Book review of Wrigley’s “Energy and the English Industrial revolution”

Preface. I’ve made a strong case in my book “When trucks stop running” and this energyskeptic website that we will eventually return to wood and a 14th century lifestyle after fossil fuels are depleted.

So if you’re curious about what that lifestyle will be like, and how coal changed everything, this is the book for you.

One point stressed several times is that in all organic economies a steady state exists.  Or as economists put it, that there were just three “components essential in all material production; capital, labor, and land. The first two could be expanded as necessary to match increased demand, but the third could not, and rising pressure on this inflexible resource arrested growth and depressed the return to capital and the reward of labor.”

Then along came coal (and today oil and natural gas), which for a few centuries removed land as a limiting factor (though we’re awfully close the Malthusian limits as well, population is growing, cropland is shrinking as development builds over the best farm land near cities, which exist where they do because that was good crop land).

In today’s world, energy set the limits to growth, but in the future land once again will.  So will the quality of roads, how many forests exist whose wood can be gotten to towns and cities, and so on.  So if you’re in a transition town group or in other ways trying to make the future better, perhaps this book will give you some ideas.

If this world is too painful to contemplate, read some books about the Amish, which would be an ideal society for me minus the religious side of it.

Alice Friedemann  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


A. Wrigley. 2010. Energy and the English Industrial revolution. Cambridge University Press.

Wood uses: brewing, lime burning, salt production, dye industries, brick and tile making, glassmaking, alum boiling, sugar and soap production, smithying, and a wide range of metal processing trades.

Glass manufacture, brickmaking, beer brewing, textile dyeing, metal smelting and working, lime burning, brewing, brickmaking, sugar refining, bleaching and dyeing, and the production of salt.

All industrial production depended upon vegetable or animal raw materials. This is self-evidently true of industries such as woollen textile production or shoemaking but is also true of iron smelting or pottery manufacture, although their raw materials were mineral, since production was only possible by making use of a source of heat and this came from burning wood or charcoal.

Thus the production horizon for all organic economies was set by the annual cycle of plant growth.

The total quantity of energy arriving each year on the surface of the earth from the sun is enormous, far exceeding the amount of energy expended each year across the world today, but in organic economies human access to this superabundant flow of energy was principally through plant photosynthesis.

Plant growth was the sole source of sustenance for both people and animals, whether herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores. Plant photosynthesis is the food base of all living organisms. This is as true of a pride of lions as of a herd of antelopes. Photosynthesis, however, is an inefficient process. Estimates of its efficiency in converting the incoming stream of energy from the sun normally lie only in the range between 0.1 and 0.4 per cent of the energy arriving on a given surface. Moreover, insufficient or excessive rainfall and very high or low temperature may prohibit or greatly limit plant growth over large areas.

The truism concerning the fixed supply of land may obscure the underlying point which makes it so telling. The key variable, which translates the observation about the land constraint into an immediate reality, is the process of photosynthesis in plants. This was the bottleneck through which men and women, in common with all other animate creatures, gained access to the energy without which life is impossible. Every living thing is constantly expending energy in order simply to remain alive. This is as true of mankind as of any other animal species. Additional energy was needed if a man or woman was to make an active contribution to production. To be economically active in the past, whether in wielding an axe, thrusting a shuttle, or pushing a wheelbarrow, required additional energy inputs over and above what was needed simply to sustain life. The useful energy secured might be in the form of food for the individual or fodder for draught animals, or it might consist of the production of a wide range of organic raw materials needed for manufacture, but in every case the basic problem was the same. A fixed supply of land meant an upper limit to the quantity of energy which could be tapped as long as the dominant means of securing it was from the conversion, by plant photosynthesis, of a tiny fraction of the flood of energy reaching the earth in the form of sunlight.

Unless this restriction could be overcome, no exercise of ingenuity could do more than alleviate the problem; a solution was out of reach. The problem was finally overcome by breaking free from dependence upon photosynthesis, or more accurately by finding a way of gaining access to the photosynthesis of past geological ages. 

Better transportation enabled larger and larger tracts of the country to enjoy the benefits afforded by access to cheap and abundant energy derived from burning coal. Each reduction in the cost of transporting coal from the pithead to a distant center widened the range of activities which were no longer constrained by the energy limitations of organic economies. When coal could be substituted for other energy sources, expansion could occur without simultaneously creating a matching rise in the pressure on the land. Access to the store of the products of past photosynthesis could relieve pressure on the current supply.

Shoemakers, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, brewers, framework knitters, printers, and basket makers were all dependent on animal or vegetable raw materials. The great bulk of this demand was met from plants grown on English soil, or from animals fed by those plants.

In an organic economy plant photosynthesis was by far the most important source of energy, both mechanical and thermal. Wind and water power added little to what was secured via photosynthesis.9

The writings of the classical economists provide an illuminating, in many respects a definitive, account of the reasons why it had seemed impossible to secure prolonged expansion of production at a rate which would allow the living standards of the mass of the population to rise progressively. There were, they argued, three factors involved in all material production: labor, capital, and land. The supply of the first two could, in favorable circumstances, expand as required. The supply of the third was fixed. This created a tension which must grow steadily greater in any period of expansion. More people meant more mouths to feed. An expansion in woolen textile production meant raising more sheep and therefore devoting more land to sheep pasture. A rise in iron output involved cutting down more wood to feed the furnaces and implied an increase in the area to be committed to forest. Each type of production was in competition with every other for access to the products of the land. Such pressures in turn must mean either taking land of inferior fertility into agricultural use, or working existing farmland more intensively, or, more probably, both simultaneously. The result must be a tendency for the return to both labor and capital to fall. Growth must slow and eventually come to a halt. Improvements in production techniques and institutional change might for a time offset the problems springing from the fixed supply of land. This might delay but could not indefinitely postpone the inevitable. In short, the very fact of growth, because of the nature of material production in an organic economy, must ensure that growth would grind to a halt. And this impasse was reached not because of human deficiencies, or of failure in political, social, or economic structures but for an ineluctable physical reason, the fixed supply of land.

If the wages of the bulk of the population must in the long run necessarily drift towards a conventional minimum, comforts and luxuries will be limited and hence the inducement to invest in their production will be slight. Such demand as there might be for any but the most basic of commodities will come from a tiny minority of the privileged and wealthy and will be met from the workshops of small groups of specialist craftsmen. In the absence of large-scale demand for standard industrial products there will be no large-scale production and therefore little incentive to introduce or invest in new techniques of production.

The great bulk of the labor force will be employed on the land and many of the rest in producing simple textiles and in basic construction.

