The Many Paradoxes of William Stanley Jevons, Part 2

The Many Paradoxes of William Stanley Jevons, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the paradoxes of 19th-century economist William Stanley Jevons, and how, given modern energy markets, he is more important than ever.

You can find the first part here.

The England to which William Stanley Jevons returned in 1860 after six years in Australia must have seemed almost alien. Factories were everywhere burning coal and spewing smoke; forests, long in decline, were now nearly absent. London, where Jevons returned to continue his previously abandoned studies, was suffering from ever-worsening air qualityโ€”more toxic than modern-day Delhi, India.

The Great Stink of 1858 must still have been a painful memory when Jevons arrived. The Thames River had become an open sewer: it flowed fitfully, choked with human waste, dead animals, rotting food, and raw materials from the burgeoning factories alongside. While a frequent subject of newspaper polemics as a stinking source of disease and infection, not to mention being embarrassing when visitors came to the great city of London, there was also a widespread sense that this was one of the inevitable byproducts of a fast-advancing industrial world.

At the same time, the landscape around London was changing. Forests had long been in decline, and by the time Jevons returns they were near trough levels, perhaps under 6% as a percentage of English land area, down from almost 16% at peak. Used for everything from shipbuilding, to home construction, to fuel, wood was becoming harder to find in large quantities, and absent from areas encircling major cities like London.

Jevons, a sharp observer of the world around him, could likely not help but notice. Wood was disappearing under intense exploitation, and coal use was soaring, fueling a modernizing, industrializing society. Would coal's fate mirror that of wood, and would England's rising fortunes fall with it?

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