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Environment and History

The Anxiety of Abundance: William Stanley Jevons and Coal Scarcity in the Nineteenth Century

Nuno Luis Madureira

Environment and History 18 (2012): 395-421. doi: 10.3197/096734012X13400389809373

Right from the outset, the adoption of mechanical machinery, railways, steamships and long distance communications was accompanied by growing concerns about the possibility of running out of coal. This article examines three main issues: firstly, what triggered the scarcity fear, given that the historical period was one of rising prosperity with no foreseeable shortages in sight; secondly, what actually went wrong with the coal supply vision given so many of the forecasts associated with the scarcity thesis were not borne out by reality; and thirdly, by what means did the nineteenth century coal debate shape environmental thinking and provide crucial concepts that have persisted through to the present (the rebound effect, probable reserves and environmental limits to growth). A close look is taken of the work of William Stanley Jevons, whose ideas became a milestone in the debate on the depletion of natural resources. The overall conclusion points out that the looming uncertainty of the 1860s and 1870s paved the way for new probabilistic assessments of mineral patrimony.

KEYWORDS: William Stanley Jevons, fossil fuel depletion, geology, natural resources, coal


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