Sunday, November 9, 2014

Britain's industrial revolution was fueled by innovation, not by coal

Yes, coal for sure. But it took a series of innovations to utilize coal effectively. Among other things.

Perhaps the most common explanation you’ll hear of Britain’s success in the Industrial Revolution is that it was all down to the presence of easily accessible coal deposits.

The most prominent and thoughtful proponent of this position is Tony Wrigley. I’ve been reading some chapters from his most recent book, Energy and the English Industrial Revolution.

He identifies a significant potential barrier to sustained modern economic growth in the form of energy capture. Essentially, the pre-IR economy was an ‘organic’ one - our access to the sun’s energy was largely mediated by the ability of plants to photosynthesise it, allowing us to then burn organic matter for heat.

The IR, however, depended upon Britain’s unique transition to burning fossil fuels.
Howe then runs through eleven objections to that thesis. You'll have to read them at his blog; I'm not going to attempt a summary. But I will list the last along with his conclusion:
11. Taking the last point even further, coal does not explain the way in which innovation could be sustained beyond coal’s usefulness to the economy. Even if we were to have all the innovations associated with coal alone, it’s perfectly plausible to assume from the historical record that we could have had a prolonged Golden Age from coal-power, but then stagnated again by, say, the 1870s. Coal does not explain the innovations that led to the electric motor, national electricity systems, nor to the use of oil in the internal combustion engine. More recently, it does not explain the recent advances in using solar power, tidal power, geothermal energy, nuclear fission or even natural gas.

From the above, I think a common theme emerges. We need to have explanatory factors that explain the causes of innovation, applicable to a wide range of industries. Otherwise, we cannot explain the unprecedented appearance and persistence of innovation-led, sustained and replicable economic growth. The presence and use of coal in Britain just doesn’t cut it.
It is, of course, minds that cause innovation. In terms of the theory of cultural ranks, the industrial revolution is the product of rank 3 thought.

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