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Peak peat


This lowtechmagazine website seems to have a lot of interesting articles. Also long articles, it's not a site for casual dipping. The linked article is about the use of fossil fuels in medieval Europe -- mostly peat in the Low Countries. We think of Olden Tymes as renewable, wind and water and muscle, but that's kinetic energy. Thermal energy, for heating cooking and industrial processes, is a bigger component, and people have long been using coal or peat for those. But sometimes at bigger scales than others.

Article argues that Flemish then Dutch 17th century prosperity was fueled by massive use of peat, with 10% of the farmland ending up cut, burned, and replaced by water. Peat fueled industry and heated homes, meaning that imported wood could be reserved for construction. Prosperity was also helped by all that wind power, and also by the easy transportation of a coastal flat windy country with a high water table. Many canals were cut for transporting peat, then used for transporting agriculture. And the act of cutting the peat often created the canal.

Then the cheap peat ran out, while the English had figured out how to use coal in industrial processes despite the contaminating sulfur, the Dutch imported English coal at unfavorable rates, industry shrank, and urbanization reversed.

At one level it's really interesting. At another it's depressing: we've been dependent on fossil fuels for longer than realized, and now I can't think about falling back to 19th century levels, whether due to peak oil or due to some post-apocalyptic scenario, without wondering about how much coal was being used for those levels.

(Modernity: steam engines and turbines -- and why do we keep using steam boilers, and not turbines turned by coal combustion gases? -- convert from thermal to kinetic energy, while electricity can convert kinetic energy into heat and light. So can friction, but surprisingly badly.)

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/318362.html#comments


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 20th, 2012 07:56 am (UTC)
I am a strong opponent of material explanations for economic success. If peat explained prosperity, Ireland would have defeated England and emerged as a world power by 1700.
Apr. 20th, 2012 09:31 am (UTC)
Raw materials are obviously not sufficient for economic success, but the availability of technology to use raw materials often is. Also, Ireland was very sparsely populated (less than a million people in 1600), which is never a recipe for economic dominance in the pre-modern world. Once you combine available tech & raw materials (and factor in soil fertility, available crops, sunlight, climate and similar factors used to support a population into raw materials), you're a good ways into explaining economic success, although obviously invasions, plagues, and similar problems also make a vast difference.
Apr. 20th, 2012 09:53 am (UTC)
Oh, God have mercy on us. And you are sure that the conjunction of the stars had nothing to do with either? After all, that is just as material a factor as any you mention. The only thing that matters is that the Low Countries had, along with Italy, the most advanced urban civilization in Europe, back from the Middle Ages. They were better placed than anyone to exploit any source of wealth that came their way - and plenty that didn't. People make history, not peat.
Apr. 20th, 2012 02:02 pm (UTC)
"conjunction of the stars had nothing to do with either? After all, that is just as material a factor as any you mention"

Hyperbole does not help your case here.
Apr. 20th, 2012 02:48 pm (UTC)
But it is fun to do. 8-)
Apr. 20th, 2012 02:01 pm (UTC)
Material conditions don't guarantee success. Particularly obvious when they've been around for a long time before being exploited. They may nonetheless play a key role in any particular success, along with the ingenuity that allows their exploitation, and then changes in conditions, aka a resource running out, can explain failure.
Apr. 20th, 2012 03:09 pm (UTC)
My answer to that sort of thing is always the same: that among the richest countries in the world there are two, Japan and Italy, that have no raw materials at all - or as little as makes no difference - and that have to import everything of importance, from oil to copper to wood to iron to uranium and so on. It's not the resources that count, it's the human resources.
Jul. 2nd, 2012 05:38 pm (UTC)
Yes -- but that only works well when trade and transportation are really cheap, driven by access to ocean transport and lots of cheap oil and other fuel, itself highly transportable. That doesn't describe the 17th century. Japan can import oil or coal or uranium to power the factories, but the Dutch then couldn't import water and wind and human and animal power. When your power source depends non-tradeably on location, location matters. On the thermal side, coal was importable, but higher prices meant a big hit to their economy.
Jul. 2nd, 2012 05:48 pm (UTC)
The Dutch were one of two rich areas in Europe. The other was Italy. And the prevalence of imports was already then the case.
Jul. 2nd, 2012 06:12 pm (UTC)
You seem to skip my point about some things not being importable. And conversely, that trade benefits from geography conducive to maritime trade -- in the cases of Italy and Japan as well!
Jul. 2nd, 2012 06:37 pm (UTC)
Sorry if my comments sound snippy. It has to do with problems with typing because my ancient machine's memory is performing close to its limits, so typing is a chore. However, to answer your point, I think you are flat wrong about importing coal. I think you will find that in England -next door to the Netherlands - cabotage trade in coal from the Newcastle area southwards had been taking place for centuries, right back to the Middle Ages. And in bulk transportation the seas, whether the northern or the Mediterranean, had a great advantage over the lands. Trade by land, caravan trade, was nearly all in small items with high added value - precious cloth, spices, precious stones including those famous lapis lazuli that constantly found their way from Afghanistan to Europe, and so on. Bulk materials, such as grain and wine, had been always carried out by sea, and in enormous amounts. There was no technical reason why the Dutch should not get coal, or for that matter charcoal, from production areas.
Jul. 2nd, 2012 06:54 pm (UTC)
"And in bulk transportation the seas, whether the northern or the Mediterranean, had a great advantage over the lands"

That's part of the point you say you're disagreeing with! Maybe we've misconstrued each other. I don't think I or the original article were saying Dutch wealth sprang out of nothing in the 17th century due solely to resources, just that the wind power and local water transport and local peat were resources whose importance had been overlooked. If the Dutch were wealthy going in, having resources to exploit made them even wealthier.

As for the Dutch getting coal, look back above:

"Then the cheap peat ran out, while the English had figured out how to use coal in industrial processes despite the contaminating sulfur, the Dutch imported English coal at unfavorable rates, industry shrank, and urbanization reversed."

They did get coal, but it was more expensive -- probably both more expensive than the peat and more expensive to the Dutch than to the English. And earlier, it was less useful, just raw heat full of contaminants; the Dutch had an advantage with peat. Later the peat ran out and coal became more useful, and the advantage shifted to the English -- also a wealthy maritime trading and industrializing country.

I know coal had been mined a long time; one of my old posts was about a 13th century poem complaining about industrial pollution, both noise and smoke IIRC.
Jul. 2nd, 2012 06:27 pm (UTC)
Besides, you forget that the Dutch had been accumulating capital for centuries as the central trading complex of entrepots for the whole of central Europe
Apr. 20th, 2012 04:22 pm (UTC)
Another example of nonrenewables in history is wood in England. Most of England used to be not just wooded but forested. Now? Not so much. It was all cut down for fuel, just as peat was in your description.
Apr. 20th, 2012 05:01 pm (UTC)
Damn you - this site is more dangerous than TVTropes. (At least I can console myself that it's a lot more educational.)

mood: enthralled
Apr. 21st, 2012 09:25 pm (UTC)
Unsustainable harvest everywhere of wood is part of the whole buildup. :)

Yeah, it's a fun site.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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