Decorated initial M

evons’s The Coal Question: An Inquiry concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines (1865) . . . attempts to account for the social and temporal conditions of extraction-based life. Influential and widely circulating, The Coal Question is a long remination on exhaustion as a material threshold and its remarkably complex timescale. The study was taking part in what was, by 1865, decades-long debate about the threat of coal exhaustion in England. Prior to writing it, Jevons spent five years in Australia at the height of the gold rush, and if he saw firsthand how how gold-mining can produce the accelerated, he was at pains a few years later to warn England that its ever-intensifying rush for coal would ultimately run up against a terminal pressure in the form of exhaustion. Bringing his economic and mathematical chops to bear on the geological field, Jevons took factors such as rising coal consumption and population increase into his projections, resulting in nearer-term expectations of British coal exhaustion. He also treated mining as a special industry . . . by virtue of its nonrenewability: “A farm, however far pushed, will under proper cultivation continue to yield for ever a constant crop. But in a mine there is no reproduction, and the produce once pushed to the utmost will soon begin to fail and sink to zero” (154-55).

Jevons’s emphasis on the lack of reproductive capacity within extraction ecologies was typical of industrial-era political economists and other observers of coal. John Holland’s The History and Description of Fossil Fuel (1841) emphasizes that because coal is “incapable of reproduction or increase,” all established consensuses about “free trade ... do not legitimately apply” (439). Holland adds that coal, tin, lead, and other extracted commodities “differ so essentially from other articles produced by English industry” (442) because of their “prospective exhaustion, at some remote period” and the “undoubted fact, that our mines are not inexhaustible” (454-55). Simonin’s Mines and Miners (1868) similarly stresses the difference between timber and fossil fuel, noting that the “management of collieries ... is far more interesting than that of forests and coppices, for the coal when removed does not grow again” (123). The extraction economy thus implied a new relation to futurity, and Jevons accordingly insists in The Coal Question that Britain’s coal reserves be measured in time rather than volume. In the graphs that appear opposite the title page of Jevons’s book, centuries are the primary unit of measurement, going up to the year 2000 . . . . Glossing the bottom of the graph, Jevons writes, “supposed future consumption of Coal at same rate of progress showing the impossibility of a long continuance of that progress.”


Jevons, W. Stanley The Coal Question: An Inquiry concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines. London: Macmillan, 1865.

Miller, Elizabeth Carolyn. Extraction Technologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 221. xiv + 285 pages. [Review]

Last modified 24 November 2021