William Stanley Jevons (1835−1882) and the coal question: Implications

Category Other
Group GSI.IR
Location International Geological Congress,oslo 2008
Author Oldroyd, David
Holding Date 15 September 2008

Jevons attended University College London, studying mathematics and chemistry. Before graduating, he was appointed Government Assayer for the Royal Mint in Sydney and stayed in Australia for 5 years. There he studied meteorology, botany, geography, geology, sociology/economics and conducted Sydney’s first social survey. He published a paper on clouds and one on Australian geology. Returning to Britain, he completed his degree and studied philosophy and political economy. He sought to ’mathematize’ political economy and after working at Owens College Manchester (1863−1876) he obtained a chair in political economy at UCL being by then proficient in science, logic/philosophy, economics, mathematics, statistics, and social theory. His first major book was entitled ’The Coal Question’ (1865). It took a ’Malthusian’ view of the world, drawing extensively on Edward Hull’s ’Coal-fields of Great Britain’ (1851). At the time, Britain led the Industrial Revolution, its economic and political success depending on its coal deposits. But Jevons examined statistics of coal resources and use to argue that Britain’s industrial and military supremacy couldn’t be permanent because of the country’s finite quantity of accessible coal: he was a ’peak coal’ advocate. He reached his conclusion by using geological evidence to estimate the quantity of accessible coal and comparing that with the increasing rate of use. Moreover, he argued that increased efficiency of coal production wouldn’t produce economies of use. Greater use encouraged greater efficiency, leading to greater profits, then greater demand, and thus greater use: ’Jevons’ Paradox’. This has many manifestations (e.g. better roads lead to greater car use). Jevons’ predictions for British industry’s future proved incorrect because her industrial production has not been limited by local coal shortages, due to the substitution of oil, gas and nuclear energy for coal, which Jevons understandably failed to foresee. Nevertheless, the problem he foresaw has only been postponed, not solved. We are now probably ’over the peak’ of ’peak oil’. Capitalism is only successful for expanding economies. (Cf. Adam Smith: "The progressive state is in reality the cheerful and the hearty state to all the different orders of society; the stationary state is dull; the declining melancholy".) But expansion without limit is impossible. It is not, however, the approaching limit of fuels that may lead to ’melancholy’. Even before the full effects of ’peak fuel’ are reached (from the Earth having a finite ’dowry’ of low-entropy fossil fuel resources), the economic and social system may collapse because of problems of pollution and climate change. Substitution of solar and wind power for fossil fuels might conceivably provide a stable (but ’dull’) world. But it is probably too late for such a switch to occur successfully, given the size of the world’s population, the ’prisoners’ dilemma’, and the ’tragedy of the commons’.