The Coal Question: Introduction and Outline

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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

Chapter I

DAY by day it becomes more evident that the Coal we happily possess in excellent quality and abundance is the mainspring of modern material civilization. As the source of fire, it is the source at once of mechanical motion and of chemical change. Accordingly it is the chief agent in almost every improvement or discovery in the arts which the present age brings forth. It is to us indispensable for domestic purposes, and it has of late years been found to yield a series of organic substances, which puzzle us by their complexity, please us by their beautiful colours, and serve us by their various utility.

And as the source especially of steam and iron, coal is all powerful. This age has been called the Iron Age, and it is true that iron is the material of most great novelties. By its strength, endurance, and wide range of qualities, this metal is fitted to be the fulcrum and lever of great works, while steam is the motive power. But coal alone can command in sufficient abundance either the iron or the steam; and coal, therefore, commands this age—the Age of Coal.

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

With such facts familiarly before us, it can be no matter of surprise that year by year we make larger draughts upon a material of such myriad qualities—of such miraculous powers. But it is at the same time impossible that men of foresight should not turn to compare with some anxiety the masses yearly drawn with the quantities known or supposed to lie within these islands.

Geologists of eminence, acquainted with the contents of our strata, and accustomed, in the study of their great science, to look over long periods of time with judgment and enlightenment, were long ago painfully struck by the essentially limited nature of our main wealth. And though others have been found to reassure the public, roundly asserting that all anticipations of exhaustion are groundless and absurd, and "may be deferred for an indefinite period," yet misgivings have constantly recurred to those really examining the question. Not long since the subject acquired new weight when prominently brought forward by Sir W. Armstrong in his Address to the British Association, at Newcastle, the very birthplace of the coal trade.

This question concerning the duration of our present cheap supplies of coal cannot but excite deep interest and anxiety wherever or whenever it is mentioned: for a little reflection will show that coal is almost the sole necessary basis of our material power, and is that, consequently, which gives efficiency to our moral and intellectual capabilities. England's manufacturing and commercial greatness, at least, is at stake in this question, nor can we be sure that material decay may not involve us in moral and intellectual retrogression. And as there is no part of the civilized world where the life of our true and beneficent Commonwealth can be a matter of indifference, so, above all, to an Englishman who knows the grand and steadfast course his country has pursued to its present point, its future must be a matter of almost personal solicitude and affection.

The thoughtless and selfish, indeed, who fear any interference with the enjoyment of the present, will be apt to stigmatise all reasoning about the future as absurd and chimerical. But the opinions of such are closely guided by their wishes. It is true that at the best we see dimly into the future, but those who acknowledge their duty to posterity will feel impelled to use their foresight upon what facts and guiding principles we do possess. Though many data are at present wanting or doubtful, our conclusions may be rendered so far probable as to lead to further inquiries upon a subject of such overwhelming importance. And we ought not at least to delay dispersing a set of plausible fallacies about the economy of fuel, and the discovery of substitutes for coal, which at present obscure the critical nature of the question, and are eagerly passed about among those who like to believe that we have an indefinite period of prosperity before us.

The writers who have hitherto discussed this question, being chiefly geologists, have of necessity treated it casually, and in a one-sided manner. There are several reasons why it should now receive fuller consideration. In the first place, the accomplishment of a Free Trade policy, the repeal of many laws that tended to restrain our industrial progress, and the very unusual clause in the French Treaty which secures a free export of coals for some years to come, are all events tending to an indefinite increase of the consumption of coal. On the other hand, two most useful systems of Government inquiry have lately furnished us with new and accurate information bearing upon the question; the Geological Survey now gives some degree of certainty to our estimates of the coal existing within our reach, while the returns of mineral statistics inform us very exactly of the amount of coal consumed.

Taking advantage of such information, I venture to try and shape out a first rough approximation to the probable progress of our industry and consumption of coal in a system of free industry. We of course deal only with what is probable. It is the duty of a careful writer not to reject facts or circumstances because they are only probable, but to state everything with its due weight of probability. It will be my foremost desire to discriminate certainty and doubt, knowledge and ignorance—to state those data we want, as well as those we have. But I must also draw attention to principles governing this subject, which have rather the certainty of natural laws than the fickleness of statistical numbers.

It will be apparent that the first seven of the following chapters are mainly devoted to the physical data of this question, and are of an introductory character. The remaining chapters, which treat of the social and commercial aspects of the subject, constitute the more essential part of the present inquiry. It is this part of the subject which seems to me to have been too much overlooked by those who have expressed opinions concerning the duration of our coal supplies.

I have endeavoured to present a pretty complete outline of the available information in union with the arguments which the facts suggest. But such is the extent and complexity of the subject that it is impossible to notice all the bearings of fact upon fact. The chapters, therefore, have rather the character of essays treating of the more important aspects of the question; and I may here suitably devote a few words to pointing out the particular purpose of each chapter, and the bearings of one upon the other.

I commence by citing the opinions of earlier writers, who have more or less shadowed forth my conclusions; and I also quote Mr. Hull's estimate of the coal existing in England, and adopt it as the geological datum of my arguments.

In considering the geological aspects of the question, I endeavour to give some notion of the way in which an estimate of the existing coal is made, and of the degree of certainty attaching to it, deferring to the chapter upon Coal Mining the question of the depth to which we can follow seams of coal. It is shown that in all probability there is no precise physical limit of deep mining, but that the growing difficulties of management and extraction of coal in a very deep mine must greatly enhance its price. It is by this rise of price that gradual exhaustion will be manifested, and its deplorable effects occasioned.

