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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 216-218

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The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution. By Rolf Peter Sieferle, trans. Michael P. Osman. Cambridge: White Horse Press, 2001. Pp. x+230. £35.

Nearly twenty years after the 1982 publication of Rolf Peter Sieferle's Der unterirdische Wald, White Horse Press has published an English translation that will interest anglophone students of the Industrial Revolution. While acknowledging that most scholars of the Industrial Revolution locate its birth in England's eighteenth-century textile industry, because of the new kinds of social and economic organization that took place there in the form of the factory system, Sieferle asserts that not enough attention has been given the environmental context. Specifically, scholars have not considered deeply enough the role played by energy, as understood ecologically.

The "subterranean forest" of the book's title refers to a name coined by the seventeenth-century German jurist Johann Philipp Bünting to describe deposits of coal that were capable of replacing the large tracts of timberland otherwise necessary to supply certain of society's energy requirements. Sieferle devotes a chapter near the end of the book to Bünting and other early modern European thinkers' reflections on the theological and social meanings of coal. To help the reader understand Bünting's mind-set for comparing coal deposits to forests, Sieferle provides extensive analysis of Europeans' understandings of their place within their living environment during the medieval and early modern periods. He also provides a quantitative [End Page 216] ecological explanation of how humans and their communities function in their environment.

Since the advent of agriculture, humans have been extensively modifying the ways they acquire energy through what Sieferle calls the agrarian solar energy system. There are three basic modes in which people use energy: metabolism, for the maintenance of their own bodies; motive power, usually supplied as muscle power by either humans or draft animals; and heat, for such purposes as cooking, or making glass, or smelting iron. Until the first use of coal, nearly every human activity was directly dependent on solar energy. Even motive power derived from nonanimate sources, such as wind or falling water, ultimately comes from the sun. Under the agrarian solar energy system, energy for the three basic modes of use generally came, respectively, from three distinct types of land: arable, pasture, and forest.

In the medieval and early modern periods, some European populations approached the carrying capacity of the land, with all the available arable, pasture, and forest managed for maximum sustainable production of energy. Absent imports or some technological change allowing more effective utilization of energy, the land could support no more people. England was one of those places, in which each type of land had been allocated to its most suitable function and was managed for maximum production of energy. That began to change with the introduction of coal for uses beyond space heating. By learning to convert coal to coke for use as a fuel for smelting metal, for example, England's iron industry was freed of its dependence on charcoal, which had commanded considerable timber resources. Coal also made possible the use of steam power for transportation, thus supplanting horses. Sieferle documents that by 1833 people in England understood that coal-fired steam freed large tracts of land, previously required as pasture, for the production of human food.

The concept of coal freeing land, previously needed to grow timber, for other uses leads to one of the most impressive facets of The Subterranean Forest. By comparing the energy in a ton of coal with the energy in a cord of wood, and then converting that to the acres necessary to produce wood fuel on a sustainable basis, Sieferle is able to show how many acres of forest were freed for other uses by the conversion to coal. His calculations show that by 1820 England was burning as much coal annually as would have required a forest the size of England to supply, in energy equivalent. And by 1850 England was making as much...


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