free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 262. THE WOOD TO COAL TRANSITION

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


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
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.

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 [1973]). 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)
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.

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


At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 4:20:00 AM PST, Blogger bc said...

It's true, in many ways coal is inferior to wood. A resource shortage spurred a boom, not a bust. It is not a simple no-brainer like doomers claim.

The ability to economically exploit coal, was enabled by several technological advances:
1) development of coked coal (the coal equivalent of charcoal)
2) cheap iron as a result of 1)
3) development of steam engines to pump water from deep mines
4) development of steam locomotive to transport coal from mines to cities
5) textile mills, which needed power, people, and transport

and probably several other things, for example laws of physics enabling engineers to calculate how their machines would work. Those times were highly fertile in the development of new ideas.

The real driver of change was the unique combination of need and technological innovation. The alternatives are there; maybe we are just not using them yet because we don't need to?

At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 5:10:00 AM PST, Blogger Rembrandt said...


Too simple an analogy on both sides of the debate I would say. The first example of going from hunter/gathering to agriculture has many more factors involved not taken into account. In addition it is not applicable to an industrial civilization energy transition

The first thing that made coal work energy effictively were water pumps.

By the way,how do we define "collapse" anyway?

At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 5:55:00 AM PST, Blogger half said...

Holds Up Scorecard

Hilarious dialogue JD, you have a fine ear.

At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 11:02:00 AM PST, Blogger Quantoken said...

What makes you think that a hunter has an easier life than a farmer, eh? It's absolutely wrong!

We are not taking about hunters like Dick Cheney who shot his friend in face. We are talking about hunters in the era when the human society makde the transition from hunting to farming. They have very primitive tools, and faced the real threat to their lifes from predators like lions and tigers, and snakes, and all the danger of the nature. They may go hungry for a few days at a time, and most days they come back home empty handed. And they have to be exposed to the extremes of the climate during days and nights. Think about it, I would rather prefer to be a farmer than a hunter if I live in that era, at least I have the comfort of sleeping under a roof at night and work in the relative safety and comfort in a field near my home. The human society made the transition from hunting/gathering to farming due to a good reason of better EROEI. Even today, with all the modern gears available, one is better off raising fish in a fish farm, rather than riding a boat for a trip to the ocean.

At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 12:59:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

That was some funny dialogue.


At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 1:17:00 PM PST, Blogger Oil Shock said...

The problem with lower EROEI is we get less net energy. So available energy for productive use will decline.

Our financial/banking system is based on growth and growth in productivity needs increasing quatities of energy. Just the fact the growth can not be sustain would cause banking/financial systems to collapse. With no growth, people who borrow money will not be able to pay back. So even a flatlining energy consumption is disastrous for world's economic system. Especially americans who live under a mountain of debt.

You need to checkout my website.

At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 1:54:00 PM PST, Blogger Big Bud Man said...

JD...genius...not sure if the analogy is as cohesive as you purport but great post...

At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 2:57:00 PM PST, Blogger Nick said...

The EROI of oil has fallen to about 10:1. Wind is higher than oil ever was, around 80:1, and improving. Solar PV is averaging around 15:1 (about 2 year payback for conventional silicon, much better for thin film and concentrating), and improving rapidly (at least 10% per year).

Why assume EROI of renewables will be lower than oil?

At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 3:27:00 PM PST, Blogger bc said...

oilshock sez:

Our financial/banking system is based on growth and growth in productivity needs increasing quantities of energy

I'm pretty fed up with people saying we are doomed if we do, and doomed if we don't. If doom is inevitable, why should I care?

I had a quick look at your site, and it appears like most other doomer sites. It collects up a whole load of "doom" stories, and picks over the tea leaves trying to guess which doom scenario will hit us first.

Well, I have decided to be deliberately "in denial" about such "pick a doom scenario, any doom scenario will do" mentalities. Tell me how we are not doomed, otherwise I'm not bothering.

Oh I forgot to congratulate JD on his acutely observed dialog, very funny ;-)

At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 3:29:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

Our financial/banking system is based on growth and growth in productivity needs increasing quatities of energy.

It doesn't really. What it needs is increasing quantities of usefulness from energy. If a miraculous invention could reduce all our energy usage by a factor of ten, would it stop the economy from growing? No, it would boost the economy, because everyone would be able to do ten times as much.

If you carpool to work, you are accomplishing the same amount with less energy. You are no less productive, and in fact you actually contribute more to other parts of the economy by saving money on trransportation.

