262. THE WOOD TO COAL TRANSITION
Human beings have previously switched energy sources without any special difficulty. For example, we smoothly switched from wood to coal without any societal collapse. So why can't we do the same thing this time?
As usual, the peak oilers have a reason why we can't. Here's Aaron from peakoil.com:
Every prior energy transition has been from a lower EROEI source to a higher one. From wood to coal | From coal to whale oil | from whale oil to petroleum, each change was a step up the EROEI ladder. This represents our first attempt to go the other way ala Heinbergs Power Down idea.I've previously shown the flaws with this view in 136. WILL DECLINING EROEI CAUSE COLLAPSE. When humans made the step from hunting/gathering to agriculture, they stepped down the EROEI ladder. Farmers have to work a lot harder than hunters to harvest a unit of energy. But this step did not lead to contraction and the collapse of civilization. Ironically, it lead to a massive explosion of growth and the formation of civilization.
Recently, I've been reading the doomer favorite The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter, and it has an interesting section with a bearing on this issue. Tainter writes:
The fuel resources used first by a rationally-acting human population, and the mineral deposits mined first, are typically those that are most economically exploited, that is, the most abundant, most accessible, and most easily converted to the needs at hand (Rifkin and Howard: 73). When it subsequently becomes necessary to use less economical resources marginal returns automatically decline.Isn't that remarkable? It turns out that the step from wood to coal (like the step from hunting/gathering to agriculture) was actually a step down, not a step up. You can practically hear the snorts of the "peak wooders" in Tainter's text.
The development of the coal-based economy in England is a case in point. Wilkinson (1973) has shown that major jumps in population, at around A.D. 1300, 1600, and in the late eighteenth century, each led to intensification in agriculture and industry (see also North and Thomas ). As the land in the late Middle Ages was increasingly deforested to provide fuel and agricultural space for a growing population, basic heating, cooking, and manufacturing needs could no longer be met by burning wood. A shift to reliance on coal began, gradually and with apparent reluctance. Coal was definitely a fuel of secondary desirability, being more costly to obtain and distribute than wood, as well as being dirty and polluting. Coal was more restricted in its spatial distribution than wood, so that a whole new, costly distribution system had to be developed. Mining of coal from the ground was more costly than obtaining a quantity of wood equivalent in heating value, and became even more costly as the most accessible reserves of this fuel were depleted. Mines had to be sunk ever deeper, until groundwater flooding became a serious problem.(P. 98-99)
Peak wooder: We are so f*cked. Where are we going to get enough wood to meet demand? Everything we do -- our entire society is based on wood. We'll collapse without it.
Cornucopio: We'll switch to coal.
Peak wooder: Oh, yeah right. And monkeys are gonna fly out of my butt. You f*cking idiot. Our whole economy is based on cheap wood. Wagons, housing, tools, transport, shipping, cooking, packaging, heating, blacksmithing, furniture. We're doomed without it. Do you have any idea how foul coal is? And how far you have to go to get it? Where are you going to get the wood to move all that coal? For God sakes, wood just grows out of the ground, and you're proposing that we dig into solid rock for that filthy substandard junk? You need to up your medication. Do you have any idea how many people its going to take to dig those holes? And how are you going to make their houses, and keep them warm, and get them to the job without wood? What are you going to make their shovels and wagons out of? The only reason those people can dig coal now is because they're subsidized with cheap wood!!! And even supposing that you could marshall all those people you need to do the digging, you'll just hit water, and then it's game over. You can't bail out the water because YOU NEED WOOD TO MAKE THE F*CKING BUCKETS. Sorry man, but coal is nothing but a bunch of wishful thinking. You're pinning all your hopes on it because you're afraid to face the fact that our wood-based society is doomed. The stupid, myopic wood party is over and the hangover is going to be killer. There is simply nothing which can replace the convenience, versatility and cheapness of wood.
-- by JD