This editorial in the Otago Daily Times looked ahead 110 years and put faith in human ingenuity to solve predicted problems, with surprisingly accurate results.
THE Otago Daily Times. FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 8, 1872. (abridged)
Our weekly contemporary in Melbourne has lately been enacting the part of alarmist upon the subject of the exhaustion of the coal fields of England, and the consequent decay of the British Empire. Following in the steps of an able writer in the Quarterly Review, the Australasian draws a dismal picture of the effect which the loss of her coal supplies must inevitably have upon the leading industries of the mother country, and sees in prophetic vision her workshops and manufactories, with the helots that inhabit them, flying to those lands blessed with larger stores of the necessary article.
It will be remembered that some seven years ago Professor Jevons alarmed the world a good deal by sounding the first note of alarm concerning England’s coal mines becoming exhausted, and a Royal Commission was appointed to take stock of the resources. Its report concluded that by 1982 England’s mines would be exhausted; but the writer in the Quarterly is by no means satisfied with so lengthy a tether, and proves incontestably that 1945 will see an end of England’s greatness. The difference, indeed, will seem to most of us something like that once discovered to exist betwixt tweedledum and twedledee. By the time that the 39,000,000,000 tons of coal which all think are still to be found in England are exhausted, the want of fuel will make but little difference to those who are now eagerly debating the subject. We can indeed imagine some selfishly-minded matron piling on the lumps all the more profusely on the drawing-room fire, in the fear of not getting her full share of what is left. Beyond the increase in coal bills due to this cause, we do not see any great reason for alarm in this generation.
In all seriousness, it does seem as if this sort of dismal prophesying of England’s decadence towards the end of the next century, owing to the consumption of all her coal, was rapidly reaching the ridiculous. No doubt, not many among us will remember when something of a panic was created by the discovery that the supply of timber by means of which the wooden walls of Old England [navy ships] could be constructed was running short, not only in England, but in Europe. We were then familiar with the gloomy phrases that warned us of a time when we should no longer be able to bid defiance to the world upon the sea. England, however, manages still to get along without exhausting the last oaken plank or bulwark.
Can any one doubt that long before the last ton of coal sends its smoke to heaven, science will have discovered some method of storing and applying heat without the use of so costly and cumbersome a material as coal? It certainly requires less faith in the future, and demands a far less implicit confidence in the resources of genius, to suppose that this will be done, than it did some fifty years since to conceive of iron ships floating upon the water.
If we consider how largely even the discovery of a partial substitute for coal — a discovery, for instance, which would place at our disposal some means of moving ocean steamers without its aid — would alter the whole condition of things upon which these dismal calculations are based, we shall realize more profoundly the absurdity of predicating the decline of England from such a cause. It is indeed only by trading upon the historical fact that each nation in turn has risen to its zenith and then declined, that such ill-omened prophets of evil obtain a hearing at all.
That England must one day yield her supremacy among the nations is probably as certain as anything in the world; but if history repeats itself, and if the lessons of experience have any value, we may safely declare that she will not do so from any such cause as the loss of her coal. ….
We should suppose that the enormous increase in the price of coal at home, which, by the last accounts, had reached as high as 40 per cent advance on last year, was the moving cause for stirring up the outcry again. There is about it something of the judicious puff with which Weston and Holloway have made us familiar. Gather your rosebuds, or rather fill up your coal cellars, while ye may. Professor Jevons and his congeners have warned us that the supply of coal will soon be exhausted and it is the duty of every prurient householder to procure an immediate supply of this indispensable article.
We will not follow the writer into his particularly unreal description of the coalheavers of the Black Country, whom he describes as helots, and then as Israelites, doomed to make bricks without straw. Of all the labouring classes at home, we should have thought them the last to whom such terms might be applied. A certain sturdy independence of character, a habitual indulgence in luxuries of the table, a mild partiality for bull-dogs, &c., &c., were the peculiarities which we thought used to mark them more especially. But it is plain that the writer in question is earnestly desirous of having a fling at the ‘Philistines of the London press, who, it seems, are accustomed to ask, concerning these helots—Am I my brother’s keeper?’
Let us hope that ere this he has succeeded in making an amicable arrangement with his coal merchant, and that notwithstanding the melancholy predictions of which he is so full, some twentieth century Micawber will find it possible to earn a precarious livelihood as a coal merchant until something better turns up, even though he should not begin until 1945.
1945 did see “an end to England’s greatness” but not because of a lack of coal. The “mother country” was almost bankrupt after two world wars, a situation that none of these writers could have foreseen. India gained independence in 1947 and the rest of the Empire followed over the next 20 years.
Coal mines began to close in the ’70s and, by 1982, slag heaps on what had been some of the most productive coal fields were being landscaped and planted with trees.