Mechanical power was principally provided by human and animal muscle. Thermal energy came from burning wood or charcoal. The mechanical energy derived from muscle power was only a limited fraction of the calories consumed in food and fodder because men and women in common with all warm-blooded creatures must devote a large part of their food intake to basic body maintenance. For example, about 1,500 kilocalories are needed daily to keep a man alive even if no work is performed. Thus if the daily food intake is 2,500 kilocalories only 40 per cent of the energy consumed is available for productive work. It follows that the amount of useful work that each man could perform might vary substantially according to the prevailing levels of food intake per head. With a daily intake of 3,500 kilocalories a man could undertake double the amount of physical effort which he could perform if his intake was 2,500 (3,500 – 1,500 = 2,000: 2,500 – 1,500 = 1,000). The same basic point applies to draught animals just as to man. Ill-fed animals will use a high proportion of their food intake to stay alive, leaving only a small proportion of their energy intake to drag a plough or pull a cart.

A horse can carry out about six times as much work as a man and where horses or oxen were abundant the quantity of useful work which each man performed was in effect greatly magnified.  

Maize was cultivated in Mexico 75 years ago both by hand and oxen. Without the assistance of oxen 1,140 man hours were needed to till and cultivate a hectare of maize. Where oxen were used the number of man hours involved fell to 380, though in addition 200 hours of work by oxen was needed. Assigning large areas of land for animal pasture meant reducing the area which could be used for growing human food and therefore limited the size of the human population which could be supported, but, on the other hand, it could raise output per head in agriculture substantially by increasing the quantity of useful work which each man could perform.

Animal muscle power also normally provided the bulk of the energy needed in land transport,

Heat energy, like muscle energy, depended on plant photosynthesis. Burning wood provided the great bulk of the heat energy consumed. Many industrial processes required large quantities of heat energy. Glass manufacture, brickmaking, beer brewing, textile dyeing, metal smelting and working, lime burning, and many similar processes required much heat energy. Wood was the dominant, indeed in most organic economies virtually the sole source of heat energy. But on a sustained-yield basis an acre of woodland could normally produce only 1–2 tons of dry wood per annum. Two tons of dry wood yields the same amount of heat as one ton of coal. To produce a ton of bar iron in 17th-century England involved consuming about 30 tons of dry wood. If half the land surface of Britain had been covered with woodland, it would only have sufficed to produce perhaps 1¼ million tons of bar iron on a sustained-yield basis. Simple arithmetic, therefore, makes it clear that it was physically impossible to produce iron and steel on the scale needed to create a modern railway system, or to construct large fleets of steel ships, or to enable each family to have a car, if the heat energy needed to smelt and process the iron and steel came from wood and charcoal.

Because it was necessary to devote the bulk of the land surface to the production of so many other commodities, the effective ceiling on production was far lower than the notional figure of 1¼ million tons of bar iron just quoted.

In 2008 China produced 500 million tons of steel in her drive to transform her productive potential. No organic economy could have produced even a tiny fraction of this total.

Where demographic conditions push real incomes close to the subsistence minimum the bulk of demand will be for the four necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel (it is convenient to express the situation in terms appropriate to market economies, but the effect is the same in economies where market exchange is limited; poor peasants, buying little for cash and selling only a fraction of what they produce, labor primarily to provide for basic wants). Lack of demand for comforts and luxuries will restrict the opportunity for the development of a wider range of secondary industries (manufactures) and discourage innovation and technological change.

A necessary condition for the escape from the constraints of an organic economy was success in gaining access to an energy source which was not subject to the limitations of the annual cycle of insolation and the nature of plant photosynthesis.

If societies thought and acted in terms of millennia rather than decades the limitations of coal as an energy source (and still more of oil and gas) would be evident, but in the short run coal offers a means of escape from the constraints of organic economies which photosynthesis does not.

Organic economies were essentially fungible in nature. A field may be tilled to grow wheat in a given year but the taking of the crop does not prevent the field being available to grow barley in the following year.

The nature of the land as a fungible guaranteed that a roughly similar level of production could be maintained year after year. It was in this respect a stable world. The potential for securing energy for human use was limited but could be maintained indefinitely.

A ton of coal, like a slice if cake, once consumed, cannot be consumed again. Fossil fuel deposits constitute a very large cake but if they remain the principal source of energy they will be exhausted in decades or at most centuries rather than millennia.

While the output of all cereal crops rose markedly between late medieval times and the early 19th century, oats outstripped other grains both in the percentage rise in total production and in the percentage rise in output per acre. The dominant use of oats was to feed horses. The energy output of a horse well supplied with oats was substantially greater than that of a largely grass fed animal. This was helpful not only in a farm context but also in the economy generally. There was a massive rise in the scale of road transport in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, facilitated by the rapid increase in the mileage of turnpike roads, and therefore a parallel rise in the need to employ more horses. Ville has reported estimates, for example, showing that over the period 1681–1840 the annual rate of growth of goods traffic by road between London and the provinces was in excess of 1%, which would imply a roughly 6-fold cumulative growth over the period. Passenger traffic was rising even more rapidly. Between 1715 and 1840 the rate of growth probably exceeded 2% annually, implying that by the end of the period the traffic was twelve times larger than at the beginning.

In the later 18th century many new canals were built. Canal barges also depended on horses for motive power, thus adding further to the need for a plentiful supply of fodder. The fact that agriculture was able to meet the ‘fuel’ needs of a growing population of horses engaged in transport and industry is testimony to the absence of pressure arising from the need to meet human food requirements in England in the ‘long’ eighteenth century despite the very rapid growth of population in its latter half. England, it should be noted, remained largely self-sufficient in foodstuffs until the early decades of the 19th century, apart from those which could not be grown in a temperate climate.

The population of England increased substantially between 1600 and 1800 which meant, given the absence of any major change in employment in agriculture, that the proportion of the labor force working on the land fell sharply from about 70% to less than 40%. This implies that the proportion of the labor force engaged in secondary and tertiary activities doubled from 30 to over 60% during these two centuries and the absolute number increased far more dramatically since population was rising fast. In 1600 the population was 4.2 million; in 1800 8.7 million. If for simplicity we take the population as doubling and the percentage engaged outside agriculture as doubling also, this implies that the total employment in the secondary and tertiary sectors quadrupled over the period, a change which can fairly be termed sensational.

Without the striking gains in manpower productivity in agriculture which took place in early modern England it is very doubtful whether the industrial revolution would have occurred.

The four largest British industries by value added in 1801 were cotton, wool, building, and leather. Between them they accounted for 68% of the total of value added in British industry as a whole and they were of roughly equal size. The wool and hides which formed the raw material input of two of these four industries were very largely home produced in 1800.

In the mid-16th century, coal, though it already supplied a tenth of English energy consumption, was substantially less important than human and animal muscle power, and firewood was the prime source of heat energy. By 1700 about half of the total energy consumption of England came from coal. At the end of the 18th century the proportion exceeded 75%, and by 1850 was over 90%. Much coal was consumed for domestic purposes. Until the end of the 17th century it is likely that domestic heating and cooking accounted for more than half the total consumption, but by the early 19th century this figure appears to have declined to roughly one third of the total.

