In his opening speech at the recent 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told politicians and activists they were meeting in the city where, 250 years before, James Watt “came up with a machine that was powered by steam that was produced by burning coal.” In Johnson’s take, Glasgow was the birthplace of the ticking “doomsday machine” that heroic eco-worriers, much like the (imaginary) Scotsman James Bond, had to defuse before it was too late.

Some locals have also defamed Watt and his legacy. High ranking officials for the University of Glasgow thus tried to appease a few Extinction Rebellion activists dressed in modern clothing who had chained their necks to their institution’s gate. Instead of telling protesters none of these three things would have been possible without petroleum and coal, they reminded them that theirs was the first university in Scotland “to declare a Climate Emergency” and of their commitment to “the ambitious target of achieving net carbon neutrality by 2030.”

One wonders how past generations of Britons who celebrated Watt and his machine would have reacted to this indictment. One can surmise that people raised in much harsher conditions would have little patience for well-to-do rebels looking for a cause. Perhaps the biggest substantive disagreement would be over calls for leaving carbon fuels in the ground in the name of social justice, for earlier generations often celebrated this development.

A case in point is a moving tribute to Watt published shortly after his death by Sir Walter Scott. Mr. Watt of Birmingham (for it is there he conducted his most important work), readers were told, was the man whose genius discovered the means of multiplying our national resources to a degree perhaps even beyond his own stupendous powers of calculation and combination.” He made it possible to bring the “treasures of the abyss to the summit of the earth” and give the “feeble arm of man the momentum of an Afrite.” From then on, man was able to command “manufactures to arise, as the rod of the prophet produced water in the desert.” It also afforded him the “means of dispensing with that time and tide which wait for no man,” and of “sailing without that wind which defied the commands and threats of Xerxes himself.”

Watt was thus a “potent commander of the elements,” an “abridger of time and space,” a “magician, whose cloudy machinery has produced a change on the world, the effects of which, extraordinary as they are, are perhaps only now beginning to be felt.” He was also “not only the most profound man of science, the most successful combiner of powers and calculator of numbers as adapted to practical purposes,” the “most generally well-informed,” but also “one of the best and kindest of human beings.”

In his 1840 treatise on the steam engine, the Irish scientist and political economist Dionysius Lardner praised the new technology for having “penetrated the crust of the earth, and drawn from beneath it boundless treasures of mineral wealth, which, without its aid, would have been rendered inaccessible.” It had also simultaneously “drawn up, in measureless quantity, the fuel on which its own life and activity depend.” Through the steam engine, coal was “made to spin, weave, dye, print and dress silks, cottons, woolens, and other cloths.” It made “paper, and print books upon it when made.” It “convert[ed] corn into flour” and “express[ed] oil from the olive, and wine from the grape.” It drew up “metal from the bowels of the earth; pound[ed] and smelt it, to melt and mould it; to forge it; to roll it, and to fashion it into every desirable form.” It transported “these manifold products of its own labour to the doors of those for whose convenience they are produced.” It carried “persons and good over the waters of rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans, in opposition alike to the natural difficulties of wind and water.” It carried the “wind-bound ship out of port” and placed it “on the open deep ready to commence her voyage.” It transported “over the surface of the deep persons and information, from town to town, and from country to country, with a speed as much exceeding that of the ordinary wind, as the ordinary wind exceeds that of a common pedestrian.”

People who lived through these changes understood why the steam engine triumphed over water mills and windmills. The American economist Francis Wayland thus wrote in 1837 that water power was capable of “exerting great mechanical force” and was often “cheap [and] tolerably constant.” Unfortunately, it could only be used in “situations where it has been created by nature” and the best sites were often “at a considerable distance from the seaports whence the manufacturer derives his supplies” and exports the products, thus adding significant transportation costs to the price of manufactured goods. Water could also often not “be commanded in sufficient quantity.” Mill-seats often “suffer[ed] from the want of water” in “seasons of drought.” As a result, “a large number of the laborers must be unemployed, and a large portion of the expenses of the establishment must be incurred, without yielding any remuneration to the proprietor.” Water power was further liable to “dangers from inundation.” (Wayland could also have added freezing conditions and siltation to his list.) In the end then, costlier steam engines triumphed because they could be used “to create any required degree of mechanical force” while being “perfectly under human control.” Power could “be created in any place where fuel can be obtained,” be “used at will” in either stationary or locomotive applications and “be made to act with perfect regularity.”