I naturally pass to consider whether there are yet in the cost of coal any present signs of exhaustion; it appears that there has been no recent rise of importance, but that, at the same time, the high price demanded for coals drawn from some of the deepest pits indicates the high price that must in time be demanded for even ordinary coals.

A distinct division of the inquiry, comprising chapters vi. vii. and viii., treats of inventions in regard to the use of coal. It is shown that we owe almost all our arts to continental nations, except those great arts which have been called into use here by the cheapness and excellence of our coal. It is shown that the constant tendency of discovery is to render coal a more and more efficient agent, while there is no probability that when our coal is used up any more powerful substitute will be forthcoming. Nor will the economical use of coal reduce its consumption. On the contrary, economy renders the employment of coal more profitable, and thus the present demand for coal is increased, and the advantage is more strongly thrown upon the side of those who will in the future have the cheapest supplies. As it is in a subsequent chapter on the Export and Import of Coal conclusively shown that we cannot make up for a future want of coal by importation from other countries, it will appear that there is no reasonable prospect of any relief from a future want of the main agent of industry. We must lose that which constitutes our peculiar energy. And considering how greatly our manufactures and navigation depend upon coal, and how vast is our consumption of it compared with that of other nations, it cannot be supposed we shall do without coal more than a fraction of what we do with it.

I then turn to a totally different aspect of the question, leading to some estimate of the duration of our prosperity.

I first explain the natural principle of population, that a nation tends to multiply itself at a constant rate, so as to receive not equal additions in equal times, but additions rapidly growing greater and greater. In the chapter on Population it is incidentally pointed out that the nation, as a whole, has rapidly grown more numerous from the time when the steam-engine and other inventions involving the consumption of coal came into use. Until about 1820 the agricultural and manufacturing populations increased about equally. But the former then became excessive, occasioning great pauperism, while it is only our towns and coal and iron districts which have afforded any scope for a rapid and continuous increase.

The more nearly, too, we approach industry concerned directly with coal, the more rapid and constant is the rate of growth. The progress indeed of almost every part of our population has clearly been checked by emigration, but that this emigration is not due to pressure at home is plain from the greatly increased frequency of marriages in the last ten or fifteen years. And though this emigration temporarily checks our growth in mere numbers, it greatly promotes our welfare, and tends to induce greater future growths of population.

Attention is then drawn to the rapid and constant rate of multiplication displayed by the iron, cotton, shipping, and other great branches of our industry, the progress of which is in general quite unchecked up to the present time. The consumption of coal, there is every reason to suppose, has similarly been multiplying itself at a growing rate. The present rate of increase of our coal consumption is then ascertained, and it is shown that, should the consumption multiply for rather more than a century at the same rate, the average depth of our coal-mines would be 4,000 feet, and the average price of coal much higher than the highest price now paid for the finest kinds of coal.

It is thence simply inferred that we cannot long continue our present rate of progress. The first check to our growing prosperity, however, must render our population excessive. Emigration may relieve it, and by exciting increased trade tend to keep up our progress; but after a time we must either sink down into poverty, adopting wholly new habits, or else witness a constant annual exodus of the youth of the country. It is further pointed out that the ultimate results will be to render labour so abundant in the United States that our iron manufactures will be underbid by the unrivalled iron and coal resources of Pennsylvania; and in a separate chapter it is shown that the crude iron manufacture will, in all probability, be our first loss, while it is impossible to say how much of our manufactures may not follow it.

Suggestions for checking the waste and use of coal are briefly discussed, but the general conviction must force itself upon the mind, that restrictive legislation may mar but cannot mend the natural course of industrial development. Such is a general outline of my arguments and conclusions.

When I commenced studying this question, I had little thought of some of the results, and I might well hesitate at asserting things so little accordant with the unbounded confidence of the present day. But as serious misgivings do already exist, some discussion is necessary to set them at rest, or to confirm them, and perhaps to modify our views. And in entering on such a discussion, an unreserved, and even an overdrawn, statement of the adverse circumstances, is better than weak reticence. If my conclusions are at all true, they cannot too soon be recognised and kept in mind; if mistaken, I shall be among the first to rejoice at a vindication of our country's resources from all misgivings.

For my own part, I am convinced that this question must before long force itself upon our attention with painful urgency. It cannot long be shirked and shelved. It must rise by degrees into the position of a great national and perhaps a party question, antithetical to that of Free Trade. There will be a Conservative Party, desirous, at all cost, to secure the continued and exclusive prosperity of this country as a main bulwark of the general good. On the other hand, there will be the Liberal Party, less cautious, more trustful in abstract principles and the unfettered tendencies of nature.

Bulwer, in one of his Caxtonian Essays, has described, with all his usual felicity of thought and language, the confliction of these two great parties. They have fought many battles upon this soil already, and the result as yet is that wonderful union of stability and change, of the good old and the good new, which makes the English Constitution.

But if it shall seem that this is not to last indefinitely—that some of our latest determinations of policy lead directly to the exhaustion of our main wealth—the letting down of our mainspring—I know not how to express the difficulty of the moral and political questions which will arise. Some will wish to hold to our adopted principles, and leave commerce and the consumption of coal unchecked even to the last; while others, subordinating commerce to purposes of a higher nature, will tend to the prohibition of coal exports, the restriction of trade, and the adoption of every means of sparing the fuel which makes our welfare and supports our influence upon the nations of the world.

This is a question of that almost religious importance which needs the separate study and determination of every intelligent person. And if we find that we must yield before the disposition of material wealth, which is the work of a higher Providence, we need not give way to weak discouragement concerning the future, but should rather learn to take an elevated view of our undoubted duties and opportunities in the present.

This is a chapter from The Coal Question.
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Kubiszewski, I. (2007). The Coal Question: Introduction and Outline. Retrieved from


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