In 1700, when the English coal output is estimated at about 2.2 million tons, providing the same heat energy from wood on a sustained-yield basis would have required devoting 2 or 3 million acres to woodland. This assumption may well underestimate the area required but is unlikely to overestimate it. By 1800, 11 million acres of woodland would have been needed. This would have meant devoting more than a third of the surface area of the country to provide the quantity of energy in question.

The small Danish town of Odense, which had about 5,000 inhabitants in the later 18th century, received roughly 15,000 cartloads of firewood and 12,000 cartloads of peat each year to cover its domestic heating and industrial needs. A city a hundred times larger, like London towards the end of the 17th century, had lesser requirements due to a warmer climate, but even so would have needed  perhaps two million cartloads of firewood each year to cover heating needs in the absence of coal. This level of consumption is roughly equivalent to 1.5 tons of firewood per head of the population of London. It would have required setting aside a very large acreage to produce the firewood in question (approximately 1,250 square miles), and in addition still more land would have been required to provide fodder for the large number of horses needed to bring the firewood overland, either direct to London or to a suitable shipping point. In contrast, coal made only a minimal claim on land for its production and animal haulage was required only in getting the coal from the pithead to the coal wharf to deliver to the consumer.

By the end of the 17th century the switch to coal was largely complete in brewing, lime burning, salt production, dye industries, brick and tile making, glassmaking, alum boiling, sugar and soap production, smithying, and a wide range of metal processing trades. Summarizing his detailed description of the increasing use of coal in industrial processes, Hatcher wrote, By 1700 coal was the preferred fuel of almost all fuel-consuming industries,

As long as the mechanical energy needed in most industrial processes and many forms of transport was secured from human or animal muscle power, there was a comparatively low ceiling to the level of productivity per head that could be attained. The final step in the process by which the use of fossil fuel broke the bonds of the organic economy was taken with the discovery of ways of using the energy in steam to extend the breakthrough in the availability of heat energy to overcome the mechanical energy bottleneck also.

Switching to coal as an energy source produced two further benefits of great importance. The first relates to investment in transport facilities. The production of coal from a mine occupies very little ground yet can produce as much energy and an entire forest, making it worthwhile to spend a great deal of energy and money on good roads or rails to convey it to the nearest ocean, canal, or lake for delivery.  

In contrast, production of wood happens over huge areas. To produce an equivalent amount of energy from wood a very large acreage of woodland must be felled.  And then there’s not one road as with a coal mine, but hundreds of dendritic paths that eventually become roads near towns and cities.

Pack horses remained in widespread use in early modern England because road surfaces were often unsuitable for wagons. Keeping the roads in good order might involve expense not justified by easier traffic movement because the volume of traffic was too small to result in an adequate return on investment.

The rise in the volume of coal production created an incentive not only to invest in more efficient land transport but also to construct canals. A large proportion of the traffic on most canals consisted of coal. Much of the final cost of coal to the consumer, whether domestic or industrial, represented the cost of moving it from the pithead to the place of consumption. The market for coal expanded rapidly wherever its price fell because of canal construction. In later decades rail construction had a similar effect.

Without benefit of canal or rail transport the price of coal carried overland doubled within ten miles of the pithead, which meant that before canal and railway facilities existed much of the country had no access to coal at an economic price.

The size of accessible coal reserves in early modern England was a function of drainage technology since water accumulated in every mine and became an increasingly severe problem as the depth of working increased. Having reviewed the use of drainage passages where circumstances made it possible to use gravity to evacuate the water, and the use of wind, water, and horse power to combat the problem where pumping was unavoidable, Flinn concluded as follows: Gravity, wind-, water- and horse-power, then, were capable of only a very modest contribution to the drainage of mines. If drainage technology were to stand still at the point reached at the beginning of the 18th century, mining in Britain could scarcely have expanded and must probably have begun to show diminishing returns. At depths of between 90 and 150 feet the influx of water almost invariably created problems insoluble by the technology of the day, so that when seams of lesser depths were exhausted mining must cease. Most British coal-reserves, of course, lay at greater depths.

Coal had been very widely used as a source of heat energy. It overcame the bottleneck in providing heat energy which was inherent in dependence on wood. But without a parallel breakthrough in the provision of mechanical energy to solve the comparable problem associated with dependence on human or animal muscle to supply motive power in industry and transport, energy problems would have continued to frustrate efforts to raise manpower productivity.

By 1870 steam engines consumed an estimated 30% of UK coal production.

Growth led to an increased demand for food and raw materials. Both were obtained principally from the land. At some point in the growth process this must mean taking inferior land into cultivation or using existing land more intensively. The returns to labor and to capital would both decline as a result, and growth would grind to a halt. The two men were in agreement that the last case, when growth had petered out, might be as uninviting as that found in countries in which no improvements had taken place, even though, for an extended period in between, the speed of growth might bring substantial benefit to all members of society. The classical economists proved to be mistaken in their pessimism, if not in their logic. Negative feedback was indeed inescapable in organic economies and many cycles of growth followed by stagnation had occurred in earlier centuries,

The productivity of those employed in agriculture was the most important single determinant of the possibility of growth and change in all organic economies. Where it was low it was unavoidably necessary for the bulk of the population to live and work on the land if there was to be food for all. Where this was the case it was also inevitable that there was little demand for any but the bare necessities other than food – clothing, shelter, and fuel – and therefore little employment in secondary or tertiary activities. Low productivity might arise for many reasons. High population densities might result in fragmentation of holdings, reducing the amount of land available per head to a level well below the optimum. In some, though not all, types of agriculture a shortage of draught animals for whatever reason might produce a similar result. A list of this kind could be much extended. But frequently, where agricultural productivity was low, the problem lay elsewhere, with weakness of demand rather than inability to increase production. In an archetypal peasant society the first concern of each family is to cover its own needs rather than produce a surplus for sale, and this attitude makes excellent sense where the scale of demand outside the peasant sector is slight. A bad harvest focuses attention exclusively on the needs of the family. A good harvest, while relieving anxiety on this score, does not create much opportunity for profitable sale, since others will also enjoy a surplus and the market price will fall to a level which creates little incentive to make efforts to increase productive capacity.

Because virtually all raw material supply was animal or vegetable in character, everything hinged on increasing agricultural output. This was intensely difficult to achieve without incurring the penalty of declining marginal returns to labor and capital, but for a time more extensive and effective division of labor, which was facilitated by rural–urban exchange, could allow the basic problem to be side-stepped. In England the difficulty was further eased and eventually overcome by exploiting inorganic sources of raw materials and energy

Removing English urban totals from those for Europe suggests that in continental Europe as a whole urbanization was almost at a standstill between 1600 and 1800. The 18th century was, if anything, more sluggish than the 17th in this regard.

