must also be high if the population is not to decline. This in turn implies that, ceteris paribus, age at marriage will be lower and celibacy less common than in countries where a ‘low-pressure’ rather than a ‘high-pressure’ demographic system exists.

Late marriage and the fact that a significant proportion of women remained single affected the composition of the labor force. In England unmarried women normally entered the labor force.

A single woman is usually regarded as contributing more to national output than a married woman.

To transfer of a load of grain weighing 2,400 pounds by a wagon drawn by four horses 23 miles the horses at almost ten percent of their cargo, 150 pounds of grain, so only 2,250 pounds of grain was delivered.

The heavier and bulkier the product, the more severely the accessible market area was limited.

In the wealth of nations, Adam Smith stressed the significance of transport costs in relation to the size of an accessible market. In an assessment of the importance of good transport facilities, he asserted that: ‘Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expense of carriage, put the remote parts of the country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighborhood of the town. They are upon that account the greatest of all improvements. They encourage the cultivation of the remote, which must always be the most extensive circle of the country.’

In the band closest to the town the land is devoted to market gardening, fruit-growing, and milk production (perishability rather than transport cost determines this usage). The next band illustrates vividly the restrictive nature of high transport cost. It is forest land from which the town meets its fuel needs both for domestic heating and for local industry. Access to timber is also vital for other purposes, notably for the construction industry. Because of its bulk and weight timber has to be grown close to the town. Its price rapidly becomes prohibitive as the length of the journey to market increases.

The outermost circle is devoted to pasture since, for example, beef cattle can provide their own transport by walking to market at a relatively low cost, and sheep’s wool is both light, durable, and of relatively high value per unit weight. In von Thünen’s model the outermost circle is the sixth band. The three bands between the timber and pastoral bands are devoted to cereal growing.

High transport costs operate rather like tariff barriers. Most local industries are, in effect, protected in much the same way that a tariff would provide protection. Competition is restricted, except in regard to products of high value per unit weight. In contrast, if transport costs are low an efficient producer will be able to sell at a profit over a larger area, and the consumer will benefit. Hence Adam Smith’s insistence that transport improvements are ‘the greatest of all improvements’.

A river that passed through a market town gave some farmers a huge advantage.  The strips of land on either side of the river distort the original simple pattern of concentric bands of land use. The bands are extended outwards on either side of the river because close to the river the cost of transporting a crop or other produce to the town might be no higher at, say, three times the distance from the town at which the same cost is incurred if the product is moved over land.

Until the advent of the railway, transport continued to be entirely an ‘organic economy’ activity. In contrast with other major branches of the economy, the energy used in transport was exclusively mechanical energy and until the middle decades of the 19th century this continued to be provided, as in the past, by animal muscle on land and by the wind at sea. Only with the development of an effective method of converting heat energy into mechanical energy did this change.

If production is areal the associated transport system will be dendritic. Much of the agricultural production takes place towards the periphery of the farmland surrounding a town and is therefore transported to the town from the outermost twigs of the system. In order to reach an urban market the grain must journey first along the twigs to reach the small branches and then the larger boughs before reaching a main trunk of the system. Similarly, for urban products to reach rural markets they must journey through the dendritic system in the opposite direction. The volume of traffic along any given stretch of road will be modest except on the roads close to the main market. In organic economies this meant that it was difficult to secure an adequate return on road improvement since the resulting saving in reduced transport cost could seldom justify the initial expenditure.

Greene, writing about horse usage in the United States, notes that the average density of horses in the forty-six largest cities in the country when urban horse usage peaked in 1900 was 426 horses per square mile. She estimates that in Philadelphia, where the density was about 400 per square mile, there were more than 50,000 horses in the city as a whole. The pressure on horse supply had long been apparent at the local level.

