Jan 25, 2018 in Economics

Energy Crises, Then and Now

The first energy crisis that occurred in Britain and resulted in the Industrial Revolution was caused by deforestation. The point is that, in medieval Europe, wood was not only used in constructions but also in most industrial and domestic heating. Since the Middle Ages and Renaissance were imbued with numerous geographical discoveries, invention of printing and new types of firearms, etc., the need for energy substantially increased. Besides, heating and construction, as well as the refining and smelting of ores, required larger amounts of wood, which could not but cause a massive deforestation.

Although these pressures were felt throughout Europe, Britain was the first country that experienced an acute shortfall in trees (Nef, 1977).

The wood crisis in England was caused not by a natural lack of trees (as it was in Scotland) but expanding agriculture, commerce and industry, multiplied by a constantly shifting and growing population. High unemployment rates outside the tows made the population migrate in search of work, which also contributed to deforestation since forests had to be cut off to provide people with shelters. This is why, in the second half of the XVI century, Britain resorted to a new type of fuel – coal. Between 1550 and 1700, England witnessed the emergence of the first coal-burning economy, which resulted in the exploitation of natural resources and the incoming Industrial Revolution (Nef, 1977).

There was one more reason why coal as a fuel was not widespread in Britain and on the Continent till a serious depletion of forests. The point is that, until the early XVI century, mining was treated as robbery, “even as a kind of rape.” “Unlike the plow, which made the earth fertile, the pick and shovel removed what seemed to be irreplaceable soil and subsoil.”  By the beginning of the XVI century, however, this attitude changed and mining became prestigious. At first, “the new dignity” was attached exclusively to metallic ores since coal was viewed as “a dirty fuel,” and there was no need to produce it as long as an abundance of trees was available. Nonetheless, this firm belief in nature’s abundance was soon shattered by high wood prices. The government fiercely tried to stop deforestation due to the fact that “the shortage of lumber for shipbuilding seemed to threaten Britain’s existence” (Nef, 1977).

By the middle of the XVII century, coal became widespread to such an extent that it was treated not as a necessity but virtue. Since coal became an inherent part of industrial and domestic heating, shipments of coal grew rapidly and taxes on them were imposed. A new source of energy, coal also spurred the technological progress on. New methods of firing were developed, which protected materials from a direct contact with coal fumes. Since then, coal was utilized in various kinds of manufacturing. Baking bricks in coal fires, smelting nonferrous metals, glass manufacture with mineral fuel, etc. were invented with the emergence of coal industry (Nef, 1977).

Regardless of the fact that coal “had largely solved the fuel shortage before 1700,” the demand for wood still existed. The expansion of metallurgical industries and mining, growing number of horse-drawn vehicles and ships made the British import wood. Instead, the British exported coal and textiles manufactured with coal fuel. This is how the foreign and coastwise trade resulted “in the development of a large British merchant marine.” Besides, coal production allowed Britain to become “virtually self-efficient” in salt since they burned coal to evaporate water for its production.  Only in 1920s, people realized that the supplies of fossil fuels were exhaustible. This awareness drew attention to natural gas and petroleum, the resources of which “were not much exploited until later in the XIX century” (Nef, 1977).

The modern world, on the contrary, made profound use of oil, which resulted in peak oil

Once rich reserves of oil are now depleted, which implies that the global oil crises is looming on the horizon. According to statistics, “The Earth’s total endowment of oil, before humans started using it, was roughly 2 trillion barrels of recoverable oil” (“The Global Oil Crises,” 2008). Each year, humans consume 31 billion barrels, and if this rate does not change, the oil will be gone in 32 years. “Peak oil occurs when the declines overwhelm the increases,” and this phenomenon is rather disturbing since oil production is unlikely to increase in the nearest future. What makes the matters worse and the perspective of finding new reserves of oil dimmer is that “some of the world’s oil producing regions have already experienced steep declines.” In the US, it happened in 1971; in the North Sea – in 1999; in Mexico – in 2006. The same is likely to happen in the Russian Federation and Middle East (“The Global Oil Crises,” 2008).

As the major oil companies put it, “One thing is clear: the era of easy oil is over. What we all do next will determine how well we meet the energy needs of the entire world in this century and beyond” (“The Global Oil Crises,” 2008). The given motto proves that the modern world is facing the same problems as in the XVI century: human ruthless and careless exploitation of natural resources depletes them and threatens human survival. As in the case with an early energy crisis, the modern world seems to have abused nature’s abundance and generosity. Nonetheless, the first energy crises teaches humanity that alternative sources of energy can be found and production of new fuels may cause more revolutions, which can change human lives and, perhaps, help humanity survive. 


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