Between 1600 and 1700 England accounted for 33% of the European urban increase; between 1700 and 1750 57%; and between 1750 and 1800 70%. Over the two centuries taken together the comparable figure is 53%. Given that in 1600 the population of England amounted to only 5.8% of the European total, and in 1800 7.7%, this is extraordinary testimony to the exceptional character of the urban growth taking place in England at the time.

Those who work the land can count on a local demand for food to satisfy local need but any stimulus to produce beyond this level must come from those living elsewhere in towns and cities. Even in largely rural communities there will, of course, always be a proportion of the population who do not produce the food which they eat but if that fraction is modest and unchanging there will be little or no incentive to change current practice. Population growth in the rural counties of England was generally modest. The local demand for food therefore showed little growth. If, however, there is a substantial and steadily growing urban demand for food the situation is different. A rising trend in the volume of demand creates an incentive to invest and improve. It also stimulates specialization. Farmers in areas well suited to beef cattle, for example, may find that it pays them to reduce or abandon cereal culture in favor of cattle rearing, with the reverse taking place where the soils favor cereals. This in turn gives rise to inter-regional exchange of foodstuffs between areas with different agricultural specialisms.

In the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries London grew so markedly that by the end of the period it had become the largest city in Europe. It grew from c.55,000 to c.575,000 between 1520 and 1700. The size and rapid growth of London provided a massive stimulus to the farming sector.

Poor transport facilities reduce the area which can respond to urban food price signals, acting in a fashion similar to the existence of tariff barriers in restricting trade. If transport is slow, uncertain, and expensive the limits to growth will be severe. However, there also exists the possibility that rising urban demand will encourage both rising agricultural productivity and improvement in transport facilities. When any of the three factors change this will encourage sympathetic change in the other two. It is ultimately idle to try to determine primacy among the three since they are so intimately intertwined,

The growth of London not only transformed the market prospects for farmers, because its inhabitants produced little or no food themselves, but disposed of much purchasing power. It also led to a steady increase in the demand for farm produce indirectly. There was a parallel, marked rise in the volume of road transport and therefore in the demand for fodder to ‘fuel’ the rising number of horses needed to pull carts and wagons.16 Urban growth, moreover, implies an increased demand for raw materials no less than for food, and, as Adam Smith noted, almost all the raw materials in question were vegetable or animal in nature, and were therefore produced in the countryside. A steadily rising proportion of the labor force no longer worked on the land. Most of them were engaged in secondary activities. Shoemakers, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, brewers, framework knitters, printers, and basket makers were all dependent on animal or vegetable raw materials. The great bulk of this demand was met from plants grown on English soil, or from animals fed by those plants.

The existence of a large and rising demand for food, fodder, and organic raw materials associated with dynamic urban growth brought major changes in the scale and character of the demand for agricultural products and thereby induced matching changes in their supply. And once in train there was feedback between the two. The expectation that such demand would grow made increased investment in agriculture appear prudent rather than hazardous. As a result the growth of the urban sector was not constrained by increasingly tight supplies of food and industrial raw materials. The ability of the agricultural sector to sustain hectic growth in urban populations and the raw material needs of the wide swathes of industry which still depended on home-produced organic products was an essential factor in facilitating the growth which took place.

Perhaps the most truly remarkable feature of these two centuries was that the number of men working on the land increased only marginally, yet the agricultural workforce continued to meet the food needs of a population which more than doubled. The area under cultivation increased only modestly, which necessarily implies a very marked increase in output per acre, but this is less striking than the fact that labor productivity in agriculture rose in parallel with the demand for food and industrial raw materials occasioned by the population increase. Because of the nature of an organic economy it is normally to be expected that the price paid for securing a large increase in output is an even larger proportional increase in the input of labor for reasons set out so forcefully by the classical economists. That this did not happen in England may be regarded as a necessary condition for the sweeping changes which are conventionally taken to comprise the industrial revolution.

Urban life implies dependence on the market to a degree which may not hold in the countryside. Urban growth connotes a change in occupational structure which is likely to cause average incomes to rise.37 And with experience of and exposure to urban norms forming part of the lives of a rising proportion of those still living in the countryside, it is not surprising that many of the features of the ‘consumer revolution’ should become visible countrywide rather than being found only in towns. Much the same changes occurred in the Netherlands a century earlier. Indirectly, and perhaps somewhat paradoxically, a sustained rise in agricultural productivity lay behind these changes.

When discussing the reasons why a population might never attain the maximum that might in theory be approached, he noted a feature of English agriculture which ensured that population growth would stop well short of this level: ‘With a view to the individual interest, either of a landlord or farmer, no laborer can ever be employed on the soil, who does not produce more than the value of his wages; and if these wages be not on an average sufficient to maintain a wife, and rear two children to the age of marriage, it is evident that both population and produce must come to a stand.’

A doubling in cereal output, for example, such as occurred in England between the late 16th and late 18th centuries, implies a commensurate increase in the volume of the crop to be harvested and transported to barns, and this in turn implies a substantial increase in the labor involved. No doubt there was a substantial increase in the expenditure of muscle energy in English agriculture as a direct result of the rising volume of output. Much of this increase, however, may have been secured from animal rather than human muscles. Bigger, better fed, and more numerous farm horses limited the need for greater human energy inputs.39 Again, one of the reasons for declining labor productivity as population increases in peasant agriculture is the increased subdivision of holdings. In early modern England, however, capitalist farming tended to increase the average size of farm units both by individual purchase and as a by-product of enclosure, and large farms employed fewer men per acre than small farms.

When Arthur Phillip, the first governor of the colony, took the first convict fleet out to Australia, the home government assumed that it would become self-sufficient in food within a couple of years. But it took decades, partly because of unfamiliarity with the new environment, imposing years of learning by trial and error, and also because most of the convicts were from towns and cities with no clue of how to farm.  Above all, it was due to a lack of draught animals, which for the most part died on the long sea voyage, about 6 months   The fact that gangs of convicts were yoked to carts to drag loads of bricks from brick fields to building sites might appear at first glance to reflect a brutal penal regime but in fact merely demonstrated the inescapable reality of an organic economy which lacked draught animals.

In the early years of the colony all its inhabitants, both convicts and their guardians, were at times gravely malnourished. The men were sometimes too weak from hunger to labor in the fields for more than a couple of hours a day.

I haven’t excerpted the myriad ways farms produced more food for growing cities in England or even more importantly oats to feed canal and farm horses, but without this increased production per unit of land the industrial revolution wouldn’t have happened. 