For example, it was noticed in the 18th century coal mines at mines some distance from the nearest navigable water. Langton, describing this problem in Lancashire, wrote: ‘At Haydock in 1756, just before the Sankey was opened, coal sales stopped when ploughing began and in 1769, when the canal was presumably the colliery’s main market, sales dipped during haying time as agriculture took its prime claim on the available horses.’  Horses had, of course, long been employed in large numbers in moving coal over short distances. It is said that 20,000 horses were employed in the Newcastle coal trade in 1696.  Musson noted that horses were still widely used as a source of power in the classic period of the industrial revolution: ‘They had long worked drainage pumps and winding whims for mines and were commonly employed to drive grinding wheels in potteries and glassworks (flint-mills), in tanneries (bark-mills), in lime-kilns for grinding chalk and in brickworks for mixing clay (pug-mills); they also came to be used frequently to drive carding, scribbling and spinning machinery in early textile horse-mills.’

 

 

 

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7 Responses to From wood to fossil fueled civilizations — the greatest tragedy mankind will ever know

  1. Nehemiah says:

    1. The different mating systems in Western and Eastern Europe also have genetic and evolutionary (or sociobiological) consequences, which may have contributed to the West spearheading the industrial revolution.

    2. The great tragedy is not the transition from wood to fossil fuels but the transition from fossil fuels back to wood, made vastly worse by our collective refusal to manage the transition as it approaches. We should have started de-urbanizing and decentralizing in the 1970’s, and opted for re-localization over globalization. It is now too late for rational planning at a high level, such as the level of a national government, but some individuals, families, and small social networks still should be able to give themselves a chance to survive the transition. Sadly, many who would like to do this can not, and many who can, will not

    It will also be aggravated by our unbelievable (and entirely avoidable) level of global indebtedness which reduces our flexibility to prepare before the transition or to adapt during it.

    Finally, it will be worse than necessary because the leaders of the Western countries are fixated on fighting “global warming” (let’s not just call it climate change, we all know what change we are talking about) even though (1) warming episodes in the past have always been periods of improved human welfare, while even slight coolings have invariably imposed hardship (2) before the Pleistocene ice age started 2.8 million years ago as we entered a splinter arm of the Milky Way (we still have a million years to go before we enter another clear space between the arms), the normal temperature of earth for tens of millions of years was 8.5C or 15F degrees warmer than today and, far from destroying the planet, life was flourishing, including the primates and (3) after 28 years and vast sums of money on research, it should be clear by now to anyone who takes the time to examine both sides of the scientific debate (which some people have spent more than 20 years telling us does not exist!) that CO2 is not the driver of climate change in the natural world (as opposed to the cyberworld of computer models); instead, climate change is set in motion by extra-terrestrial forcings and amplified by positive terrestrial feedbacks. Contrary to the repeated pronouncements of lay activists, journalists, politicians, and Hollywood celebrities, among climate scientists themselves, even “true believers” like Michael Mann now admit that global warming “paused” almost 20 years ago, contradicting every IPCC model, all of which have routinely ignored extra-terrestrial forcings that explain both the warming of the late 20th century, the recent pause, and the forthcoming cooling which will, within a decade or thereabouts, leave egg on the faces of those who still say it will be barely noticeable because of all the hypothesized CO2 forcing. What many astronomers are now calling the Eddy Minimum will be not just an opportunity for obnoxious deniers like me to gloat, but will be a profound catastrophe for much of the human race, which contracted substantially during each of the last two grand minima, the Dalton and the Maunder. That global energy production will be peaking and then commencing its irreversible decline during a major solar minimum does not merely add to but multiplies the threat to civilization.

    3. But let us also count our blessings. What Hubbert called the most disturbing event in human history (Hubbert’s Pimple, or the biological and cultural explosion resulting from the mass exploitation of fossil fuels) will also leave post-industrial man better off than pre-industrial man once the dust has settled. The huge explosion in discovery and knowledge which could never have reached its current level by painstakingly incremental advances but required the gigantic push of the industrial age which created a vast surplus of resources to enable extensive research and development and discovery will leave us with many lasting benefits. Think of some of the discoveries that will not vanish with the industrial age: the importance of sanitation; germ theory of disease; vaccinations; the importance of mosquito and rodent control; accelerated methods of plant and animal breeding; contraception (NFP can be done without any technology at all, and has been refined to the point that it is as effective as the pill); the scientific method (which will still be useful); accelerated learning techniques–still little used, but available when straitened circumstances require that man-hours devoted to teaching and learning become fewer but more productive); the assembly line; the cotton gin; a more accurate understanding of human nutrition; regional crops have spread around the world, diversifying human diets; major improvements in small scale, labor intensive agriculture; insulation properties and other energy conservation techniques; passive solar; motors –which can run on biofuels and replace muscle power for some purposes; even small scale electrical production may survive for some purposes. Even a relatively simple, intermittent, low efficiency solar PV cell with a very low EROEI, such as 4 or even 3, begins to look good in a world of subsistence horticulturalists with an EROEI of about 2. And this is far from being a complete list. When the smoke clears and the dust settles, future generations will have a chance to be far better off then their pre-industrial ancestors, and the fossil fuel age will have made that possible.

