Starting over from 1769


in Economics, Politics, The environment

Milan Ilnyckyj in toque with comic book effect

In 1769, James Watt invented a steam engine that worked well enough to be widely adopted by industry. By doing so, he effectively kicked off the industrial revolution: with coal-fed steam engines emerging as the first alternative to animal power that didn’t depend on being beside a river or on a windy ridge. As the recently concluded conference in Bali shows, there were consequences of that invention and the series of successor ideas it kicked off that could not have been anticipated at the time (though Svante Arrhenius identified the possibility of CO2 causing anthropogenic warming back in 1896).

If we could do the whole thing over, what would we do differently? For the purposes of this thought experiment, imagine that we know about the ecological consequences of fossil fuel based industrialization, but we don’t have access to specific knowledge about how to build 21st century engines, power plants, etc. We know about ozone and CFCs, about heavy metal poisoning and nuclear waste. We do not know how to build a modern wind turbine or supercritical coal plant. We have just learned how to build Watt’s engine, and know nothing more.

I think it is virtually certain we would still choose to kick things off with coal and steam, even if we had the best interests of all future generations in mind. At the outset, the benefits of that kind of industrialization accrue both to those alive and to those who will come after. These benefits include many of the bits of technology that make our lives so much longer, healthier, and leisure-filled than those of the vast majority of our forebears. The idea that life in a pre-industrial society was somehow superior is plainly contradicted by archaeological data: you can argue that people were somehow happier while living with constant parasites and disease and dropping dead at thirty, but it is a lot more credible to argue the converse.

What, then, would we do differently? We would invest differently – putting a lot more effort into the earlier development of non-fossil options. We would probably try to limit population growth. Aside from some relatively minor cases like ozone depleting CFCs, it isn’t clear that we have made a great many straightforward ecological mistakes. Rather, the fundamental problem seems to be that of scaling: too much being demanded of the natural world, in conditions where individuals make choices that do not give due consideration to the welfare of their fellows and of future generations.

While future technologies like carbon capture and storage could play a significant role, the most important elements of an effective climate strategy have existed for a century. Fossil fuel generation capacity must be phased out and replaced with renewable options; transportation needs to to shift to low-carbon and eventually no-carbon forms; the forests and other carbon sinks must be protected and enhanced; and capacity to adapt to change must be developed. While the specific approaches we take in relation to these strategies could benefit from more knowledge about the future, their basic outline is already plain.

Now that we can no longer claim – as a society – to live in a state of deprivation, we have no excuse for continuing to rely upon the descendants of Watt’s machine.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

. December 17, 2007 at 10:10 am

Agreeing upon a timetable

Dec 15th 2007 | NUSA DUA, BALI
A deal is finally struck in Bali

There will be four main pillars to the negotiations. Mitigation, or emissions reduction, will be at the heart of the deal. Developed countries, which are historically responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gases, will probably have to cut their emissions by as much as 40% by 2020. Developing countries will be expected to pursue more carbon-friendly development strategies. They will also get special financing from industrialised states to help to adapt to the threats of rising seas, more frequent extreme weather events, falling crop yields and increased migration. Finally, technology will be offered to poorer nations to help them to cut their emissions.

Litty December 17, 2007 at 2:55 pm

What, then, would we do differently?

The sad thing is, even if people had known the consequences of fossil fuel use, they would probably have acted in exactly the same way: embracing SUVs and heated driveways (no snow shovelling required!)

Anon December 17, 2007 at 3:28 pm

Bakunin: Left to themselves people are noble, generous, uncorrupted, they’d create a completely new kind of society if only people weren’t so blind, stupid and selfish.

Herzen: Is that the same people or different people?

