Coal Questions

William Stanley Jevons

William Stanley Jevons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in 1865, William Stanley Jevons wrote a book called The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines. In this book he sets forth the theory that the prosperity of a nation is tied to the level of energy available to it. At the time he wrote the book, England was very prosperous and powerful in the world, but Jevons saw that the coal supply that powered England at that time, was going to be depleted. He predicted that England’s power and prosperity would decline as the result. Apparently, he was correct though the depletion came quicker than he predicted.

In a PBS online article, there is a professor who loves his job and has found that he will get greater Social Security if he stays in his job long after he is eligible to retire. I can relate to this guy. I love my job. I work in a place where it certainly seems possible for those who wish to continue working into their 90s to do so. But in the comments to the PBS article, various writers point out that not retiring will not allow some younger person to move into a job. Other comment writers speak about how unusual it is to have this sort of love of job. I agree with both of these ideas.

I agree, however, with Jevons that our prosperity is tied to our level of energy. We have been dependent, in the US on an ever more costly oil supply. We have spent vast amounts of military money keeping the mid-eastern supplies coming in since our own supplies depleted. We have also lost many a life and limb to this need for energy.

But a game changer has just occurred. There is an absolute glut of natural gas in the US today that has driven gas prices way down. The use of horizontal drilling combined with fracking has made shale gas viable. This gas is displacing coal as the fuel of choice for power plants. Not because it is cleaner ( it is), or produces less greenhouse effect (which it does), but because of market forces.

But the really nice effect of all this gas is that our prosperity, according to Jevons theory, will rise. And indeed, manufacturing that went overseas is beginning to come back to the US. I believe we will be able to provide prosperity to our young and we will be able to pay for the retirements of all those boomers waiting for a chance to get off the treadmill.

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