    I only wish I could add the end of slavery to this list, but it still lingers at a low level here and there and will probably make a comeback during the post-industrial age. At least we obtained a constitutional prohibition on slavery (except for convicts) in the US, which hopefully will retard its resurgence here.

    4. Consider the landscape of complexity: as we move from an all-time peak of complexity, we are likely to end up on a much lower peak of complexity, but still the second highest peak in human existence. But to get from this peak to that peak, we have to pass through the valley between them. You might call it the valley of the shadow of death. The next two or three generations will pass through that valley before some part of the world begins to slowly re-ascend the next mountain. The bronze age, the ancient age, the medieval age all ended, in every case traumatically. Now we face the end of the modern age–not with a whimper, but with a bang.

    Alright folks, flame away. I have donned my asbestos suit.

    • energyskeptic says:

      Well, I disagree with you on climate change causes — however, now that fossils are about to decline, greenhouse gases will greatly decline, and though it will wreak havoc with agriculture for hundreds of years, I just can’t see a positive feedback loop that sends us into a greenhouse world and consequent mass extinction. I don’t think we can have solar cells in the future, we won’t have computers and the precision tools to make them, or much of an electricity supply, and certainly not many batteries – at best if they exist, the toys of the 1%. Anyhow, I guess we’ll see soon enough.

    • Sean says:

      Nehemiah…are you suggesting that if our Milky Way galaxy is like a giant whorly flower in shape, we move between the petals rather than stay on one petal. Or are these cooler areas within our petal.? This section of you comment got me a bit confused but overall I like your optimism which unfortunately if it comes to pass will only benefit humanity several hundred years in the future. The destruction of the Library at Alexandria still represses the intelligence of a large group today….this does not bode well for us being able to preserve learning and knowledge forward. This very essay on Wrigley book quotes transformational wisdom from books written generations ago that is all but forgotten to most of us today.

  2. EROEI – Has civilisation dug-up fossil fuels or fossil fuels have dug-up civilisation?

    William Jevons, Adam Smith, Malthus, Marx, Keynes and many others – in economics, and Sadi Carnot, Rudolf Clausius, Albert Eisenstein, M. King Hubbert and many others – in science, were all born after 1712, when Newcommon’s steam engine was already well established as the status-quo powerhouse of the world – never considering the devices are subject to wear and tear, and therefore require energy-intensive repairs in the magnitude that exceeds the energy running them or the useful energy they ever produced.

    There was plenty of coal to always create these machines and running them digging for more coal – a process that was so tightly integrated and weakly audited, nobody knew what coal was going for building and empowering the machines, their industrial base and ecosystem – to that went external to the process.

    That has shaped our theory of economics since, and made it ignoring, all along, wear and tear that leads any energy-producing device – Civilisation being a one – to its destruction, unless massive energies are put into its maintenance and continuous revival.

    This far, and as our civilisation has grown vastly, repairs became no less energy-intensive than the energy expended earlier constructing any of those devices anew.

    Continuing into that direction pursuing ‘wealth’, unwilling to recognise the finite value in fossil fuels, the systems that run world economies, since the steam engine to date, have unconsciously overlooked any deep observations into the matter, but kept extracting more and more fossil fuels reserves – being the only source of real value across all the rest of the parasitic economy.

