“Let’s be clear: the frequent comparison of the fossil fuel and tobacco industries is nonsense. Fossil fuels are a valuable energy source that has done yeomen service for humankind. One gallon (3.7 liters) of gasoline (petrol) contains the equivalent of 400 hours of labor by a healthy adult. Fossil fuels raised living standards in much of the world.”
– James Hansen, June 2021
The father of the climate alarm is a straight and accurate shooter on many things, that is outside of climate models and unsettled climate dynamics. His quotation above throws water in the face of Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University, as well as such climate campaigners as Michael Mann and Andrew Dessler.
Hansen’s view is actually mainstream. There is no doubt that dense mineral energies that emerged and took hold by the end of the 19th century unleashed the machines of progress. W. S. Jevons in The Coal Question (1865) noted:
Coal, in truth, stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country—the universal aid—the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times.
Coal was the first mineral energy out of the blocks–it’s logic would be joined by petroleum and then natural gas.
Energy polymath Vaclav Smil (Energies: 1999: 134) put a modern mark on the same point:
By providing energy flows of high power density, fossil fuels and electricity made it possible to embark on a large-scale industrialization creating a predominantly urban civilization with unprecedented levels of economic growth reflected in better health, greater social opportunities, higher disposable incomes, expanded transportation and an overwhelming flow of information.
‘The Limiting Factor: Energy Growth, and Divergence, 1820–1913‘
“The first century of the energy transition entailed raising the volume of energy; the second, raising both its volume and its productivity.”
An essay last year in Economic History Review by Paolo Malanima, “The Limiting Factor: Energy Growth, and Divergence, 1820–1913,” documents how an energy revolution raised productivity and thus wages in the countries capitalizing on mineral energy (chiefly coal).
I reproduce Professor Malanima’s abstract and key points for the record.
On the basis of a new series on the consumption of traditional and modern sources of energy between 1820 and 1913, this article addresses the start of modern growth and the great divergence on the world scale.
Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the greater availability of modern energy sources expanded working capacity well beyond the potential of previous agricultural civilizations. Growth of energy consumption rose primarily in western Europe, northern America, and Oceania.
As a result, labour productivity rose, leading to an increase in real wages, which was an incentive to replace labour with mechanical engines. The higher energy consumption in these three macro‐areas led to global inequality in productive capacity and technology which peaked on the eve of the First World War.
Some quotations follow from Professor Malanima’s essay follow: