Matt Ridley: How Fossil Fuels Ended Slavery

The first three excerpts this week argued the quantity of natural resources are 1) not as limited as experts have believed (Daniel Yergin), 2) not as important as our technological and political ability to access them (Peter Huber/Mark Mills), and 3) not “natural,” in that their usefulness is not an  inherent feature, but rather an artificial human innovation (Robert Bradley).  This excerpt from Matt Ridley’s brilliant 2010 book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves explains how non-renewable, finite energy sources paradoxically made economic growth sustainable. With inanimate objects doing the work instead of slaves, we can, as he says, all “live the life of a Sun King.”

In 1807, as Parliament in London was preparing to pass at last William Wilberforce’s bill to abolish the slave trade, the largest factory complex in the world had just opened at Ancoats in Manchester. Powered by steam and lit by gas, both generated by coal, Murrays’ Mills drew curious visitors from all over the country and beyond to marvel at their modern machinery. There is a connection between these two events. The Lancashire cotton industry was rapidly converting from water power to coal. The world would follow suit and by the late twentieth century, 85 percent of all energy used by humankind would come from fossil fuels. It was fossil fuels that eventually made slavery–along with animal power, and wood, wind and water–uneconomic. Wilberforce’s ambition would have been harder to obtain without fossil fuels. ‘History supports this truth,” writes the economist Don Boudreaux. ‘Capitalism exterminated slavery.’

The story of energy is simple. Once upon a time all work was done by people for themselves using their own muscles. Then there came a time when some people got other people to do the work for them, and the result was pyramids and leisure for a few, drudgery and exhaustion for the many. Then there was a gradual progression from one source of energy to another: human to animal to wind to fossil fuel. In each case, the amount of work one man could do for another was amplified by the animal or the machine. The Roman empire was built largely on human muscle power, in the shape of slaves. It was Spartacus and his friends who built the roads and houses, who tilled the ground and trampled the grapes. There were horses, forges and sailing ships as well, but the chief source of watts in Rome was people.

The period that followed the Roman empire, especially in Europe, saw the widespread replacement of that human muscle power by animal muscle power. The European early middle ages were the age of the ox. The invention of dried-grass hay enabled northern European to feed oxen through the winter. Slaves were replaced by beasts, more out of practicality than compassion one suspects. Oxen eat simpler food, complain less and are stronger than slaves… With the invention of the horse collar, oxen then gave way to horses, which can plough at nearly twice the speed of an ox thus doubling the productivity of a man and enabling each farmer either to feed more people or to spend more time consuming other’s work.

In turn oxen and horses were soon being replaced by inanimate power. The watermill, known to the Romans but comparatively little used, became so common in the Dark Ages that by the time of the Domesday Book (1086), there was one for every fifty people in southern England…. The windmill appeared first in the twelfth century and spread rapidly throughout the Low Countries, where water power was not an option. But it was peat, rather than wind, that gave the Dutch the power to become the world’s workshop in the 1600s. Peat dug on a vast scale from freshly drained bogs fuelled the brick, ceramic, beer, soap, salt and sugar industries. Harlem bleached linen for the whole of Germany. At a time when timber was scarce and expensive, peat gave the Dutch their chance.

Hay, water, and wind are ways of drawing upon the sun’s energy: the sun powers plants, rain and the wind. Timber is a way of drawing on a store of the sun’s energy laid down in previous decades–on solar capital, as it were. Peat is an older store of the sunlight–solar capital laid down over millennia. And coal, whose high energy content enabled the British to overtake the Dutch, is still older sunlight, mostly captured around 300 million years before. The secret of the industrial revolution was shifting from current solar power to stored solar power. Not that human muscle power disappeared: slavery continued, in Russia, the Caribbean and America as well as many other places. But gradually, erratically, more and more of the goods people made were made with fossil energy.

Fossil fuels cannot explain the start of the industrial revolution. But they do explain why it did not end. Once fossil fuels joined in, economic growth truly took off, and became almost infinitely capable of bursting through the Malthusian ceiling and raising living standards. Only then did growth become, in a word, sustainable. This leads to a shocking irony. Economic growth only became sustainable when it began to rely on non-renewable, non-green, non-clean power. Every economic boom in history, from Uruk onwards, had ended in bust because renewable sources of energy ran out: timber, cropland, pasture, labour, water, peat. All self-replenishing, but far too slowly, and easily exhausted by a swelling populace.

Coal not only did not run out, no matter how much was used: it actually became cheaper and more abundant as time went by, in marked contrast to charcoal, which always grew more expensive once its use expanded beyond a certain point, for the simple reason that people had to go further in search of timber. Had England never used coal, it could still have had an industrial miracle of sorts, because it could have (and did) use water power to drive the frames and looms that turned Lancashire into the cotton capital of the world. But water power, though renewable, is very much finite, and Britain’s industrial boom would have petered out as expansion became impossible, population pressure overtook income and wages fell, depressing demand.

This is not to imply that non-renewable resources are infinite–of course not. The Atlantic Ocean is not infinite, but that does not mean you have to worry about bumping into Newfoundland if you row a dinghy out of a harbour in Ireland. Some things are finite but vast; some things are infinitely renewable, but very limited. Non-renewable resources such as coal are sufficiently abundant to allow an expansion of both economic activity and population to the point where they can generate sustainable wealth for all the people of the planet without hitting a Malthusian ceiling, and can then hand the baton to some other form of energy.

The blinding brightness of this realisation still amazes me: we can build a civilisation in which everybody lives the life of the Sun King, because everybody is served by (and serves) a thousand servants, each of whose service is amplified by extraordinary amounts of inanimate energy and each of whom is also living like the Sun King.

(Excerpted from pages 214-217)


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