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Mineral Energy and Progress: A Consensus View

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“Let’s be clear: the frequent comparison of the fossil fuel and tobacco industries is nonsense. Fossil fuels are a valuable energy source that has done yeomen service for humankind. One gallon (3.7 liters) of gasoline (petrol) contains the equivalent of 400 hours of labor by a healthy adult.  Fossil fuels raised living standards in much of the world.”

– James Hansen, June 2021

The father of the climate alarm is a straight and accurate shooter on many things, that is outside of climate models and unsettled climate dynamics. His quotation above throws water in the face of Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University, as well as such climate campaigners as Michael Mann and Andrew Dessler.

Hansen’s view is actually mainstream. There is no doubt that dense mineral energies that emerged and took hold by the end of the 19th century unleashed the machines of progress. W. S. Jevons in The Coal Question (1865) noted:

Coal, in truth, stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country—the universal aid—the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times.

Coal was the first mineral energy out of the blocks–it’s logic would be joined by petroleum and then natural gas.

Energy polymath Vaclav Smil (Energies: 1999: 134) put a modern mark on the same point:

By providing energy flows of high power density, fossil fuels and electricity made it possible to embark on a large-scale industrialization creating a predominantly urban civilization with unprecedented levels of economic growth reflected in better health, greater social opportunities, higher disposable incomes, expanded transportation and an overwhelming flow of information.

The Limiting Factor: Energy Growth, and Divergence, 1820–1913

“The first century of the energy transition entailed raising the volume of energy; the second, raising both its volume and its productivity.”

An essay last year in Economic History Review by Paolo Malanima, “The Limiting Factor: Energy Growth, and Divergence, 1820–1913,” documents how an energy revolution raised productivity and thus wages in the countries capitalizing on mineral energy (chiefly coal).

I reproduce Professor Malanima’s abstract and key points for the record.


On the basis of a new series on the consumption of traditional and modern sources of energy between 1820 and 1913, this article addresses the start of modern growth and the great divergence on the world scale.

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the greater availability of modern energy sources expanded working capacity well beyond the potential of previous agricultural civilizations. Growth of energy consumption rose primarily in western Europe, northern America, and Oceania.

As a result, labour productivity rose, leading to an increase in real wages, which was an incentive to replace labour with mechanical engines. The higher energy consumption in these three macro‐areas led to global inequality in productive capacity and technology which peaked on the eve of the First World War.

Some quotations follow from Professor Malanima’s essay follow:

  • According to Ayres and Warr, “economic growth in the past has been driven primarily not by ‘technological progress’ in some general and undefined sense, but specifically by the availability of ever cheaper energy—and useful work—from coal, petroleum (or gas).”
  • Recently, Britain has been seen as the cradle of modern growth, thanks to cheap energy as well as high wages, which were incentives for mechanization.
  • A momentous change in the economy only occurred when a natural resource—coal—was introduced into the production of goods and services. At first in Britain and later elsewhere, “the industrial revolution depended on securing access to vastly greater energy supplies.”
  • Income per capita and real wages did not improve at all until the nineteenth century. Our explanation for this stagnation is that a limiting factor was operating in pre‐modern economies. As Wrigley put it, ‘All human societies laboured under a common constraint in attempting to increase their ability to produce even the basic necessities of life.” …. Cultures, scientific knowledge, institutions, political systems, and social behaviours could change (and actually changed) without any substantial progress in the capacity to do work.
  • Changes in the availability of energy occurred earlier in Britain, followed by other areas of western Europe, and in regions inhabited by European colonizers.
  • In America and Oceania, the new lands could only satisfy the immigrants for a time. In the long term, the consequences would have been the reappearance of decreasing returns for any agricultural civilization relying on bio‐energies.
  • These populations began increasingly to exploit the new mineral sources of energy which were capable of sating their appetites for a very long time. With modern carriers of energy, the capacity to do work and the level of production increased. As a result, GDP per capita grew remarkably. The input generating working capacity increased and so too did total product.
  • As a consequence of changes in the energy consumed, there was a sudden rise in the level of real wages. There was an incentive to replace labour with mechanical devices. However, since these mechanical engines were also increasing marginal labour productivity, a driving force existed for the introduction of more and more mechanical engines in order to replace labour.
  • This change accelerated after 1913. This new epoch saw the large‐scale introduction of oil, natural gas, primary electricity, and later nuclear energy, together with new reproducible sources. In this second phase, saving energy—that is, producing goods with less and less energy—became a new source of working capacity.
  • The yearly increase in energy exploitation was barely greater than in the first epoch. A unit of energy, however, was able to produce more goods and services than ever before, thanks to the introduction of more efficient mechanical engines.
  • The first century of the energy transition entailed raising the volume of energy; the second, raising both its volume and its productivity.

The post Mineral Energy and Progress: A Consensus View appeared first on Master Resource.


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