17. JEVONS ON PEAK COAL
Apparently William Stanley Jevons was the first peak oiler (actually "peak coaler"). His book, called "The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal-mines" was the 1865 version of Richard Heinberg's "The Party's Over". You can hear the echoes of today's peak oil alarmists in it. Jevons had ideas like Colin Campbell, and influenced Gladstone to reduce the national debt to compensate the future for wasting all the cheap coal. Jevons didn't believe a viable substitute for coal was possible. There would be no "new coal".
"...the book which first made his name nationally known, The Coal Question (1865).
In this Jevons's thesis was not that Britain's coal reserves would soon be exhausted but rather that the rapid growth of her population and industry in the 19th century had produced a rate of increase (of around 3.5 per cent per annum) in coal consumption which if maintained for long must compel the extension of mining to poorer or deeper seams, thereby greatly raising the cost of coal. To the extent that Britain's industrial position and progress depended on cheap coal it was consequently bound to be adversely and seriously affected within perhaps half a century.
As to the possibilities of escaping frorn this difficulty, Jevons was pessimistic. He was sceptical of the prospects of finding substitutes for coal, and with the benefit of hindsight it is evident that he seriously underestimated them, particularly in the cases of petroleum and natutal gas. Likewise he discounted the possibility of dirninishing the consumption of coal through more eflicient use. Improved fuel cconomy by cutting costs would, he argued, simply stimulate industrial expansion and so ultimately lead to increased demand for coal. Any attempt to restriet the export of coal, by taxes or prohibitions, would violate the principles of free trade to which Britain was committed and lay the country 'open to the irnputation of perfidy' (Jevons , 1906, p. 447). The only positive suggestion he offered 'towards compensating posterity for our present lavish use of cheap coal' was to reduce or pay off the National Debt, 'which would serve the three purposes of adding to the productive eapital of the country, of slightly checking our present too rapid progress, and of lessening the future diffieulties of the country' (, 1906, p. 448).
This suggestion was in fact taken up by no less a person than Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, who in his 1866 Budget speech referred to the prospects of coal exhaustion as among the grounds for his plans to reduce public debt. John Stuart Mill also supported Jevons's arguments and proposals. For a time Jevons had, as he wrote in his private journal, .enough of newspaper fame' and what the newspapers referred to as 'The Coal Panic' led to the appointment of a Royal Commission on Coal. This did not report until 1871 and it did not really face up to the questions which Jevons had raised, but the estimates of total coal reserves which it produced were reassuring and the public forgot its fears."
The manuscript of "The Coal Question" is available on-line here.