Jevons and the Six Day Car Crash

w-stanley-jevons-by-lindsay-barrett-1854In the mid 19th Century, William Stanley Jevons patiently tried to explain to his fellow countrymen that the rich energy content in coal was not a marginal but a pervasive influence on nearly every aspect of the British economy. He warned that coal production would inevitably migrate away from the easy, near-surface deposits to the deeper deposits that would take more capital, more labor–indeed more energy–to extract. His point was rather simple, but, it of course escaped the understanding of the general public. Jevons held the view that British coal would attain, and then surpass, an optimal point of price, production, and therefore utility to the British economy.

Does any of this sound familiar? Jevons was repeatedly misunderstood as saying that Britain was running out of coal. He took great pains to explain the scale of the problem, but Jevons was talking about a cycle whose duration would extend beyond people’s immediate concerns. The Coal Question was first published in 1865. It is without question a brilliant probe into population growth, energy content, and the transformative power of coal. Moreover, Jevons displays the flair typical of the 19th century writer–in this case an economist–who is able to call upon a much broader array of subject matter. It was delicious, for example, to hear an economist draw a line from the power of coal to the flourishing of arts, and culture.  This would be a rarity today, among our contemporary economists, who fly as a tight formation of cramped specialists. An economist now would nearly have to seek permission to write such things.

Jevons died young, a number of unfinished books still ahead of him. British coal production peaked in 1913.  The decline of net energy earnings from British sourced coal was more than effectively masked by the profits from resource extraction elsewhere in the world, via the Empire. (Not to mention the built up capital which would endure for decades to come). Oil would then replace coal, roughly as coal had previously replaced wood. Still,  Jevons’ attempt to master a long duration problem such as coal has implications for our situation today, with oil. For, it’s interesting to consider that in 200 years, having gone from wood to coal to oil, one of the more prominent solutions offered to society now is to return to wood. Or should I say, biomass.

schipperThe other limitation that Jevons’ work revealed was the human difficulty in seeing large scale, long duration problems. We are not wired to see large systems, as being in motion. The larger the phenomenon, the more stationary it is likely to appear to us. Given that Jevons was a polymath, with interests from art to topography and demographics, I thought it appropriate to link to a fantastic piece of contemporary art which reveals the problem of scale, and time. Slow Motion Car Crash by Jonathan Schipper advances two full sized automobiles slowly into one another over a period of 6 days, simulating a head on automobile collision.  What is instructive is that no one visiting the gallery to see this work can actually see the cars moving.  The movement is so slow as to be invisible.


Photograph: William Stanley Jevons, in Australia. 1858.