Historical E-Book: The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines
Author: William Stanley Jevons
Edition Used: London: Macmillan and Co., 1866. (Second edition, revised)
First Published: 1865
MY work is completed in pointing out the necessary results of our present rapid multiplication when brought into comparison with a fixed amount of material resources. The social and political consequences to ourselves and to the world of a partial exhaustion of our mines are of an infinitely higher degree of uncertainty than the event itself, and cannot be made the subject of argument. But feeling as we must do that they will be of an untoward character, it is impossible to close without a few further remarks upon the truly solemn question—Are we wise in allowing the commerce of this country to rise beyond the point at which we can long maintain it?
To say the simple truth, will it not appear evident, soon after the final adoption of Free Trade principles, that our own resources are just those to which such principles ought to be applied last and most cautiously? To part in trade with the surplus yearly interest of the soil may be unalloyed gain, but to disperse so lavishly the cream of our mineral wealth is to be spendthrifts of our capital—to part with that which will never come back.
And after all commerce is but a means to an end, the diffusion of civilization and wealth. To allow commerce to proceed until the source of civilization is weakened and overturned is like killing the goose to get the golden egg. Is the immediate creation of material wealth to be our only object? Have we not hereditary possessions in our just laws, our free and nobly developed constitution, our rich literature and philosophy, incomparably above material wealth, and which we are beyond all things bound to maintain, improve, and hand down in safety? And do we accomplish this duty in encouraging a growth of industry which must prove unstable, and perhaps involve all things in its fall?
But the more there is said on the one side of this perplexing question, the more there is to say on the other side. We can hardly separate the attributes and performances of a kingdom, and have some without the others. The resplendent genius of our Elizabethan age might never have been manifested but in a period equally conspicuous for good order, industrial progress, and general enterprise. The early Hanoverian period, on the other hand, was as devoid of nobility as it was stationary in wealth and population. A clear and vigorous mind is to be looked for in a wholesome state of the body. So in our Victorian age we may owe indirectly to the lavish expenditure of our material energy far more than we can readily conceive. No part, no function of a nation is independent of the rest, and in fearlessly following our instincts of rapid growth we may rear a fabric of varied civilization, we may develop talents and virtues, and propagate influences which could not have resulted from slow restricted growth however prolonged.
The wish surely could never rise into the mind of any Englishman that Britain should be stationary and lasting as she was, rather than of growing and world-wide influence as she is. To secure a safe smallness we should have to go back, and strangle in their birth those thoughts and inventions which redeemed us from dullness and degeneration a century ago. Could we desire that Savery and Newcomen had abandoned their tiresome engines, that Darby had slept before the iron ran forth, that the Duke had broken before Brindley completed his canal, that Watt had kept to his compasses and rules, or Adam Smith burnt his manuscript in despair? Such experiments could not have succeeded, and such writings been published, among a free and active people in our circumstances, without leading to the changes that have been. Thence necessarily came the growth of manufactures and of people; thence the inexplicable power with which we fought and saved the Continent; thence the initiation of a Free-trade policy by Pitt, the growth of a middle class, and the rise of a series of statesmen—Canning, Huskisson, Peel, Cobden, and Gladstone—to represent their views and powers.
Our new industry and civilization had an obscure and unregarded commencement; it is great already, and will be far greater yet before it is less. It is questionable whether a country in any sense free can suffer such a grand movement to begin without suffering it to proceed its own length. One invention, one art, one development of commerce, one amelioration of society follows another almost as effect follows cause. And it is well that our beneficial influence is not bounded by our narrow wisdom or our selfish desires. Let us stretch our knowledge and our foresight to the furthest, yet we act by powers and towards ends of which we are scarcely conscious.
In our contributions to the arts, for instance, we have unintentionally done a work that will endure for ever. In whatever part of the world fuel exists, whether wood, or peat, or coal, we have rendered it the possible basis of a new civilization. In the ancient mythology, fire was a stolen gift from heaven, but it is our countrymen who have shown the powers of fire, and conferred a second Promethean gift upon the world. Without undue self-gratulation, may we not say in the words of Bacon?—"The introduction of new inventions seemeth to be the very chief of all human actions. The benefits of new inventions may extend to all mankind universally, but the good of political achievements can respect but some particular cantons of men; these latter do not endure above a few ages, the former for ever. Inventions make all men happy without either injury or damage to any one single person. Furthermore, new inventions are, as it were, new erections and imitations of God's own works."
When our great spring is here run down, our fires half burnt out, may we not look for an increasing flame of civilization elsewhere? Ours are not the only stores of fuel. Britain may contract to her former littleness, and her people be again distinguished for homely and hardy virtues, for a clear intellect and a regard for law, rather than for brilliancy and power. But our name and race, our language, history, and literature, our love of freedom and our instincts of self-government, will live in a world-wide sphere. We have already planted the stocks of multiplying nations in most parts of the earth, and, in spite of discouraging tendencies, it is hardly for us to doubt that they will prove a noble offspring.
The alternatives before us are simple. Our empire and race already comprise one-fifth of the world's population; and by our plantation of new states, by our guardianship of the seas, by our penetrating commerce, by the example of our just laws and firm constitution, and above all by the dissemination of our new arts, we stimulate the progress of mankind in a degree not to be measured. If we lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation and distribution of our riches, it is hard to over-estimate the pitch of beneficial influence to which we may attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity.
This is a chapter from The Coal Question (e-book).
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