The industrial revolution required more energy resources than provided by the annual cycle of photosynthesis

Michael Giberson

Tony Wrigley’s new book is Energy and the English Industrial Revolution. He provides some flavor of the fundamental thesis of the book in a post at “Opening Pandora’s box: A new look at the industrial revolution“:

The most fundamental defining feature of the industrial revolution was that it made possible exponential economic growth – growth at a speed that implied the doubling of output every half-century or less. This in turn radically transformed living standards. Each generation came to have a confident expectation that they would be substantially better off than their parents or grandparents. Yet, remarkably, the best informed and most perspicacious of contemporaries were not merely unconscious of the implications of the changes which were taking place about them but firmly dismissed the possibility of such a transformation. The classical economists Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo advanced an excellent reason for dismissing the possibility of prolonged growth.

Photosynthesis was the source of mechanical energy which came predominantly from human and animal muscle power derived from food and fodder. Wind and water power were of comparatively minor importance. Photosynthesis was also the source of all heat energy used in production processes since the heat came from burning wood.

The implications of this situation in limiting productive potential are clear and dire. The land constraint was a severe impediment to growth. It is epitomised in a phrase of Sir Thomas More. He remarked that sheep were eating up men. An expansion of wool production meant less land available to grow food crops. Or again, it is easy to show that, if iron smelting had continued to depend upon charcoal, a rise in the production of iron to the scale which became normal in the mid-nineteenth century would have involved covering the entire land surface of Britain with woodland.

Breaking free from photosynthesis

Access to energy that did not spring from the annual product of plant photosynthesis was a sine qua non for breaking free from the constraints afflicting all organic economies. By an intriguing paradox, this came about by gaining access to the products of photosynthesis stockpiled over a geological time span. It was the steadily increasing use of coal as an energy source which provided the escape route.

Much more at VoxEU.