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William Stanley Jevons

English economist


A selection from

Narrated by John Lescault

Download mp3 file: The Coal Question

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Of the Natural Law of Social Growth

We must understand clearly what we mean by the progress of a country. We must ascertain how that progress is to be measured, and when it may be called uniform.

Suppose it stated that in a certain country during one year the consumption of coal has increased by one million tons. The statement is almost useless. We learn from it, indeed, that the country is progressing rather than going backwards, but this is all. We do not learn the rate at which it is progressing. If the previous consumption were only one million tons in a year, the increase would be enormous, for it would consist in doubling the consumption. With a previous consumption of ten million tons, the increase, being ten per cent., might still be great. But on the present consumption of England, amounting to eighty-six million tons, an increase of one million is not great, being scarcely more than one per cent.

Again, the population of England and Wales increased between 1811 and 1821 by 1,722,574 persons, and between 1851 and 1861 by 2,172,177 persons, but it increased eighteen for every hundred of the existing population in the former period, and only twelve for every hundred in the latter. Though the recent increase was of greater absolute, it was of less relative, amount; it was, truly speaking, at a less rate. We ought, in short, in statistical matters to treat all quantities relatively to each other, and we ought to cultivate the habit of so regarding them.

The reason is not far to seek. One generation naturally imitates the earlier one, from which its education is drawn. The son takes after his father—the same in body and mind, in passion and in judgment. Individual variations of character and career are of course innumerable. But on the average it is true that the son is as the father; he marries at the same age, strives at the same success in business, to gain the same fortune, to rear and educate the same family. If all things then go on the same, if no deterioration, no new obstacle presents itself, a family that rears a double progeny of children may expect a fourfold progeny of grandchildren, and an eightfold progeny of great-grandchildren. And though this could not be expected to occur in a single family subject to every accident of life, it may be expected on an average of a great mass of cases.

There are few countries where the population has ever doubled in a single generation, but the same reasoning holds good of any other rate. We are about doubly as numerous as our grandfathers. If we are in other respects like them—equally vigorous and enterprising, and not subject to any new exterior obstacles, we may expect our grandchildren to be doubly as numerous as ourselves.

This is one way of stating the law that men, as well as all living creatures, tend to increase in an uniform geometrical ratio. And an uniform rate of growth means an uniform ratio—an uniform percentage of increase—uniform multiplication in uniform periods. The law is true and necessary as a mathematical law. If children do as their fathers, they must increase like them; if they do not, some change must have occurred in character or circumstances.

Such is the principle of population as established by Malthus in his celebrated essay. Of the moral and social consequences he deduced from it I need say nothing at present. They have been accepted for the most part by political economists. But the statement that living beings of the same nature and in the same circumstances multiply in the same geometrical ratio, is selfevident when the meaning of the words is understood.

Now what is true of the mere number of the people is true of other elements of their condition. If our parents made a definite social advance, then, unless we are unworthy of our parents, or in different circumstances, we should make a similar advance. If our parents doubled their income, or doubled the use of iron, or the agricultural produce of the country, then so ought we, unless we are either changed in character or circumstances.

But great care is here necessary. We are getting to the gist of the subject. Even if we do not change in inward character, yet our exterior circumstances are usually changing. This is what Malthus argued. He said that though our numbers tend to increase in uniform ratio, we cannot expect the same to take place with the supply of food. We cannot double the produce of the soil, time after time, ad infinitum. When we want more off a field we cannot get it by simply doubling the labourers. Any quantity of capital, and labour, and skill may fail to do it, though discoveries from time to time do allow of a considerable increase. Yet the powers and capabilities of organic and inorganic nature always present this remarkable contrast. The former are always relative to the number of existing beings, and tend unceasingly to increase. But exterior nature presents a certain absolute and inexorable limit.

Now the whole question turns upon the application of these views to the consumption of coal. Our subsistence no longer depends upon our produce of corn. The momentous repeal of the Corn Laws throws us from corn upon coal. It marks, at any rate, the epoch when coal was finally recognised as the staple produce of the country;—it marks the ascendency of the manufacturing interest, which is only another name for the development of the use of coal.

