The Long Emergency, Postponed

Sooner or later the neo-Malthusians – those who grasp the fundamental difficulty posed by exponential population growth in collision with a fixed resource base – will turn out to be right. The problem is that, thus far, they have repeatedly turned out to be wrong.

Today’s example comes (via Tyler Cowen) from a piece by Graham Stewart last year in the the Times of Some British Place. It recounts a discussion from London learned man William Stanley Jevons a long, long time ago of Peak Coal:

In his work of 1865, The Coal Question, the distinguished economist cautioned that we had become wholly dependent on the finite resource of coal. Indeed, some calculations – based on the increasing rate of extraction and the geological analysis of how much coal remained underground – suggested that Britain could run out by 1900.

At this point, Jevons maintained, the economy would literally run out of steam, reducing Britons to a medieval standard of living. The cost of shipping coal from elsewhere in the world would be prohibitive and, in any case, the leading geologists calculated that other countries would quickly exhaust their stocks as well.


  1. David and Scot,
    How might you price the environment and resources, quantitatively? How does this pricing change the prediction? What are the current alternative pricing models for these effects? Why might these alternatives be wrong?


  2. Eric –

    There’s a large literature on this, which uses a number of different valuation techniques.

    One is simple willingness-to-pay surveys, which have always seemed a dicey proposition, but which the experts say yield good answers in situations where you can compare actual answers through some real valuation methodology as compared to survey answers. Ask people “How much would you be willing to pay for clean air?”

    There have been good quantitative methodologies developed to value “environmental services” – a watershed, for example, which provides value through helping deliver clean water to a city, but which is not quantified in traditional economic GDP-style analysis. Cutting down the forest that provides the watershed, for example, shows up as a positive contribution to GDP, but we don’t calculate the lost opportunity posed by the loss of clean water services. Tons of examples like this.

    The third is the damage caused by environmental bads. Rising sea level, for example, washes houses into the ocean. Pollution causes measurable health effects. There was a great study done by the EPA in 1997 that quantified the costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act, and found that the benefits in avoided costs were 50 times larger than the costs of implementation.

  3. Eric: To reply to your question, I’ll answer with…

    what John said.

    Only adding that, quite obviously, what we’re talking about here is not only quantifiable costs, but quantifiable costs that will resonate with folks in the same way established public projects (water treatment, etc.) have.

    Once in place, most people understand something like sewage treatment…the scenario I roll around in my head is the mindset of the average Londoner around 1865 thinking “well, the street is quite often full of sewage…but it’s gonna cost so much to clean it up…I dunno, this might just be a boondoggle”.

    And that’s where the political will comes in, a will I often despair about in my split Platonic benevolent dictator, libertarian mind. Still, some one/entity needs to bridge the accepted (e.g., water treatment) to the previously unthinkable (e.g. large-scale public solar/wind farms) and do so while all this yummy, cheap coal/oil is still sitting around ready to continue stinking up the planet.

    That’s almost certain to derive not from any quantitative argument, or “peak” this or that scenario, but from a combination of some technological “advance” (real or imagined, when it comes down to it) and political force.

    I almost hate to say it, but I find I would have most probably voted for FDR, or Willie Stark, as early and often as necessary…

  4. Scot, John, David, or other interested parties;

    I have the technological advance. What can you tell me about activating the will in politicians?

    At what point, from your perspective, would wind/solar be enticing enough to compete against coal so that politicians might push harder? Pennies per kWh, votes in the midterm election, new jobs, U.S. competitiveness?

    You can make your answer as long as you need or can contact me directly at
    I need solid answers, from you or anyone reading this, in the next week, preferably by this coming Monday or Tuesday. I need it because I have some opportunities to make an immediate difference.


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