Human energy intake was broadly similar in the two countries, though somewhat lower in Italy than in England. Part of the difference may be related to the higher average temperatures in Italy, which would tend to reduce the calorie intake needed to sustain body temperature. The energy consumed by draught animals was more than twice as great in England as in Italy, probably a reflection of the greater suitability of the English climate and soils for grass growth and hence for pastoral production. Heat energy from the use of firewood was more widely employed in Italy (though accurate estimation is especially difficult for this energy source) but even in the 1560s England was deriving more heat energy per head of population from coal than Italy in the 1860s so that the combined total consumption of heat energy was not greatly different between the two. In neither country was wind or water a major energy source and it is notable that the absolute figures for the two countries are remarkably similar. The table makes it clear that human and animal muscle was the dominant source of mechanical energy in the two countries, and that in both countries firewood supplied most of the heat energy. Yet even in the 1560s coal was beginning to be a significant source of heat energy in England though its contribution was still dwarfed by that of firewood.

Accessible reserves of peat in the Netherlands  played a role similar to coal in England. As a result, the Netherlands in the 17th century was ‘energy-rich’ economy when compared to her neighbors, favoring the growth of energy-intensive industries such as brewing, brickmaking, sugar refining, bleaching and dyeing, and the production of salt.

Coal and wind power were the only two energy sources which increased in absolute terms, as a percentage of total energy consumption, and when expressed per head of population. Coal’s proportionate share in energy consumption rose from 10% to 90% of the total. The increase in wind power reflects the rapid expansion of the merchant fleet, which remained entirely wind-powered until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Coal consumption per head increased by a multiple of about 45 between Tudor (1485-1603) and Victorian (1837-1901) eras, an average annual rate of growth of approximately 1.3% a year, which implies almost a doubling every half-century.

Coal already dominated the energy picture in England as early as the end of the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth century eclipsed all rival sources almost entirely. But this was not true in other European countries until a much later date. Belgium was the first continental country to dig coal on a substantial scale and remained the largest individual continental producer until the 1850s. In 1850–4 the average annual Belgian production was 6.8 million metric tons. In the same period the comparable figures for France and Germany were 5.3 and 6.5 millions respectively. These three countries were the largest continental producers. In the same period the average annual output in England and Wales was 61.4 millions. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the disparity was substantially greater. In the early 1850s the combined output of Belgium, France, and Germany was about 30% of the total for England and Wales. Half a century earlier the comparable figure was probably less than 20%. Expressed per head of population the contrast was even starker. In the 1850s the average output per head in the three continental countries combined was c.0.24 tons: the comparable figure for England and Wales was c.3.41 tons.

As already noted, one way of bringing home the degree to which England had moved away from the constraints associated with organic economies by 1800 is to convert coal production into the equivalent acreage of wood which would have been required to produce the same quantity of energy on a sustained-yield basis.

Using the production totals for England and Wales and the assumption that, on a sustained-yield basis, an acre of woodland can produce wood providing the same heat energy as a ton of coal, the acreages in question in 1750, 1800, and 1850 are 4.3, 11.2, and 48.1 million respectively. As a proportion of the land surface of the country these figures represent 13, 35, and 150% of the total area. Even the first figure of 13% would have represented a significant proportion of the land surface for which there were many other competing uses. The second would have been quite impractical, while the third is self-evidently impossible.

[my note: and would it take four generations for the forests to regrow to be exploited again?]

Before the steam engine arrived coal had shown that it could transform the thermal energy scene but muscle power remained by far the most important source of mechanical energy. Neither water nor wind power was of more than limited significance, except in the case of sailing ships. The steam engine meant that coal could be exploited to supply mechanical energy as readily as heat energy, thus overcoming the last remaining barrier to the application of fossil fuel energy to all the main productive processes.

Consider first inland transport. Most production in organic economies happened across large areas of land in nature. To produce the tens of thousands of bushels of wheat needed to feed a large town involved cultivating thousands of acres of arable land. To secure firewood to meet its needs for domestic heating similarly meant cutting and collecting wood from a very large area. Only when the carts and wagons carrying the wheat or wood neared the town did they become concentrated on a few roads bearing a large traffic. Their early miles on the way to the town were inevitably along roads which carried little traffic.  Since the bulk of the journey was on poor roads, transport costs per ton-mile were high. The continued use of pack horses rather than carts into the 18th century, and even in some areas into the 19th, reflected the existence of many road surfaces so rutted or muddy that wheeled traffic was impractical.

Local traffic was also normally light. A large investment in minor roads, whether in new construction or maintenance, was unlikely to produce savings large enough to repay the outlay. Yet roads which were of poor quality and in poor repair discouraged heavier usage, producing a vicious circle of neglect and little traffic.

Often, in the circumstances prevailing in organic economies, the high cost of transport was instrumental in limiting growth possibilities. It limited severely the possible gains to be achieved by the division of labor, since the size of the accessible market determined how far the division of labor could be carried. However, in relation to transport provision, as in relation to energy provision, the rising scale of coal production brought solutions to problems which had previously proved intractable.

The cost per ton-mile when coal was transported by water was taken to be only 5% of the price of land carriage. Where the potential savings from the transport of other goods very seldom appeared to justify constructing a canal to reduce costs, coal, because of the quantity produced, and because its production was a single mine and its consumption also often a large city or town, digging a canal between two points could be very profitable.

The creation of a railway network carried access to cheap coal a stage further. Advantages which were once confined to coalfield areas and to cities like London which could use coastal shipping to supply their fuel needs were extended to the bulk of the country by the mid-19th century. The canal network took shape only slowly. It took over 50 years to produce a national canal network in the later decades of the 18th century and early in the following century. Most canals were built to meet a local need and even on trunk canals the length of an average haul was only about twenty miles. Yet the cumulative impact of canal construction both in stimulating growth and in changing the location of industrial activity was marked.

Roads in the country were converted to wagon ways by laying down planks to reduce friction and enable a greater load to be transported with a smaller expenditure of energy. The results were striking. One horse on a wagonway could pull as much as two horses and two oxen on an unimproved road. Steps were taken to reduce the gradients on wagonways, which added to the gain from reducing friction. Further gains in productivity came in the course of the 18th century when cast-iron and later wrought-iron rails and flanged wheels were introduced to reduce friction still further. As a result, with the same expenditure of energy, a horse could produce still more ton-miles.

Adam Smith emphasized the importance of water transport in determining the possible scale and nature of economic growth in an organic economy. He stressed the benefit of access to water transport, especially for heavy and bulky goods.  He went on to give details of the number of men and animals, wagons and ships, needed to transport goods between Edinburgh and London by the two means of transport, together with the journey times of each type, and summarized his findings as follows:

200 tons of goods carried by the cheapest land-carriage from London to Edinburgh required the maintenance of 100 men for 3 weeks, and the maintenance of 400 horses and 50 great wagons.  The same quantity carried by ship requires only 6 to 8 men, with little wear and tear on the ship.