The application, however, is a little complicated. The quantity of coal consumed is really a quantity of two dimensions, the number of the people, and the average quantity used by each. Even if each person continued to use an invariable quantity of coal per annum, yet the total produce would increase in the same ratio as the number of the people. But added to this is the fact that we do each of us in general increase our consumption of coal. In round numbers, the population has about doubled since the beginning of the century, but the consumption of coal has increased eightfold, and more. The consumption per head of the population has therefore increased fourfold.

Again, the quantity consumed by each individual is a composite quantity, increased either by multiplying the scale of former applications of coal, or finding wholly new applications. We cannot indeed always be doubling the length of our railways, the magnitude of our ships, and bridges, and factories. In every kind of enterprise we shall no doubt meet a natural limit of convenience, or commercial practicability, as we do in the cultivation of the land. I do not mean a fixed and impassable limit, but as it were an elastic obstacle, which we may ever push against a little further, but ever with increasing difficulty.

But the new applications of coal are of an unlimited character. In the command of force, molecular and mechanical, we have the key to all the infinite varieties of change in place or kind of which nature is capable. No chemical or mechanical operation, perhaps, is quite impossible to us, and invention consists in discovering those which are useful and commercially practicable. No à priori reason here presents itself why each generation should not use its resources of knowledge and material possessions to make as large a proportional advance as did a preceding generation.

And it cannot escape the attention of any observant person that our inventions and works do multiply in variety and scale of application. Each success assists the development of previous successes, and the achievement of new ones. None of our inventions can successfully stand alone—all are bound together in mutual dependence. The iron manufacture depends on the use of the steam-engine, and the steam-engine on the iron manufacture. Coal and iron are essential either in the supply of light or water, and both these are needed in the development of our factory system. The advance of the mechanical arts gives us vast steam-hammers and mechanical tools, and these again enable us to undertake works of magnitude and difficulty before deemed insuperable. "The tendency of progress," says Sir William Armstrong, "is to quicken progress, because every acquisition in science is so much vantage ground for fresh attainment. We may expect, therefore, to increase our speed as we struggle forward."

For once it would seem as if in fuel, as the source of universal power, we had found an unlimited means of multiplying our command over nature. But alas no! The coal is itself limited in quantity; not absolutely, as regards us, but so that each year we gain our supplies with some increase of difficulty. There are unlimited novelties to make our own, had we unlimited force to use them.

Such are the principles of our progress. But I should be as ill-contented as any of my readers to rest an argument upon such theory alone. I shall appeal to experience, and show that some of the main branches of industry depending upon the use of coal have hitherto obeyed the law of uniform geometrical increase. I can show that up to the present we are in an unchecked course of discovery and growth—that old applications of coal are being extended, and yet admit of great extension, while new ones are continually being added. And I shall infer that a continuance of the same may be expected in the absence of any extraordinary influence; that the consumption of coal will increase at a nearly constant rate until some check, some natural but perhaps elastic boundary of our efforts, is encountered.

For the present our cheap supplies of coal, and our skill in its employment, and the freedom of our commerce with other wide lands, render us independent of the limited agricultural area of these islands, and take us out of the scope of Malthus' doctrine. We are growing rich and numerous upon a source of wealth of which the fertility does not yet apparently decrease with our demands upon it. Hence the uniform and extraordinary rate of growth which this country presents. We are like settlers spreading in a rich new country of which the boundaries are yet unknown and unfelt.

But then I must point out the painful fact that such a rate of growth will before long render our consumption of coal comparable with the total supply. In the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress. We shall begin as it were to see the further shore of our Black Indies. The wave of population will break upon that shore, and roll back upon itself. And as settlers, unable to choose in the far inland new and virgin soil of unexceeded fertility, will fall back upon that which is next best, and will advance their tillage up the mountain side, so we, unable to discover new coal-fields as shallow as before, must deepen our mines with pain and cost.

There is too this most serious difference to be noted. A farm, however far pushed, will under proper cultivation continue to yield for ever a constant crop. But in a mine there is no reproduction, and the produce once pushed to the utmost will soon begin to fail and sink towards zero.

So far then as our wealth and progress depend upon the superior command of coal we must not only stop—we must go back.

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