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And Jevons Was No Marginal Scholar

Here’s a letter to the New York Times (HT Chris Meisenzahl):

You report that China risks encountering “peak coal,” thus making that country’s continued economic growth “unsustainable”  (“Does China Face a ‘Peak Coal’ Threat?” Dec. 14).

Your report reminds me of William Stanley Jevons‘s book The Coal Question.  In the Preface to the second edition, Jevons warned his fellow Brits that “The question here treated regards the length of time that we may go on rising, and the height of prosperity and wealth to which we may attain.  Few will doubt, I think, after examining the subject, that we cannot long rise as we are now doing.”

Jevons’s dire warning was written in 1866.  It was the product of an accomplished scholar steeped in the science of his day.  Nevertheless, was Jevons correct to predict that Great Britain’s economy would soon stop growing because coal supplies were destined to shrink to dangerously low levels – low levels that drove the price of industrial power to heights that stymied economic growth?  No.  (British economic growth did slow for quite some time during the 20th century, but that was due to a surplus of socialism rather than to a shortage of coal.)

As your report today demonstrates, predictions of resource depletion and a resulting serious slowing of economic growth are in abundant supply.  But there’s a severe shortage of evidence to support these fears.

Donald J. Boudreaux