The Industrial Revolution and the Atlantic Economy: Selected Essays

By Brinley Thomas | Go to book overview

3

THE END OF THE CHARCOAL IRON AGE

In the second half of the eighteenth century Britain was faced with a challenge much deeper than the energy crisis of the seventeenth century. An unprecedented population explosion intensified competing pressures on land use for timber, charcoal, pasture, crops, transport, manufacturing and urbanization. Could a small island depending mainly on the flow of solar energy avoid a Malthusian disaster? It was a matter of life and death for the organic-based economy. We shall first examine the long interlude of energy abundance which ended in the 1750s.


ENERGY ABUNDANCE 1680-1750

In contrast to the seventeenth century, when there was a babel of eloquent tongues on the timber problem, hardly any books or pamphlets on this subject were published in the first half of the eighteenth century. Substantial plantings on crown lands and private estates had renewed the stocks of all kinds of trees from cordwood to oak, and from 1722 to 1762 the volume of timber imports declined. In the iron trade the Baltic connection had become normal and indispensable; England took half of Sweden’s bar iron exports which comprised three-quarters of that country’s total exports. The first half of the eighteenth century was a period of very low population growth. ‘It was an age of stability in politics, in religion, in literature, and in social observances’ (Williams 1945:1). There were ample supplies of grain for export; coal output per head of the population rose by two-thirds (Flinn 1984:252); there was continued growth in shipbuilding, an increase in shipping productivity and a spectacular expansion of

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