A Free-Market Energy Blog

Appreciating the Master Resource

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 2, 2024

Energy is ubiquitous to modern industrial life. It is the fourth factor of production in addition to the textbook triad of land, labor, and capital. Julian Simon coined the term master resource to describe the resource of resources, energy.

Energy as been recognized as a unique driver of economic activity and human betterment for almost two centuries–about as long as carbon-based energies came to be recognized as a sea change from the inherently dilute, unreliable renewable energies of before. The Industrial Revolution was enabled by coal, the energy required by the new machinery, as W. S. Jevons so brilliantly saw in his day.

The quotations below, some classic, resonate as well or better today than ever before. They are as ‘right” as the peak-oil quotations (compiled here and here) have been wrong. Interestingly, even the foes of plentiful, affordable energy (oil, gas, and coal, if not hydro and nuclear) have also recognized the primary role of energy in modern life as will be documented in Part II.

19th Century Recognition

“Energy will do anything that can be done in the world.”

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), quoted in Vaclav Smil, Energy: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: One World, 2006), epigraph.

“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 in the laborious poverty of early times.”

– William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question (London: Macmillan, 1865), p. viii.

“Coal is everything to us. Without coal, our factories will become idle, our foundries and workshops be still as the grave; the locomotive will rust in the shed, and the rail be buried in the weeds. Our streets will be dark, our houses uninhabitable. Our rivers will forget the paddlewheel, and we shall again be separated by days from France, by months from the United States. The post will lengthen its periods and protract its dates. A thousand special arts and manufactures, one by one, then in a crowd, will fly the empty soil, as boon companions are said to disappear when the cask is dry. We shall miss our grand dependence, as a man misses his companion, his fortune, or a limb, every hour and at every turn reminded of the irreparable loss. Wise England will then be the silly virgin without the oil in her lamp.”

– Anonymous, The Times, April 19, 1866, p. 10; reprinted in Sandra Peart, ed., W. S. Jevons: Critical Responses, 4 vol. (New York: Routledge, 2003), vol. 4, p. 196.

“Kerosene has, in one sense, increased the length of life among the agricultural population. Those who, on account of the dearness or inefficiency of whale oil, were accustomed to go to bed soon after sunset and spend almost half their time in sleep, now occupy a portion of the night in reading and other amusements; and this is more particularly true of the winter seasons.”

– John Draper (1864), quoted in Harold Williamson and Arnold Daum, The American Petroleum Industry: The Age of Illumination (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1959), p. 320.

Early 20th Century Recognition

“The strategic place of bituminous coal in the industrial order requires no explanation. So obvious is it that Adam Smith’s remark, ‘coals are a less agreeable fuel than wood’ seems naïve, and the act of a fourteenth century parliament in outlawing ‘the burning of coal’ as a ‘public nuisance’ almost unthinkable. Very briefly, our whole productive system is built about the machine-process; the machine-process uses mechanical energy; and the great source of mechanical energy is coal.”

– Walton Hamilton and Helen Wright, The Case of Bituminous Coal (New York: Institute of Economics/Macmillan, 1926), p. 2.

“The industrial primacy of bituminous coal is today unchallenged. As power, the labor of human beings is no longer of any current account. The ox as a beast of burden stalks only the dim ways of history and the horse has been dislodged from the treadmill to amble along unfrequented country roads. It is of the irony of time that mules are today employed in the mining of a product which made their own energy obsolete.”

– Walton Hamilton and Helen Wright, The Case of Bituminous Coal (New York: Institute of Economics/Macmillan, 1926), p. 3.

In its widest sense on its material side, history is the story of man’s increasing ability to control energy. By energy we mean the capacity for doing work, for causing—not controlling—movement, for making things go or making things stop, whether they be trains or watches or mills or men. In order that anything may be done, energy is required.”

– James Fairgrieve, Geography and World Power (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1921), p. 3.

Julian Simon

“Energy is the master resource, because energy enables us to convert one material into another. As natural scientists continue to learn more about the transformation of materials from one form to another with the aid of energy, energy will be even more important. . . . For example, low energy costs would enable people to create enormous quantities of useful land. The cost of energy is the prime reason that water desalination now is too expensive for general use; reduction in energy cost would make water desalination feasible, and irrigated farming would follow in many areas that are now deserts. And if energy were much cheaper, it would be feasible to transport sweet water from areas of surplus to arid areas far away. Another example: If energy costs were low enough, all kinds of raw materials could be mined from the sea.”

– Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 162.

 Vaclav Smil

“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.”

– Vaclav Smil, Energies (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), p. 134.

“Energy is the only universal currency: one of its many forms must be transformed to another in order for stars to shine, planets to rotate, plants to grow, and civilizations to evolve. Recognition of this universality was one of the great achievements of nineteenth-century science, but, surprisingly, this recognition has not led to comprehensive, systematic studies that view our world through the power prism of energy.”

– Vaclav Smil, Energies (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), p. x.

“The twentieth century was the first era dominated by fossil fuels and electricity, and their vastly expanded supply, lower cost, increasing flexibility of use, and ease of control created the first high-energy civilization in history. Mechanization and chemization of agriculture have given us a plentiful and varied food supply: more than a four fold increase in crop productivity during the twentieth century has been made possible by a roughly 150-fold increase of fossil fuels and electricity used directly and indirectly in global cropping.”

– Vaclav Smil, “The Energy Question, Again,” Current History, December 2000, p. 408.

“Every event in history can occur only insofar as there is available whatever amount of energy (i.e., work) is necessary to carry it out. We can think thoughts wildly, but if we do not have the wherewithal to convert them into action, they will remain [just] thoughts.”

– Richard Adam, Paradoxical Harvest (1982), quoted in Vaclav Smil, Energy in World History (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994, epigraph.

Erich Zimmermann

“The great dramatic shift to mineral energy is the very basis of technological progress. One could almost concentrate the whole history of economic development into this simple transition: man power to animal power to machine power.”

– Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 58.

“The shift to machine power changed America from a rural agricultural nation to an industrial giant. It also made men’s lives easier and richer. In 1850, the average American worked seventy hours a week. Today he works forty-three. In 1850, our average American produced about 27 cents’ worth of goods in an hour. Today he produces about $1.40 worth in dollars of the same purchasing power.”

– Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 58.

“Civilizations resting on the modern resource pattern of inanimate energy-metal-science-capital are highly efficient as systems of physical production and therefore, theoretically at least, they are capable of freeing man from drudgery and of giving him leisure and wealth, the basis of higher spiritual development and the larger life.”

– Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 73.

“Man was not man until he could use fire, a chemical energy with a thousand uses; he was not civilized until he had learned through domestication to appropriate the ‘foreign’ energy of animals and through agriculture, to harness better the ‘free’ energy of solar radiation and the chemical energies of light, water, and soil.”

– Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p 55.

Henry Linden

“Substitution of energy-intensive technologies powered by commercial energy forms for human and animal labor and the attendant productivity gains first led to abolition of slavery, serfdom, and child labor and culminated with the emancipation of women in the West. Thus, societal advances are inextricably linked to growing energy abundance and electrification and increasing personal mobility. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, life expectancy and literacy correlate closely with primary energy and electricity consumption, as does energy scarcity with poverty and environmental degradation. Electrification with modern, efficient and non-polluting power sources is by far the most effective way to improve environmental quality.”

– Henry Linden, “Operational, Technological and Economic Drivers for Convergence of the Electric Power and Gas Industries,” The Electricity Journal, May 1997, p. 14.

Lee Raymond

“Energy is the biggest business in the world; there just isn’t any other industry that begins to compare.”

– Lee Raymond, Chairman, ExxonMobil, quoted in Staff Article, “The Slumbering Giants Awake,” The Economist, February 10-16, 2001, p. 6.

… and One Other Fellow

“Energy . . . is the great enabler for all peoples around the world. It can also be expected to remain primary in future centuries as ocean and space colonization proceed. The sudden disappearance of hydrocarbons—for example following a ten-year forced phase-out as urged by a popular book sounding the global warming alarm—could snap the support system maintaining current population levels and force a return to ecologically inferior primitive biomass. It would not be energy sustainability but energy holocaust.”

– Robert Bradley Jr., Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability (Washington: American Legislative Exchange Council, 2000), pp. 27–28.

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