    Correlating recently the energy expended in humans-run processes to the useful energy ever produced by those processes, a new-generation economics are expected to emerge, from now on, as humanity departs from past abundant fossil fuels age into the unknown.

    https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/2371/3107/files/Heat_Engine_Layout_High_25042018-Final-1-small_1024x1024.jpg?v=1524652923

    If Hubbert has lived the Internet age, it is likely he would have put his peak oil curve going, on the right side, backward, driven by Entropy internal to matter, deep into the heart of the base of the curve, eating all active embodied energies that have been earlier stored in structures, human bodies, and technology during the golden age of fossil fuels (see airplanes, ships, cars, weaponry, trains junkyards, ruined cities in the Middle East, ailing infrastructure worldwide, etc).
    https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/2371/3107/files/Neo-Hubbert-Curve_1024x1024.png?v=1524636322

  3. Dave says:

    Excellent explanation of the limits to civilization caused by energy availability. The customs of marriage and the structure of society were also clearly controlled by energy.

  4. Joe Clarkson says:

    Great post. It induced me to get one of Wrigley’s earlier books. Thanks.

  5. Nehemiah says:

    energyskeptic writes: Well, I disagree with you on climate change causes

    Disagreement can make for enlightening conversation. I appreciate your analytical and quantitative approach to energy questions. I notice also that you have a very strong conviction regarding the CO2 theory of climate change, as do I in the opposite direction. Now, I can easily list you all my criticisms of CO2 theory, but you can find these objections already on the internet from various sources. What I would like to understand are your reasons for rejecting Svensmark’s galactic cosmic ray (henceforth GCR) theory of climate change. I assume that you, as I, have examined all the proposed explanations for climate change before making up your mind on this question, just as I am sure we both examined the energy question very closely before we developed strong convictions on that matter. I am most interested in hearing your objections to the GCR theories of Henrik Svensmark, Jan Veizer, and Nir Shaviv.

    Also, I will guess that you already know that, during the period in which we have direct measurements of earth’s temperature changes, CO2 changes, and dates of change, that the correlation between temperature change and CO2 change is zero (although I would expect some correlation to show up on a much larger time scale, since the Vostok ice core shows that CO2 changes follow temperature changes with an 800 year lag), while the correlation between temperature change and GCR changes in this same period correlates .90+, explaining 81% of the variance. So why do you think a phenomenon that explains 81% of the variance has less influence on climate change than a phenomenon that explains 0% of the variance during the same period of time? If you have thought this through better than I have, please educate me. Maybe I will have to reconsider my conclusions. Most true believers just start screaming “denier!” about now, but you seem to be more rational than that.

    Now, about solar cells, you might be right. My view is that we already had lower quality solar cells in the 1970’s, before the computer revolution, so maybe a less efficient version of technology will survive in limited applications in an energy poor future. My thinking is that any technology that has an eroei higher than human and animal muscle power has a chance to continue in use in the future if it can function independently of vanishing fossil fuels and uranium. Even intermittent electricity is better than no electricity at all. If you don’t believe me, try doing the laundry on a washboard. Of course, it is virtually unimaginable that it can sustain an electrical grid. I think it is a question of when, not if, the grid becomes an extinct technology, except that microgrids might survive in a few locations, such as around Niagara Falls, which might become manufacturing centers in an otherwise energy poor future. I think generators running on biofuels will provide at least intermittent electricity to many rural homesteads. It uses some cropland, but so do horses and woodlots. A farm horse’s feed needs consumed enough cropland to feed five men in the pre-machinery era.

    Sean asks: are you suggesting that if our Milky Way galaxy is like a giant whorly flower in shape, we move between the petals rather than stay on one petal[?]

    Yes, I don’t think every star orbits the center of the galaxy at the same speed, and, even if they did, stars farther away will take longer to complete their orbits than stars closer in (obviously). This is not my pet idea, nor a new idea (remember Carl Sagan?) nor is it even controversial within mainstream astronomy so far as I can tell. It has long been noted that “ice house” periods appear to occur at regular intervals as the sun makes its way around the galaxy, and now Svensmark’s GCR theory explains why; and, conveniently, GCR theory also explains much shorter and less extreme climate changes such as one can notice during the course of single lifetime. Thus, it fits the criterion of Ockham’s razor–the simplest explanation is the best, or don’t invent multiple explanations for different phenomena when a single explanation will suffice for both or all, much as Newton’s laws of motion explained both the motions of the heavenly bodies and of objects that move here on earth, whereas previous thinkers had tried to invent different explanations for each.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nir_Shaviv

    Nir Joseph Shaviv (Hebrew: ניר יוסף שביב‎, born July 6, 1972) is an Israeli‐American physics professor, carrying out research in the fields of astrophysics and climate science. He is a professor at the Racah Institute of Physics of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,[1] of which he is now its chairman.

    He is best known for his solar and cosmic-ray hypothesis of climate change. In 2002, Shaviv hypothesised that passages through the Milky Way’s spiral arms appear to have been the cause behind the major ice-ages over the past billion years. In his later work, co-authored by Jan Veizer, a low upper limit was placed on the climatic effect of CO2.[2]

    Nir Shaviv commented on sciencebits.com/iceages:

    Spiral arms are not material arms. Namely, nothing moves at the speed of the arms. Instead, they are a pattern which propagates at another speed.

    A traffic jam is a good example. Suppose you have a slow moving truck. It will cause a traffic jam which propagates at the speed of the truck. The cars composing the traffic jam will all the time be time different. If you look at a particular car, it will approach the moving traffic jam at some speed, then, in the jam it will slow down, pass through it, and then accelerate back.

    Stars rotating around the milky way do exactly the same. They rotate at some rotational velocity (which depends on the galactic radius). As they approach the spiral arms, they slow down and cause a “stellar traffic jam”. They then pass through it, and accelerate on the other side. I hope it clarifies the point.

    http://www.phys.huji.ac.il/~shaviv/Ice-ages/newscientist.html

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3jXCo3BVuA

    https://www.amazon.com/Chilling-Stars-Cosmic-Climate-Change/dp/1840468661

    Because the sun’s magnetic field which shields us from GCR’s (more so than earth’s field, which is also weakening in a manner similar to AD 1300, the onset of the “Little Ice Age” period) is currently weakening in time with a 200 year solar cycle as we enter the Eddy Minimum, the next few decades should be especially difficult. Valentina Zharkova’s model, which forecasts past solar behavior with 97% accuracy, forecasts the Eddy Minimum to be intermediate between the Dalton (world population contracted about 10%) and the Maunder (population contracted about 25%), although some astronomers would not be surprised to see it become as severe as the Maunder. During the Eddy Minimum, we will likely see peak liquid fuels, peak uranium, peak coal, and peak natural gas.

    We are already at peak global debt, which could paralyze the global economy all by itself.

    Meanwhile, innovation adjusted for population size peaked decades ago and continues to decline (as measured by patent applications) and scientific journals in circulation peaked in the 1960’s, while the number of scientists it takes to execute an average scientific study is steadily rising, so we would be increasingly unlikely to innovate our way out of this dilemma even if we could. Rising levels of fuel for plants in the atmosphere (CO2) is one of the few bright spots, which we will unfortunately lose with the cessation of fossil fuel consumption.

    Remember, life on earth spent tens of millions of years prior to 2,800,000 years ago adapting genetically to a mean global temperature about 8.5C or 15F degrees warmer than today, when everyone of any influence is screaming about global warming, and, historically, even slight declines in mean global temps from today’s levels have been catastrophic for human welfare, as historians have documented.

    AGW believers have designed computer models that forecast that weather events become more extreme as temperatures rise and, presumably, less extreme as temperatures fall, yet geologists (and, for more recent periods, historians was well) looking at real data from the physical world have long insisted that weather events become more extreme as climate cools and less extreme as climate warms (which mainstream meteorology explains as resulting from widening or narrowing temperature differentials between the tropics and the extra-tropical regions, since most of the cooling happens outside the tropics, widening the temperature difference which affects pressure differences which affects wind speeds, and wind is a key driver of weather changes). This is basically a debate between people who have more faith in computer models than in physical data and people who have more faith in physical data than in computer models. I’m a data man myself. When the models don’t match the data, I assume the models are wrong and the data are right. Silly me.

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