Bakunin: The same people.

tristan December 18, 2007 at 4:34 am

I’m sorry, but doesn’t James Burke wildly disagree with your interpretation of the “start” of the industrial revolution?

tristan December 18, 2007 at 4:38 am

Doesn’t this whole discussion revolve around the moral demands on us to leave as much and as good left over, or at least not a desolate wasteland? It is unclear where this moral demand comes from, and even if it does come from somewhere or if that is a mistaken question, it is unclear it exerts much force upon men.

Milan December 18, 2007 at 8:52 am

I’m sorry, but doesn’t James Burke wildly disagree with your interpretation of the “start” of the industrial revolution?

I don’t think so. Pre-Watt steam engines were too inefficient and unreliable to kick off the IR. Clearly, everything in history has a big of ambiguity in dating (did WWII begin with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria or the German and Russian invasion of Poland). Still, the Watt engine was a critical development in the way I describe above.

Milan December 18, 2007 at 8:54 am

Doesn’t this whole discussion revolve around the moral demands on us to leave as much and as good left over, or at least not a desolate wasteland?

The Lockean notion of ‘as much and as good’ is very problematic. He saw nothing more unproductive than forests and was very keen to replace them with farmland. What you consider ‘as good’ has a lot to do with your preferences about landscapes and forms of wealth.

The point of the discussion is more whether earlier awareness of ecological consequences would have altered the course of industrial development and, if so, how.

. December 19, 2007 at 4:20 pm

Three large spoonfuls of crude oil contain about the same amount of energy as eight hours of human manual labor. When we fill our car with gas, we’re pouring into the tank the energy equivalent of about two years of human manual labor.

. May 9, 2010 at 8:40 pm

“It is hard to imagine a workplace more dismal and dangerous than a seventeenth-century coal mine. Dark, damp, cramped, and chilly, the mines had ceilings that could collapse on your head, air that could smother you, poison you, or explode in your face, and water that could rush in and drown you or trap you forever. Coal mining was one of the few occupations in which a person faced a very real risk of death by all four classical elements – earth, air, fire, and water. It was probably the most dangerous profession of a dangerous time, vivid and literal proof of the depths to which a society would sink for fuel. One moralist of an earlier century concluded that the need to send people to work in such horrid places was itself evidence that God was punishing humanity for the original sin.”

Freese, Barbara. Coal: A Human History. p.47 (hardcover)

. December 18, 2018 at 1:45 pm

According to Dr Allen, who also gave evidence in a case earlier this year in which seven Californian cities and counties sued big oil and gas firms for damage resulting from rising sea levels, one issue is whether the companies could have taken another course of action. In other words, did they know the damage that their activities were causing and, given the need for energy to run modern societies, what options were available at the time to mitigate emissions?

Both questions are hotly contested. Last year, for example, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University published a study of documents from Exxon and Mobil, which merged in 1999 to form ExxonMobil. Their review concluded that more than 80% of peer-reviewed studies written by the firm’s own researchers acknowledged that climate change was happening. ExxonMobil described the study, which accused the company of misleading the public about climate science, as “inaccurate and preposterous”.

As for whether companies could have taken action to avoid their emissions at a time when oil, coal and natural gas were the primary sources of energy, Dr Allen estimates that had emissions ceased entirely in the 1980s, roughly 40% of the warming being seen today relative to pre-industrial times could have been averted. That presupposes that alternative sources of energy were available. They were not.

. April 23, 2019 at 11:18 am

The UK government’s active support for fossil fuels and airport expansion is “beyond absurd”, Greta Thunberg has told MPs.

The 16-year-old Swedish student, who sparked a global youth-based movement when she began a “climate strike” outside Sweden’s parliament last year, gave a typically blunt speech. She told MPs: “This ongoing irresponsible behaviour will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of humankind.”

She said the UK had a “mind-blowing historical carbon debt”, referring to the nation’s cumulative emissions since the industrial revolution. The UK government also uses “very creative carbon accounting”, she said, by not including the emissions from imported goods in headline figures. The former UN chief Ban Ki-Moon also recently criticised the UK government’s funding of fossil fuel projects in other countries.

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