The Three-Hundred Year Party

Imagine taking a magic carpet ride through northern Europe from east to west in Biblical times. The area is circled on the map shown below — an area that Ugo Bardi rather unkindly refers to as a vast regions of fog and swamps, inhabited by hairy Barbarians . . . the area we call today "Western Europe".

You fly from what is now western Russia, over the Ukraine, Belorussia, northern Germany and France, and on to England and Eire. Looking down from the airplane you see a continuous forest with a scattering of clearings and villages, and just a few towns — very small by modern standards. These isolated settlements are connected by narrow roads, tracks and footpaths.

Were you to make the same airplane journey today you would see fields, towns, large cities, railways, airports and roads. Only a  vestige of the primeval forest remains. Why? What happened in the last 2,000 years to cause such a dramatic change in the landscape? Why have the forests disappeared? 

One answer is that somewhere around the 7th century the heavy plow was invented. The soils of the Mediterranean are generally light and dry. Therefore, the plows that were used tended to scratch the soil rather than turn it. Because the soil was light, and because the furrow was shallow, the plow was quite easy to pull. Generally, two oxen or horses were more than sufficient. Also, because the team was small and the plow was light it was fairly easy to turn around and plow the next furrow in the reverse direction. Hence the fields tended to be square in shape. 

The soils of northern Europe, on the other hand, are generally heavy, and the climate is wet. This made it difficult to use Mediterranean-style plows. The invention of the heavy plow overcame this problem. It had a vertical knife with an iron cutting edge, a horizontal share to slice under the sod, and a moldboard to turn it over. However, it did require more effort to pull than the Mediterranean plow, so teams of up to eight oxen were needed. Turning the team was difficult and required more space than the Mediterranean system, so the fields tended to consist of long, narrow strips. The effectiveness of the new plow meant that huge areas of land could be opened up for cultivation. 


Because few peasants could afford eight oxen or their own plow, they had to pool their equipment to form communal teams. Consequently, society gradually came to be organized around the demands of this new technology. Indeed, the heavy iron plow can be seen as being one of the precursors to the industrial revolution, both technologically and socially. 

But first the trees had to be cut down, which they were.

The availability of the new agricultural land and the consequent increase in the supply of food allowed for population growth and for changes in the way society was organized. The surplus food meant that more people could move to the towns and work in activities that did not directly contribute toward the production of that food. Society could also now afford luxuries such as standing armies, monumental architecture, priests and libraries.

A positive feedback cycle ensued, one that is eerily similar to what we are experiencing now (except that, in our case, it is oil that is disappearing, not trees). As the forests were cleared, more crops were produced, so the population grew, so more land was needed to feed the increased number of people, so more forests were cleared, and so on. Eventually, of course, a limit was reached; by the late 17th century much of the forest had been disappeared so there was not much new arable land to exploit. The picture below shows the North York Moors in northern England — an area now regarded as a place of natural beauty. Actually, the original, natural beauty of this area is forest, not moorland.

A (partly natural) beautiful scene
As agriculture developed, society was not just running out of newly available land, but it was also using up the supply of wood that had been provided by the forests. Wood was an absolutely crucial resource for mediaeval civilization — not just as a source of heat, but also as the universal material of construction for buildings, tools, boats and all types of equipment, including the cross plow itself. 

This was also a time when industrialization was developing; the new industries needed wood as a source of fuel. So, deforestation created a double-edged dilemma: there was less new arable land to feed a burgeoning population, and the supply of wood — the raw material needed for equipment, buildings, heat and industry — was being depleted. Consequently, the people of the of northern Europe in the late Middle Ages were faced with a conundrum: where were they to find a new source of energy? Their answer, just like ours now, was to find a source of “alternative energy” — which, in their case, meant coal. 

Considering railways first, prior to the 18th century there had been no need for a highly developed transportation system. Wood was harvested close to where is it was used and, because its density is quite low, it could be carried on carts or the backs of animals. However, once the coals mines were up and running, a much more robust means of transport was needed. The mines were often a long way from the people and industries that used it, it has a high density and the amounts being used were much greater than had been the case previously. Moreover coal could not be carried on carts over the unpaved roads of the time — the wheels of the carts created huge ruts making that form of transportation infeasible. So what was done was to put the newly-invented steam engine on a frame, put that frame on wheels, put those wheels on iron rails and, lo and behold, the railways have been invented. The consequences of that invention were enormous.

Another consequence of Newcomen’s invention was the creation of the chemical industry. At first coal was used primarily for heating, but the hydrocarbon molecules that make up coal are very complex and can be used as the building blocks of many other chemicals.

Our use of so much “buried sunlight” led to unprecedented economic growth and material abundance. This, in turn, led to the creation of a new human faith system — one that is shared by people all over the world. Regardless of where they live or what their religious beliefs may be, most people believe in non-stop material progress. Our faith is in the ‘Church of Progress’. Such a faith system would have been incomprehensible to the people living prior to the 300-year party — the people of biblical times.

But we are like a person who has inherited a lot of money and who can, for a short period of time, live luxuriously and extravagantly. Once the money is gone, it is gone. So it is with fossil fuels — once they are gone. We are returning to a time when, once more, our lifestyles will have to be truly sustainable. New sources of energy such as solar panels and wind turbines can help slow the rate of decline, but they do not replace fossil fuels. The 300-year party is coming to an end. We need to replace the Church of Progress.

About 10,000 years ago societies in different places started to develop agriculture. Doing so gives that society a much higher ERoEI value, probably in the 6-8 range. The surplus energy provides the foundation for civilized society, a society that can now afford luxuries such as armies, buildings, priests and writing.
Then, about 300 years ago we learned how to exploit the energy in fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Doing so dramatically increased society’s ERoEI value. Now humans, through the use of this stored energy, have ERoEI values that can be as high as 100:1. This surplus provides the foundation for everything we take for granted in our modern way of living