Engine trouble

Source: The Economist, October 21, 2010

MANY factors were responsible for the industrial revolution. But the use of fossil fuels was clearly vital in driving a step change in rates of economic and population growth. So the current rise in the cost of extracting such fuels should be the subject of considerable concern.

Until the 18th century mankind’s output had been restricted by the amount of physical force that humans (and domesticated animals) could exert and by the amount of wood that people could chop down. Fossil fuels delivered a massive productivity boost.

In a recent article for the Cato Institute, Matt Ridley, a former journalist at The Economist, argues for the importance of coal in allowing the industrial revolution to be sustained. “Fossil fuels were the only power source that did not show diminishing returns,” he writes. “In sharp contrast to wood, water and wind, the more you mined them the cheaper they became.” A further advantage was that coal supplies were so large. By 1830, Mr Ridley estimates, Britain was consuming coal with an annual energy output equivalent to 15m acres of forest, about three times the size of Wales.

In the 20th century oil replaced coal as the cheap fuel of choice. It has had an enormous impact, most noticeably in transport. Think about how much of your daily activity depends on energy—the commute to work, the heating and lighting for home and office, the steel and bricks needed to construct both properties, the transport costs involved in delivering your food to supermarkets (and the energy used to cook it), and so on.


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