To be larger this year than last year, the economy needs an increased amount of something. That could be wood, oil, people, efficiency, ingenuity or anything else. If there is a sufficient amount of resourcefulness to allow people to get to work without ridiculous SUVs, the economy can grow.

At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 10:54:00 PM PST, Blogger EnergySpin said...

Peak Wooder: Our entropic way of life, based on cheap wood and hyper-exponential growth has to stop. We've got to back to nature, and manure.

I find it interesting that the economic arguments/viewpoints of manurophilic eco-fascist pro-Ehrlich doomers are not recent. For example, the 18th century Physiocrats were advocating the same things: simplifying state, going back to the land, farmers = good/everyone else = worthless, do not feed the poor etc etc

At Wednesday, March 15, 2006 at 6:10:00 AM PST, Blogger Freak said...

BC, you describe my feelings exactly.

I don't think we neccessarily need to go back to a more agrarian society, but some simpler life might be more fulfilling that the rat race and insurmountable debt. beside the point though, I am talking about lifestyle change. I think if someone wants to engage in organic farming it certainly won't make the world a worse place. on the flip side of that I think I would like to see practical renewable energ, and fusion energy in my life time as well as practical space travel. pound for pound I would rather see a farm than a car dealership. but I think we should reach for the future
and simultaneously get back in touch with a simpler life outside throw-away consumerism that has so much stress and so many negative impacts on us and our enviroment.

At Wednesday, March 15, 2006 at 12:59:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

I'm with you. Organic food is all I eat, and I actually wouldn't mind living in an eco-village for a while. But to expect several billion people to "powerdown" permanently is amazingly unrealistic. If you think that's the only solution of course you'll believe in doom.

What we can do is live a bit more responsibly: bicycle everywhere, buy less useless crap, eat more fresh food, subscribe to renewable electricity, work from home and so on. But anything that involves going back to the pre-industrial age, the medieval age, the stone age or any other age is akin to a failure for te human race (although of course that's what the doomers want). We go forward or we go extinct, like any other species. We can't go to the very brink of colonizing the galaxy and then give up.

If the anarcho-primitivists really won't give up, though, I've found a great home for them: North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean. I give them about 30 seconds before they get dismembered.

At Thursday, March 16, 2006 at 9:50:00 PM PST, Blogger popmonkey said...

best... fucking... POD post.... ever... :D

At Thursday, March 16, 2006 at 10:33:00 PM PST, Blogger Zanth said...

LMAO! I'm SO linking this to my journal :)

At Thursday, March 16, 2006 at 10:45:00 PM PST, Blogger EnergySpin said...

Deport ALL women to Liberia? LOL

A couple of lines to consider for the second edition of this post:

"Modern agriculture is the conversion of wood to food"

"The hyperexponential entropic growth of cities, should end. Only a steady state feudal economy will re-instate the harmony between man and nature"

"We are fighting the Crusades not for the glory of Christ but for cheap wood"

At Friday, March 17, 2006 at 8:27:00 PM PST, Blogger Freak said...

"We are fighting the Crusades not for the glory of Christ but for cheap wood"


There is a guy that built a wood gasifier to run his ford truck.

At Saturday, March 18, 2006 at 2:24:00 AM PST, Blogger GermanDom said...

bc said (after points 1 to 5):
The real driver of change was the unique combination of need and technological innovation.

Not every culture that ran out of wood has adopted coal. 16th century Germany was on its way, was very "industrialize" (mining and iron-making, the Fuggers' trade, etc...) and survived by conservation - obviously nothing new to the Germans.

The result? The 30-Years'-War.

OK, ok, maybe the comparison is just as bad as jd's with the change to agriculture, but I think you get the point.

Now: If we run out of "wood" this time and we don't make a clean transition to the next technology, we will have missed a one-time historical chance...

(HATE to sound like a doomer)

At Saturday, March 18, 2006 at 1:19:00 PM PST, Blogger GermanDom said...

I meant to say, Germany was on its way to running out of wood at the time.

It had reached/passed Peak Wood. It did NOT adopt the energy source of coal (although later years proved that it did not lack the substance).

Nor did any of the other cultures which were running out of wood, such as the Italians (Venetians) who could no longer compete with the Dutch and English in international shipping in the 16th century as the wood on the Dalmatian coast was running out. Where was the coal then? Where was the next new technology?

It was not a matter of wooders vs. coalers, or in PeakSpeak, Cornucopians vs. Doomers; it was wooders vs... Nobody.