Smith then pointed out that if only land carriage were possible between the two cities only goods with a very high value to weight ratio would be exchanged between them, to the detriment of the prosperity of both.

Geological good fortune therefore made it possible for London to replace wood with coal even though the coalfield from which it was mined was almost 300 miles distant.

To satisfy London’s demand, however, implied the creation of a large fleet of vessels to satisfy this demand, which reflected the requirements both of domestic heating and of a range of industrial purposes. On the banks of the Thames, for example, glassworks and breweries were built to take advantage of access to a cheap source of heat. London’s population grew rapidly and its demand for coal grew roughly in parallel. At the beginning of the 17th century the annual import of coal to London was probably in the range 125,000 to 150,000 tons. By the end of the century it was approaching 500,000 tons. Over the same period the population of the capital rose from c.200,000 to c.575,000 people. Consumption per head therefore appears to have risen only very slightly, if at all, during the century. By the end of the 18th century London was importing a total of about 1.2 million tons of coal annually, almost exclusively from the same north-east ports. Since London’s population had risen to 950,000 by 1800, consumption per head had again changed only modestly, increasing by perhaps a quarter during the century. Yet the capital’s growth was so marked that the absolute tonnage of coal imported to London increased roughly 10-fold over the 17th and 18th centuries.

The first turnpike trust was created in 1663, but turnpike construction only increased markedly from early in the 18th century. By 1770 there were 15,000 miles of turn-pike roads and this figure had risen to 22,000 miles in the mid-1830s, managed by more than 1,100 turnpike trusts in England and Wales. Adopting the principle that the user should pay proved a most effective way of securing better road surfaces. The incentive to do so arose as the volume of current and prospective traffic increased. The results reflect the scale of the benefit. Journey times and costs per ton-mile both fell, while traffic volumes increased sharply. The reduction in journey times was dramatic. Between the 1750s and the 1830s journey times between major centers fell by 80%.  The result was a marked contrast in journey times between England and continental Europe. For example, in the 1760s French services travelled between 25 and 35 miles a day, whereas in England it was 50 to 80 miles a day. In both countries services quickened in the following decades but a marked difference in average speed continued.  The movement of goods was revolutionized as much or more than the movement of people by the improvements made to the road system. Much larger wagons could be used on turnpike roads. The biggest and most sophisticated road haulage operations centered on London. It has been estimated that the weekly output of the London road haulage industry rose from 13,000 ton-miles in 1715 to 80,000 in 1765, 275,000 in 1816, and 459,000 in 1840. Transport by canal barge was much cheaper per ton-mile than sending goods by turnpike road but the road might still be preferred for some goods.  For example, for the long-distance transport of cotton goods turnpike roads were often favored because they provided a regular and reliable service and were quicker.

High transport costs may be compared to high tariff barriers. Products from other places are denied access to a local market as effectively by the lack of cheap and reliable transport as by an arbitrary charge at an entry gate. Where roads are rutted in summer and muddy in winter movement is difficult, slow, and intermittently dangerous. Their condition may prohibit the use of carts and wagons. In such circumstances a village may have little option other than to satisfy from within its borders the bulk of its material needs. Poor transport facilities and a ‘peasant’ mentality go hand in hand. Conversely, if transport is relatively easy, cheap, and reliable, economic activity can be organized very differently. Movement along a spectrum of transport provision with difficult, expensive, and unreliable facilities at one extreme and dependable, cheap facilities at the other will produce a host of associated changes. Szostak, for example, suggested that in the early 18th century merchants would load their products on pack horses and travel through the country selling their goods directly at fairs and markets. By the end of the century, in contrast, travelling salesmen carrying samples sought orders which were fulfilled by dispatching goods by road carriers. Turnpike roads could accommodate regular wagon traffic and orders taken by the salesmen could be dealt with quickly and reliably. Aikin is quoted by Szostak as noting that the shift from loaded pack horses to travelers with samples took place between 1730 and 1770 in the Lancashire textile industry. Another linked change was the gradual transformation of fairs from a major point of contact between producer and retailer and final purchaser into chiefly social events. The retail shopkeeper assumed the role once played by the fair.

In his pioneering study of migration during the industrial revolution period, Redford laid stress upon the evidence that agricultural wages were highest near the new concentrations of industry and declined steadily with distance from these centers. In rural areas close to manufacturing, mining, or commercial centers people moved to the town from the country to better their lot. The increase in the prevailing wage level in agriculture which resulted in turn attracted agricultural laborers to move from more distant parishes to replace them. He insisted that ‘the motive force controlling the migration was the positive attraction of industry rather than the negative repulsion of agriculture’. As Chaloner remarked in his preface to the third edition of Labor migration, Redford insisted that ‘The rural population was attracted into the towns by the prospect of higher wages and better opportunities for employment, rather than expelled from the countryside by the enclosure movement.’

Expectation of life at birth declined substantially during the 17th century, reaching a nadir in the period 1661–90 when, for the sexes combined, it averaged only 33.8 years. By the beginning of the nineteenth century there had been a major change. In 1801–30 it averaged 40.8 years.

Although overall levels of mortality improved markedly, the improvement was not evenly spread among the different age groups. In the 17th century adult mortality had been very severe; infant and child mortality, in contrast, though crippling by the standards of the 21st century, had been relatively mild. During the ensuing century adult mortality improved sharply. Expectation of life at age 25 for the sexes combined rose by five years from 30 to 35 years between the end of the 17th and the end of the 18th century. At younger ages any improvement was very limited, with one exception. Mortality within the first month of life, often termed endogenous mortality, fell dramatically due to falling rates in maternal mortality and the rate of stillbirths. Deaths later in the first year of life were mainly caused by infectious disease, and were as high in the early 19th century as the past century

From the mid-16th century onwards England’s chance of escaping the Ricardian curse gradually improved as its dependence on the land as the prime source of energy was reduced by the steadily increasing use of coal. This in itself, however, was no guarantee of ultimate success. Put simply, coal use could overcome a barrier which had long appeared insuperable on the supply side, but without a matching change in demand a breakthrough might have proved elusive. Coal was mined and consumed on a substantial scale in parts of China from the 4th century onwards and may have reached a peak in the eleventh century, but it did not lead to a transformation of the economy. It is in this context that the demographic characteristics of a country assume importance.

Production only takes place in response to the existence of demand, immediate or potential. And it is less the absolute scale of demand than its structure which is important. Where poverty is widespread and severe the demand for products other than food, clothing, fuel, and housing will be slight. Rising real incomes rapidly alter the structure of aggregate demand because, although the absolute amount spent on the four basics will rise, the proportion spent on them falls.

