©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Loving Coal as an Explanation of the Industrial Revolution

by Deirdre McCloskey
May 2012
Filed under editorials

To explain the Industrial Revolution, people love coal mining. They just love it. They've always loved it, ever since someone showed them in school a map of coal seams and industrialization, ever since they saw the old, sentimental movie of coal miners in South Wales, "How Green Was My Valley." They love the simplicity of the engineering logic, and the ease with which one can praise a New Form of Energy, and make astounding calculations.

But as an explanation, or even much of a factor in the matter, coal has deep, deep problems. As deep as the mines of Northumberland. One is China, to speak of only one area with ample coal and no industrialization. Another, which I also discuss in the chapter on coal in Bourgeois Dignity (2010), is the United States, which used wood for most fuel well into the 19th century, and did have an industrial revolution, earlier even than likewise-cheap-wood-using Sweden. Another is transportation of the very coal, which could have gone from Newcastle to Amsterdam as easily as to London, and did, but with no industrial revolution in the Netherlands until the late nineteenth century (or for that matter in London or Norwich). Another is forestry, which in Japan and Prussia (for example) got around the scarcity of wood. Another is the British price of wood and charcoal, which did not rise. Another is Belgium, which did not industrialize until (shortly) after Britain, but was sitting on massive coal seams. Another is, as the UCLA historian Margaret Jacob has shown (see again the discussion in Bourgeois Dignity), that the British engineers of steam were obsessed with saving coal, though Britain was supposed to have an advantage from cheap coal. Another is water power, which was in fact the main fuel of the industrial revolution, and especially in Scotland and New England.

That is: many problems, none of which the advocates of coal have dealt with. Yet people soooooo love coal. . . . The economics and the comparative history, however, and the calculations of Gregory Clark and David Jacks [Eur. Rev. Ec. Hist. 11 (April): 39-72] suggests that coal was not a crux. Not at all.

Schumpeter had it right about a "business-admiring civilization." And Tocqueville: "Looking at the turn given to the human spirit in England by political life; seeing the Englishman. . . inspired by the sense that he can do anything. . . I am in no hurry to inquire whether nature has scooped out ports for him, or given him coal or iron."