Nobody had the answer!!! There was no replacement product!!! (The bucket WAS made of wood!) Of 1000 instances where wood ran out, 1 succeded by adopting the next energy resource.

Back to the question of hunting vs. farming. Farming was hardly developed because wildlife refused to reproduce and be hunted. (Ok, this surely played a part too.) Farming began because people quit moving around. In that sense, it WAS a question of too many people. But not necessarily a question of too many people for the food supply. LIFESTYLE of sedacious people chose agriculture. Plants chose a sedentary culture (people)to propogate them. In this respect, it was not even a question of EROEI. Up or down the ladder did not matter. If I have less room to move, I will set up my environment to conform to it.

Ergo agriculture.

At Wednesday, June 6, 2007 at 3:47:00 AM PDT, Blogger Roger Nome said...

Hunter-gatherer lifestyle had a better EROEI? Probably not, but who cares right?

i.e. If I had a lifestyle where I got 10 calories dropped into my mouth every day, and I didn't have to expend any energy to get it I would still die of starvation. What's important is the amount of energy that the energy producing sector can deliver the non-energy sector. It just so happens that when EROEI withijn the energy producing sector decreases, the price of that energy increases (all other things being equal) so demand for energy decreases = less energy in the economy = lower economic growth (or recession)

At Wednesday, November 7, 2007 at 2:27:00 PM PST, Blogger skintax era said...

"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."

Just wrong. JD you've got to stop saying this stuff, it's so obviously, embarrassingly wrong that it undermines a lot of the other stuff you bring to our attention. Yes hunter/gatherers have a higher EROEI than farmers, but NOT at the point when they change from h/g to farming. They don't suddenly wake up one morning and say "hey lets give up the easy life of killing the occasional big mammal and spending the rest of our time singing, dancing and painting on cave walls. What would be way cooler would be slaving bent over in a field for much less energy return". Of course they don't. They change when the EROEI of farming is better than the EROEI of hunting/gathering. And when's that? When they've hunted out most of the game, thru improved hunting techniques and population growth. As that happens they have to expend more and more energy to get food. Their EROEI is dropping and the EROEI of farming is becoming preferable.
The exact same principle applies to the wood to coal transition. People in England didn't wake up one morning and say"lets stop using this cheap and abundant wood and start burning more expensive and dirty[even satanic as some feared]coal". They used wood until, thru deforestation, it became scarce and more expensive than coal. Then wood's EROEI was lower than coal's and they were forced to change to the now higher EROEI of coal. Sorry to go on but this concept is obviously much harder to grasp than it appears. Oil and alternatives work in the same way-the alternatives only become attractive when oil's EROEI starts dropping.

At Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 2:31:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what i dont understand is that if we are all going to die who cares what we do to this planet. most people will say that we should protect our future generations and blah,blah,blah. we all should care for people when we are on the planet but when we die life would go on as they say.

At Thursday, June 19, 2008 at 1:46:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)

At Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 6:50:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Skintax Era said it perfectly.

For all those that want to have a good read on the "Fates of Human societies" check Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. This is a refreshing. This will give, in the fist 100 pages, a good understanding of how the transition from hunting and gathering to growing and herding. Also it explores why these advancements occured in some places and how some places completly missed the "advancement" boat.

At Monday, June 15, 2009 at 3:45:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Damon said...

If I could say something. What happens when wood production really does peak globaly. Sure there are energy alternatives for coal and oil but would is pretty much irreplaceable. We need something that grows fast and is renewable. There might be one that im missing but im pretty sure we cant switch.

At Monday, June 15, 2009 at 3:49:00 AM PDT, Anonymous damon said...

So what happens when wood peaks. Then what because unlike coal and oil there really is no alternative for wood i can see. We use it for everything and please dont say iron or any of that because that is limited and we dont have the ablity to produce enough in the case of explosive demand.

At Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 6:04:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Tranquilino Jeantete said...

Regarding the EROEI of hunting and gathering versus agriculture: It is true that hunting and gathering has a higher EROEI, meaning that the hunters spend less of their day on food, and have time for inventing barbarously complex grammars, and mythology, and so forth. Agriculture, although it takes up almost all of ones time, allows a much higher population density, meaning a larger number of potential soldiers per square mile, leading to a win.

The move to agriculture resulted in a poorer diet, and much less free time. It was not chosen for any rational advantages. Rather it is a fact that cultures that have adopted agriculture have tended to survive.


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