If the rising level of energy consumption can be met not from the products of current plant photosynthesis but from the accumulated store of energy represented by past plant photosynthesis present in coal seams, the constraints present in all organic economies can be first eased, and then largely by-passed. In the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the increasing resort to this alternative energy source gradually changed the growth prospects of the country. For a long time it was only a partial escape from the traditional constraints. As long as coal was only a source of heat energy the issue was doubtful. Once, however, the energy released by burning coal could also be converted into mechanical energy, future growth was no longer put at risk by the limitations on energy use imposed by dependence on the annual cycle of plant growth.

If coal was so important in the industrial revolution why were there not parallel developments to those taking place in England elsewhere in Europe or farther afield and perhaps at an earlier date? There can be no definitive answer to this question. It is reasonable to claim that without coal no industrial revolution was possible in the circumstances of an organic economy. The presence of coal measures, on the other hand, clearly carried no guarantee that it would be exploited. One consideration, however, should be borne in mind in this connection, since it strongly conditioned access to coal measures in the past. When pit drainage depended upon wind, water, and horse power it was impracticable to mine coal at depths greater than 100–150 feet. Most of the world’s richest coalfields are concealed fields covered by an overburden of rock, often many hundreds of feet thick. The great bulk of the Ruhr field, for example, existed as a geological fact but not as an economic possibility before steam drainage. Indeed the same was true of coal in the huge coalfield which extended, with some gaps, from the Pas-de-Calais in the west, through the Sambre–Meuse valley, to Aachen and the Ruhr. The coal in the concealed fields was inaccessible (and often unknown) at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The bulk of the reserves in British coalfields were similarly inaccessible before steam drainage but coal outcropped to the surface more widely than in many other countries, making initial exploitation simpler.

Whereas in the mid-16th century coal provided only 11% of energy consumed, by the mid-18th this figure had increased to 61%, and the overall scale of energy consumption per head in England dwarfed that of her neighbors, with the partial exception of the Netherlands. The presence of a cheap and abundant source of heat energy in the form of coal played a major part in facilitating expansion in a range of industries by holding down production costs as production volumes increased; brick making, glass manufacture, lime burning, brewing, dyeing, salt boiling, and soap and sugar manufacture all benefited. The traditional dependence upon wood as a heat source had vanished in almost all branches of industry apart from iron manufacture by the early eighteenth century. It is probable, if not conclusively demonstrable, that London would not have grown so freely but for the east coast coal shipments from northern England (Tyneside).

The classical economists provided a formal framework to describe something which was widely understood intuitively in all organic economies. They held that three components were essential in all material production; capital, labor, and land. The first two could be expanded as necessary to match increased demand, but the third could not, and rising pressure on this inflexible resource arrested growth and depressed the return to capital and the reward of labor.

Capital and labor remained as essential as ever if output was to expand, but for wider and wider swathes of the economy land was no longer a factor of central importance. Energy was still needed in every aspect of the production process and an adequate supply of raw materials remained essential, but the land could be by-passed in securing the first, and to an increasing degree the second. Land was losing its place in the trinity of factors determining production possibilities.

A coal miner who consumes in his own body about 3,500 calories a day, will, if he mines 500 pounds of coal, produce coal with a heat value 500 times the heat value of the food which he consumed while mining it. At 20% efficiency he expends about 1 horsepower-hour of mechanical energy to get the coal. Now, if the coal he mines is burned in a steam engine of even 1% efficiency it will yield about 27 horsepower-hours of mechanical energy. The surplus of mechanical energy gained would thus be 26 horsepower-hours, or the equivalent of 26 man-days per man-day. A coal miner, who consumed about one-fifth as much food as a horse, could thus deliver through the steam engine about 4 times the mechanical energy which the average horse in Watt’s day was found to deliver.

This is a very conservative estimate of the multiplier involved, since the average coal miner produced considerably more than 500 pounds of coal a day and the efficiency of steam engines commonly dwarfed the figure used in the illustration.

Conscious recognition of coal as the arbiter of industrial success came only in the later nineteenth century, symbolised when Jevons published The coal question, in which he wondered anxiously about the brevity of British industrial supremacy given that other parts of the world had much larger reserves of coal and were already beginning to take advantage of their good fortune. When the first edition of The coal question was published in 1865, little was known about the scale of the coal resources in other countries and Jevons was relatively optimistic about the future, but by the time of the third edition in 1906 it was clear that several countries, and especially China and the United States, possessed far larger reserves, and his tone changed: ‘When coalfields of such phenomenal richness are actively developed, countries in which there no longer remain any large supplies of easily and cheaply mined coal are likely to feel the effect of the resulting severe competition.’

The increase in the productive powers of an industrialized society were such that for the first time in human history the miseries of poverty, from which previously only a small minority were exempt, could be put aside for whole populations. Success in escaping from the constraints which affected all organic economies did not, however, mean a swift and uninterrupted move towards greatly improved material circumstances for all. The potential for such a change existed. Realizing it proved to be another matter. Economic structures which divided the benefits of increasing productive power very unevenly; political ineptitude, prejudice, or mismanagement; various kinds of discrimination; and the destruction of war – all were still capable of depriving much of the population of this benefit.

Organic economies necessarily operated within strict limits. The industrial revolution made it possible to escape them. But for the country in which an industrial revolution first took place the definitive release from poverty was long in arriving for much of the population. If the industrial revolution did indeed occur between c.1780 and c.1840, and if the possibility of abolishing the traditional concomitants of poverty is one of its defining characteristics, then the realization of the promise was long delayed for much of the population, as the social investigations of Mayhew, Booth, Rowntree, and others in the decades before and immediately after the First World War make clear.41 Many contemporaries were bitter about the sufferings of the urban poor where others were triumphalist about the achievements of the Victorian age.

From mid-Victorian times the level of real incomes was rising, and in most respects the circumstances of life for the bulk of the population were better in 1900 than they had been in 1850. Further progress for half a century was delayed and at times reversed by the effects of two world wars and the Great Depression. Only in the second half of the twentieth century was improvement in health, education, and general welfare widespread, substantial, and sustained.

Looking back over the last century-and-a-half it is perhaps unsurprising that progress was initially limited and spasmodic. In part this was due to ‘external’ factors, the impact of major wars and the great slump, but it reflected also the unfamiliarity of many both of the problems and of the opportunities which arose with the acquisition of unprecedented powers of production. The enormous and very rapid growth of cities and towns, for example, which reflected the changing importance of different sectors of the economy, posed massive problems which were initially difficult to resolve. Urban mortality was for many years much higher in cities than in small towns or the countryside, but limited progress in improving the health of the urban populations in many areas was unavoidable until the modes of transmission of many diseases were better understood. Cholera epidemics, for example, could not be eliminated until the importance of securing a supply of pure water had been appreciated. And even when the knowledge had been gained, the infrastructural investment needed to reduce and eventually overcome this problem took time. Securing educational provision for all children took place only over several decades. This was due in part to the nature of the politics of the day, but even without delay for this reason it could not have happened overnight. In other words, it is reasonable to suggest that the fact that the nature of the industrial revolution was so little understood at the time and that the changes which came in its train were so radical should lessen any surprise that its potential benefits were not realized instantly.

