Abundant Energy Is the Key to Prosperity

Tom Finnerty16 Mar, 2024 2 Min Read
Driving ourselves crazy by our own actions.

The British organization Net-Zero Watch has produced an excellent short video entitled Energy and the Poverty of Nations, on the role of energy in the development of human civilization. Written and narrated by Dr. John Constable of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the video explores in an unusually granular way what wealth is, what energy is, and then examines the relationship between the two and how this has played out in human history. So, for instance, predominantly agricultural societies have tended to only produce enough energy to support their farming sectors, with little to no energy for anything else. Consequently, they tend to be relatively poor, and to create major wealth disparities -- the elite who own the land are rich, and nearly everyone else is a physical laborer working the land.

But eventually, primarily in northwestern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, an energy revolution took place in which technological developments allowed people to harness the energy stored in coal.

The result of using coal was a sustained, long-term increase in wealth of a kind that was new in the human record.... That exponential increase in wealth, from high quality fuels, led to a society that could withstand external shocks that would have been catastrophic for earlier populations. It was the beginnings of modernity. And that modernity was seen most clearly in Britain's socioeconomic structure. The coal industry grew, yes. But because it produced such a large surplus of energy, the rest of the economy could grow still more.

Manufacturing and commerce came to dwarf the energy sector. The relative wealth and power of landowners declined, but they were replaced not by coal-barons, but by people making and selling things. This too was unprecedented in the human record. Britain, as Napoleon observed, had become a nation of shopkeepers.... Moreover, the British population now had choices. They could leave the land, start their own businesses, and live where and, increasingly, as they wished. They were rich and free. Living standards improved, literacy rose, crime rates even declined, and Britain became a tolerant, trusting civil society, and a much healthier and better place to raise a family.

Constable goes on to explain how "high quality fuels -- coal, oil, gas, and more recently, fissile uranium -- have delivered an increase in human welfare unprecedented in previous history and pre-history," but that the increasing -- and increasingly mandated -- move towards wind and solar energy risks reversing 500 years of advancement, moving us back to a society in which "we become poorer and less free, making us still poorer and less able to afford to use energy." He goes on to say:

In my view this is already tangible: infrastructure is decaying; living standards for all but the very rich are falling; our economy has become risk averse; while our society has become coarse, tense, mutually suspicious, and criminal. No wonder that many young people are reluctant to raise families. They can't even afford houses. The good life is slipping away. The candle is going out. Chaos is returning. Power is shifting back to those who own land and the energy sector.

That isn't the whole of the video -- it ends on a more hopeful note than that. But for a sense of what there is to hope for, well, you're just going to have to give it a watch.

Tom Finnerty writes from New England and Ontario.


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