4 Sep 2007
Peak Oil and Climate Change? I Blame Cornwall.
Well no not really, but I was very surprised to find when visiting St Ives Museum in Cornwall a couple of weeks back that the beginning of the fossil fuel era was so close to home. Although peak oilers like to trace the beginning of our current woes back to the drilling of the first oil wells in Pennsylvania in the 1850s, the real beginnings go back earlier, to 1712, and a man called Thomas Newcomen. It was that year that he finally got his steam engine working properly, which burnt coal to make steam, and then used that steam to drive a pump which drained water from the mines to enable vastly increased rates of coal mining. According to Bill McKibben’s recent book ‘Deep Economy’ (review gestating), his machine replaced a team of 500 horses walking in a circle, an astonishing breakthrough.
Newcomen’s engine was the first time that humans meaningfully began to dip into and make significant use of the vast storehouse of ancient sunlight beneath the Earth’s surface, a process that has, of course, grown exponentially ever since. As time went by we replaced coal with oil and oil with gas, but in essence, it is the same stuff, and the carbon dioxide side effects of its combustion have led to the dire situation we now face.
It was striking as well, walking around the museum, that just as Newcomen’s machine increased coal mining’s reach beneath the ground, it also hugely deepened the potential for miserable, back breaking and dehumanising work. The Museum contains some of the very first photos ever taken underground in the mid 1800s of miners at work. The photographer used a magnesium flash, and so his photos fail to catch the true gloomy subterranean misery of life as a coal miner, with one’s work illuminated only by the candle stuck on the front of one’s helmet (see right).
Health and safety considerations were clearly over a century away, and human life was cheap. You can imagine that if the sledgehammer being swung in this picture were to miss its target and crush the kneeling miner’s hand, he would not have had any sickness benefit to fall back onto. One was only ever one hammer swing away from destitution. Richard Heinberg has often said he regards the Industrial Revolution as the worst thing that ever happened to us. Certainly it opened up unimagined scales of warfare, dehumanising work and climatic interference, along with all the undoubted benefits we would be very reluctant to give up now.
Thomas Newcomen may come to be seen as the man who, although he didn’t necessarily sign humanity’s death warrant, certainly wrote the first draft. Clearly he didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, and removing water from mines was a good idea, but once humanity had a taste of the power that fossil fuels could give, and the extraordinarily concentrated energy they embodied, we were hooked. The rest, as they say, is history.
4 Sep 2:10pm
No-one can predict the long-term future. That shouldn’t stop us from trying to solve our present problems, as Newcomen was doing. But there is something important to take from this story.
The only things we can predict accurately are that human nature doesn’t change, weapons get more destructive, and that there will probably be unforeseen consequences, both good and bad, of things we do, notwithstanding our good intentions.
Almost certainly there will be unforeseen consequences of the transition towns movement. Maybe more people will want to live in transition towns, and that will drive up property prices, making it more difficult for young locals to get on the property ladder.
We cannot tell the future, but that shouldn’t stop us using our inventiveness from trying to solve problems and make the world a better place. But we can draw a lesson from the Newcomen example, and try to predict the long-term consequences of our actions.
By doing this we can analyse any negative consequences of the transition towns movement or implementations, and try to solve, reduce, or minimise them. Doing so would strengthen the movement.
5 Sep 2:23am
One of the striking things about Cornwall is how such a beautiful place could have been so trashed by the Industrial Revolution. Everywhere you go there are disused mine workings and abandoned quarries. As a child I used to wonder why, if this was all so profitable, the owners couldn’t afford to clean the place up. Naive of me of course. The problem with the Industrial Revolution was not that it was industrial, but that it wasn’t enough of a revolution. Technology changed rapidly but the social arrangements to protect life didn’t keep up. The result was that industrialists could get away with wrecking the planet at an ever increasing pace, for ever greater profit. Looking at today’s China you can see that this dynamic is continuing: the Industrial Revolution is by no means over. And it won’t be complete until either a) there’s nothing left to destroy, or b) we learn how to nurture social institutions that can cope with technological innovation while promoting life and not just financial profit (‘sickness benefit’ being a good example). Then there’s possibility c) the fossil energy that Newcomen first harnessed may start to run out. This would make the industrial revolution slowly collapse (e.g. ‘Sure we had antibiotics and notebook computers last decade, but we can’t afford to make them this decade’), or else it will take a radical turn from a using-more-energy-faster paradigm to a using-less-energy-smarter paradigm.
Even if c) happens, and we have less energy to fuel innovation, we will still need a strong dose of b), benign social institutions. The institutions that frame our technology can work for good or for ill. Our dominant ideology of ‘progress’ suggests that in the future everything will be better than it is now. Even peakniks are prone to this way of thinking. But we could easily move backwards, especially in terms of freedom and opportunity. For instance, a dictatorship running on wind power is not so hard to envisage. Isn’t that a reasonable, if simplistic, description of the English parliamentary system for much of its (pre-Newcomen) history? When the copper mines and clay pits of Cornwall get properly cleaned up – that will be the real revolution. Then we can start mending China…
7 Sep 6:06pm
I think you should read what you wrote, Ok ?
a pump which drained water from the mines to enable vastly increased rates of coal mining
His invention only changed the speed of existing process, not started anything new!
Now, it’s true his invention postponed collapse of coal industry – but that’s it: it certainly not created this industry in first place and it certainly not created oil industry…
8 Feb 3:35pm
Newcomen wrote the first draft of humanity’s death warrent!! What myopia! What a great example of being caught in the intellectual mire of our own time! We are in the midst of a great challenge but why be caught by the most pessimistic viewpoint of the outcome. A more realistic outcome will be achieved by people like Newcomen. People, who take a chance. People, who engineer. People, who will move our civilization off carbon based energy to the newer forms that are talked of everywhere on this internet. Listen! We are about to revolutionize energy production. Look at the number of articles! This is not the world of the 1970’s . Luddites take ten giant steps to the rear. The future does not favor your position. Newcomen is the techical father of that world to come as well as this one. I’ll be contributing to his monument fund.