In his study of how prosperity develops in various cultures, Matt Ridley points to the crucial role coal played in England's industrial development. Not only did this source of energy exist but it existed in convenient locations. Most of the conditions for an industrial revolution were already in place, he admits, but

now imagine what would have happened next if Britain had possessed no accessible coal reserves. Coal exists all over the world, but some British coal fields were close to the surface and close enough to navigable waterways to be cheaply transported. The cost of transporting coal overland was prohibitive until the railway came along. It was not that coal was a cheaper source of power than the alternative — coal took a century to compete on price with water power in factories — but that it was effectively limitless in supply. The harnessing of water power soon experienced diminishing returns as it reached saturation point in the Pennines. Nor was there any other, renewable fuel that could supply the need. In the first half of the eighteenth century, even the relatively tiny English iron industry was close to moribund for lack of charcoal fuel on a largely deforested island. What timber there was in the south of England was in demand for ship building, which bid up its price. So in search of charcoal to feed their forges, the iron masters left the Sussex Weald and moved to the West Midlands, then to the Welsh Marches, to South Yorkshire and eventually to Cumberland. Imports of wrought iron from well-forested Sweden and Russia met the growing demand from the mechanisation of the textile industry, but even these imports could not meet the needs of the industrial revolution. Only coal could do that. There was never going to be enough wind, water or wood in England to power the factories, let alone in the right place.

"This was the position in which China found itself" in 1700, he argues, pointing out that the Chinese certainly long had the scientific and technological expertise the British did. But they did not have such convenient sources of coal.

One of Ridley's most contrarian arguments about the relation of prosperity to coal — one that goes against much twenty-first century thinking about new sources of energy — is that industrial development and consequent prosperity required abandoning so-called renewable energy sources, since they both proved inadequate and they devastated the environment. Citing the amount of energy sources needed to power horses (that is, food), he claims that one third of arable land in the U. K. was used to grow food for them, land that could otherwise be used to grow food.


Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.

Last modified 19 July 2011