England was essentially self-sufficient in temperate zone foodstuffs until the end of the eighteenth century. The government in Westminster made the assumption that this was both the norm and highly desirable. It was periodically thrown into something approaching panic by the prospect of a seriously defective grain harvest, which gave rise to restrictions on the use of grain, notably the malting of barley to produce beer, and to desperate endeavors to secure supplies from overseas. The Netherlands imported Baltic grain on a large scale routinely, since there was no prospect of local self-sufficiency. The import of food was balanced by a large export trade in foodstuffs, notably fish (the scale of Dutch fish exports was remarkable, especially in the seventeenth century 19), but also dairy produce. During the later eighteenth century, exports of dairy produce grew rapidly and by the beginning of the nineteenth century accounted for half of all agricultural exports. 20 English agriculture improved its efficiency by an increasing regional specialization in, say, beef cattle, dairy produce, or barley for malting, but the specialisation was predominantly in relation to demand within the country. Dutch agriculture, reflecting a salient feature of the Dutch economy in its golden age, specialized, so to speak, internationally rather than just nationally.

The scale of peat production and consumption in the Netherlands was truly remarkable.  The quantity of energy from peat available per person in the Netherlands was 13.6 megajoules annually. The comparable English figure from coal is 7.5 megajoules, barely half the Dutch figure. It should occasion no surprise, therefore, that the Dutch industries which enjoyed a marked comparative advantage at this time, because they were all in need of heat energy on a large scale, were almost identical to the English industries whose prospects improved markedly with the availability of coal on a large scale and at a competitive price.  Peat was first exploited in the low-lying bogs of the alluvial areas which were close to navigable waterways. But exploitation of peat in the hoogveen, where the land was higher above sea level, depended upon a heavy prior capital expenditure on canal construction, without which the peat was economically inaccessible.

It took a quarter of a millennium for coal to change from supplying a tenth of the energy consumed in England and Wales to nine-tenths. Its increasing importance reduced the pressure on other energy sources, and notably on forest land.

Access to coal meant that the rate of growth could be maintained or even accelerated rather than having to slow down, as was otherwise unavoidable.

Using a 1 per cent per annum as an illustration, since even this very modest level of growth would mean that, over two centuries, output would expand roughly 8-fold.

In the Victorian period, harvest festival services were often held in parish churches in the autumn, with the church decorated with sheaves of corn and baskets of fruit. The harvest festival service was in a sense the celebration of acquisition of a store of energy which could be used to ‘fuel’ people and farm stock, or to provide the raw material for industries such as straw plaiting for the forthcoming year. Earlier the hay harvest had provided a similar food source for cattle and sheep and so, indirectly, for the production of wool and hides. To hold a celebration once the harvest had been safely gathered in was highly appropriate. For many generations the stock of energy acquired in the wake of a season of plant growth had provided the basis for both life and work between one harvest and the next. At the level of the local community it exemplified dependence upon the annual cycle of insolation and its conversion into a form which was useful to man by photosynthesis.

The mining of coal was not subject to a similar annual rhythm. It was a store which could be drawn down at any time and in any required quantity, at least for a period of centuries. The local parish church in a mining community was not decorated annually with coal, and indeed might well celebrate the getting in of the harvest in the traditional fashion, but the new mineral source of energy had come to dwarf older sources by the Victorian age even though its significance was not celebrated in a comparable fashion.

The plea in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, may well seem quaint in an age when in advanced economies superabundant nutrition is a greater threat than malnourishment. For a large majority of the population of England and other industrialized countries, homes are warm and dry even in midwinter; and they are rarely over-run with vermin, a state of affairs beyond attainment for most families in earlier times. Literacy was once the privilege of a tiny minority of the population and formal education played no part in the upbringing of most children. Today school and other types of formal education form a major part of the lives of children for anything between a dozen and twenty years. A list of this sort could be greatly extended, and all such changes can be said to have been made possible by the creation of wealth and plenitude of resources which lie downstream from the industrial revolution.



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5 Responses to Book review of Wrigley’s “Energy and the English Industrial revolution”

  1. Steven Kurtz says:


    In the view of many scientists, nuclear energy is likely to ramp up again in second generation, safer, smaller designs. Uranium is not the only source. Thorium is mentioned, and so are breeder reactors which use certain kinds of spent radioactive material. Please comment on that position.

    • energyskeptic says:

      I have a lot of posts on nuclear power on my blog, so I’m not going to write a thesis in a comment. Guess what, we’re close to Peak Uranium, so it is not a renewable fuel. Until we can get rid of the wastes, it is one of the worst outcomes we will have caused future generations, up to a million years of radioactivity. They cost 4x more and take 5 x longer to build than natural gas plants. Heavy-duty trucks, rail, and ships run on diesel fuel, electricity is irrelevant. The same for manufacturing: cement/concrete, iron/steel, can only be done with fossils (not enough biomass to make charcoal, which is far inferior to coke from coal). Nuclear power can’t make the 500,000 products made out of fossil fuels (plastics, chemicals, paint, you name it). And the new 4th gen “tiny” nukes don’t provide much power and therefore their cost is too high.

  2. mark says:

    A new milestone- “In 2018 the United States consumed more energy than ever before.”

    I am a bit at fault for the uptick in biomass use noted in the data. We have been harvesting some of the oak and fig on our property over the last few years. Over a cord of oak was cut up yesterday from 2 limbs that came crashing down this winter.

    Next year our PV data will be a tad lower due to a sheared off lag screw that use to hold the southeast corner of our railing system to the composite roof. Luckily for me the 2 man team who installed the system, 13 years ago, are still in business and were able to R&R the screw. An additional lag screw will be R&R’d later this summer.

  3. Jürgen Botz says:

    Above where you talk about the relative amount of woodlands that would be energy equivalent to the amount of coal consumed in 1750, 1800, and 1850, you asked the following:

    [my note: and would it take four generations for the forests to regrow to be exploited again?]

    Well, no, your own words here were “sustained yield” meaning that the woodlands would sustainably harvested and continually regrowing, not clear-cut.

    But that “sustainable” is a slippery word… what may seem sustainable so long as you do it only occasionally may turn out to be far from it when it is taken close to its presumed limits. Specifically, even if you take careful account of normal re-growth rates of the trees that you remove or coppice, you’re probably not accounting for the soil depletion that goes along with this regrowth. Trees naturally shed biomass and die and regrow… but when you remove biomass from the forest you’re removing nutrients, such as essential minerals, that would normally return to the soil from the mulch under the trees. This depletion is counteracted only on geological timescales through vulcanic activity!

    In short, truly “sustainable” harvesting of a natural woodland for biomass energy is impossible.