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Coal, Forests and Population: An Industrial Lesson
March 24, 2021
by William P. Meyers

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Charcoal to Coal Saved British Forests, Once Upon A Time

"The whole fabric of modern industry rests on iron. At the beginning of the eighteenth century [1700] the English iron industry was a feeble plant in a state of actual decline. There was plenty of iron ore in the country, but a scarcity of wood, and without wood, or, rather, without the charcoal produced from wood, that iron ore could not be turned into pig iron and cast iron at the blast furnace, or into bar iron at the forge. The furnaces and the forges had eaten up the woodlands in their old home, Sussex, and were beginning to strip other less promising districts bare." [1]

An environmentalist in 1710 would well have cheered the discovery that coal could be used to smelt iron ore. A vision of Britain's forests restored might have entranced the tree-loving public. Carbon dioxide had been described as early as 1640, but the era was at the dawn of modern chemistry, and no one could guess that carbon dioxide would, centuries later, be found to be a greenhouse gas. In 1700 the population of England was 5.2 million. The British Empire was in its infancy. No one realized they were in an industrial revolution yet.

By 1800 trees that might have gone to charcoal in 1700 were going to build housing for a booming population of 7.75 million. The British Empire had grown. Calories, food, was increasingly being imported from abroad despite improvements in local agriculture. Coal was used for iron production, steam engines, and household heat. Iron was in high demand, which would boom with the coming of the railroads, which ran on coal. No one cared about carbon dioxide emissions, though smog from burning coal was already a problem. Worse, the industrial revolution had spread to many nations, notably France, Germany, and the United States of America. By the way, the global human population is estimated to have been near 1 billion in 1800, and grew to 1.6 billion by 1900 (only 30 million were in England).

Fast forward to today, and we have a planet in crisis, and many ideas about how to deal with that. For environmentalists today's top crises are global warming, species extinction, forest and wild lands destruction, and toxins including micro-plastics, chemicals, and garbage generally. For humanitarians there are poverty, hunger, medical need, and unequal treatment. For religions there is loss of faith. For politicians, possible loss of elections whether they fix any part of this mess or not. Add in wars and possible wars.

In China the Communist Party is based on science and knows global warming is a bad, real thing that could destroy their nation as well as the world. On the other hand, they know Chinese history. That, more than Marxist orthodoxy, is a mandate to keep the people of China as happy as possible. Happiness is dependent on material prosperity, and most Chinese aspire to an American standard of living. While many Chinese have achieved that in the past 20 years, hundreds of millions have not. That means more appliances, utilities, and transportation options. Despite having the world's highest rate of manufacturing solar panels, and the world's largest hydroelectric dam, much of that power will continue to come from fossil fuels, including coal. China is also the world's largest steel producer, and that also consumes vast quantities of the high-quality coal known as coke. On the plus side China's population size is relatively stable, currently near 1.4 billion. That is despite a two-child policy in the 1970s and then a one-child policy. Today, while there is encouragement of larger families, one-child families and even no-child families are increasingly popular.

In the United State of America we have a choice between a climate-change-denying party, the Republican Party, and a climate-change-acknowledging party, the Democratic Party. The two parties differ on other issues, but more importantly, they are split internally every which-way. The Democrats have constituents who want a higher standard of living, and not delivering that, or at least the hope of that, imperils their politicians. A higher standard of living means, almost always, more energy consumption, appliances, more housing space, and transportation options. More steel oand plastic, not less.

So to try to placate all parties the Democrats have gone with the theme of the Green New Deal. That is, more windmills, solar panels, and electric cars. They (we: disclaimer: I am an active member of the Democratic Party.) say this will bring better jobs and pay and prosperity, while cutting greenhouse gas emissions. As to population, Democrats hope that if contraception and abortion are freely available, Americans will not have too many children. Do not ask a politician to name a number. I have a number: one. But this problem intersects with the prior argument over contraception and abortion: it was phrased as an issue to free women. And it is hard to tell free women they cannot have three or more children. Add in the immigration issue. The easiest way to increase your environmental destructiveness if you are in a third world nation is to move to a first world nation.

"The peace and prosperity of the Empire have depended far less upon wisdom or wickedness of Mongol, Ming or Manchu rulers than upon the pressure of population on the means of sustenance. The cause of unrest, through the ages, has been the acute economic pressure necessarily resulting from an excessively high birth rate." [2]

It is a Brave New World, an Air-Conditioned Nightmare, and Slow Motion Apocalypse rolled into one. I believe the wisdom of the government, other leaders, and the rest of the human population is important. But it can only go so far. There is only one way out: ramping down the global population through birth control. With education and incentives it could be voluntary, but if involuntary is necessary, I vote for it. We need to get to the Wonderful World of One Billion, hopefully having learned some lessons along the way.

[1]The Industrial Revolution by J. L. and Barbara Hammond, in Universal World History, p. 2529. WM H. Wise & Co., 1939

[2]China Under the Manchus by J. O. P. Bland, in Universal World History, p. 2736. WM H. Wise & Co., 1939

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