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.