The Caribbean planter Thomas Kerr similarly observed in 1851 that “water power exists only in some favoured localities.” Although it was “economical, powerful, and easily regulated,” its supply was “often irregular, and, in seasons of drought, cut off either totally or partially.” It was therefore “liable to one of the same objections as wind power, viz., that it cannot always be made available.” The steam engine then was “far superior to any other motive power in economy, force, regularity of action, independence of all local influences which affect other motions, the perfect control under which it can be maintained, the ease with which it can be directed, and its readiness of adaptation to any purpose for which it may be required.” The waste steam was also “useful for many purposes in the manufactory, where elevated temperatures are necessary.”

In his 1865 The Coal Question, the economist William Stanley Jevons similarly wrote that the water-wheel “possesses a natural tendency to uniformity of motion, even more perfect than that bestowed on the engine by Watt’s “governor.” It was therefore sometimes even preferred when a “very delicate machine requires to be driven at a perfectly constant rate.” Nothing could be “cheaper or better than water power” when an “abundant natural fall of water is at hand.” Unfortunately, the best sites had long been secured and many of the remaining ones (e.g., destructive mountain torrents, streams and rivers that often dried up, flat countries) were not conducive to manufacturing operations. Another problem was the necessity of “carrying the work to the power, not the power to the work.” This prevented the “concentration of works in one neighbourhood which is highly advantageous to the perfection of our mechanical system” while the “cost of conveying materials often overbalance[d] the cheapness of water power.” Even worse is that water power could never deliver the energy required by the United Kingdom, for at the time of his writing “steam power employed in factories” already exceeded “water power six-fold.”

Jevons further observed that while some windmills were “powerful machines,” their intermittency meant that “in a long tract of calm weather the mines were drowned, and all the workmen thrown idle.” Thus, while the wind was free, the real costs of “these machines were very great.” Moreover, windmills only proved somewhat useful in “open and elevated situations” and “no possible concentration of windmills” could “supply the force required in large factories or iron works.”

Another problem with today’s activists is that their single-minded emphasis on decarbonisation and net zero mandates the sacking of biodiversity on Earth, for arguably the greatest environmental benefit of the steam engine was that it started a process of substituting resources produced on the surface of the planet by others that came from below. Crucially, coal made great quantities of energy available from smaller volumes than biomass while alleviating crippling fuelwood and charcoal shortages. As Jevons observed, “forests of an extent two and a half times exceeding the whole area of the United Kingdom would be required to furnish even a theoretical equivalent to [the country’s] annual coal produce.” Coal solved this problem while sparing the landscape. The historical demographer and economic historian Edward Anthony Wrigley later argued that economic growth was ultimately made possible only when the organic economy – or the economy as it existed before the impact of the steam engine became significant – was able to break free from photosynthesis. This came “by gaining access to the products of photosynthesis stockpiled over a geological time span.” It was therefore the “steadily increasing use of coal as an energy source which provided the escape route.” The development of synthetic products out of coal tar also paved the way to drastically reduced overall demand for wild fauna such as whales (e.g., whale oil, baleen, perfume base), birds (e.g., feathers), elephants, polar bears, alligators and countless other wild animals (e.g., ivory, fur, skin); trees and other plants (e.g., lumber, firewood, charcoal, rubber, pulp, dyes, green manure); agricultural products (e.g., fats and fibers from livestock and crops, leather, dyes and pesticides from plants); work animals (e.g., horses, mules, oxen); and human labor in various forms (e.g., lumbering, weeding).

In later years, refined petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel, kerosene and bunker fuel proved a superior alternative to coal in the transportation sector while natural gas proved preferable in electricity production and home heating. Unlike the ruinous and unreliable “renewable” energy transition currently being foisted on us through subsidies and mandates by the likes of Boris Johnson and COP attendees, these substitutions occurred spontaneously because they delivered numerous technical and economic advantages. For instance, refined petroleum products have a higher energy density than coal and subsequently helped give much greater range to ships and railroads while displacing early electric cars and trucks. Both petroleum products and natural gas burnt more cleanly and were easier to get out of the ground. They were also easier to handle, transport and store in a wide variety of applications.

Coal burning was never perfect, but with its judicious use, Jevons noted “almost any feat is possible or easy.” Giving up on its power and versatility would have thrown humanity “back in the laborious poverty of earlier times.” The same can be said for petroleum and natural gas today. “Building back better” while ignoring the lessons of history will not make these realities go away.

Pierre Desrochers, is Associate Professor of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga.

Joanna Szurmak, is Research Services and Liaison Librarian, University of Toronto Mississauga.