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Harvest through the ‘Ages’

by
06 October 2023

Mark Rudall surveys the history of Homo sapiens in terms of fuel

Alamy

Illegal coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Miners work inside tunnels where the materials are extracted by hand. Coltan derivates are used in almost every kind of electronic device, including the production of mobile phones, refractive lenses for glasses, cameras, phones, and printers, smart-bomb guidance controls, and optical and medical equipment

Illegal coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Miners work inside tunnels where the materials are extracted by hand. Coltan derivates ...

MINE was the last generation to enjoy Harvest Festival services in churches full of greenery, local produce, and a massive Harvest loaf. Also always present was a saucer of coal — the harvest of the earth.

But, as stark images of starvation became a feature of 1960s TV news and Oxfam posters, so Harvest services acquired an awkward ambivalence. Displays became less flamboyant, but, somehow, that saucer of coal often remained, even though, by the 1970s, gas central heating was becoming common.

Harvest season in 2023 comes in an age of fear for the environment, and maybe that saucer of coal was more prescient than anyone ever guessed.

There is truth in “We are what we eat,” but we could also argue that the heart of humankind is defined less by what we grow and eat than by what we consume of God’s earth, and the ways in which we use those resources.

Archaeology defined the ages of humankind in terms of the materials used to make artefacts, the Stone Age giving way to ages of Bronze and Iron. Those same materials — better understood by successive generations — have all retained parallel importance up to the present. We still carve stone and use bronze and iron, but have never formally defined an “Aluminium Age” or a “Plastics Age”; and yet those materials undergirded the aircraft and information technologies that changed our world into a global community in which everyone feels the impact of economic, meteorological, or virological crises.

In terms of giving thanks to God for what we consume, I suggest that there is a strong case for looking at the ages of humanity through the quest for energy and the fuels that we have understood and exploited down the ages.

 

THE “Wood Age” sustained Homo sapiens for millions of years. Timber was used to build equipment to harness the flow of energy in water and wind, and even yielded charcoal for smelting, as metallurgical understanding grew.

Although coal had been known for millennia, winning it in quantity had to await the right materials technology for deep mining and suitable transport. The “Coal Age” really started at the end of the 18th century, when coal became more universally available, and thus the Industrial Revolution could begin. If the “Wood Age” lasted millions of years, the “Coal Age” lasted perhaps not much more than 250 years — and we are still living in the tail end of it.

The “Oil Age”, or perhaps the “Hydrocarbon Age”, began in the 1850s with the recognition that mineral oil was very different from familiar vegetable oils. Here was a significant source of energy: could anything be more powerful? Well, yes, it could, and the “Nuclear Age” dawned when Rutherford split an atom in 1919. Scientists saw that nuclear power could heat boilers for electricity generation, but the Second World War spurred development in more fearsome directions as well. Now, more than a century into the Nuclear Age, running parallel to it is a new phase in human development that we could dub the “Elemental Age”.

 

ELECTRICITY for all became possible only as mining techniques evolved, new elements and materials were discovered, and mechanical technologies became reliable. These, in turn, have enabled us to revisit those old “Wood Age” ideas of harvesting natural resources, such as rivers, the wind, tides — and the sun. A circle has been completed, enabling humankind to use the environment without, necessarily, damaging it quite as badly as hitherto. But, at harvest time in 2023, we might usefully seek to grasp the bigger picture of the “what”, “why”, and “how”, as well as the “ought we?” of our consumption.

Always fascinated by the great Victorian engineers and their epic mechanical creations, I have long been troubled by the monstrous ethical problems posed by the cost of their triumphs in terms of grossly exploited humanity.

Without the evil trade in African slaves, a much smaller Victorian cotton industry would have lacked the energy to kick off the Industrial Revolution; but, when it came, the revolution also highlighted the casual cruelties within our own shores.

In just one decade alone, 1874-84, there were 11,165 deaths in British coal mines, and mining all that coal for industry, railways, and shipping was possible only because Christian Victorian England was perfectly ready to exploit the poorest, weakest, and most vulnerable, and even some of the youngest, in UK society, too. Only 110 years before I was born, an inspector found young William Brockwier down a deep mine in South Wales. Manning a doorway to allow pit ponies to take coal skips through to the winding shaft, William was aged six, and was allowed four candles to light his 12-hour day.

It is emerging that the newly essential “harvests of the earth” are sometimes being sourced in similarly appalling conditions by very poor people in poor countries. Thinking that we don’t need coal in 2023, our generation hungers instead for minerals such as lithium, cobalt, and the 17 rare earth elements (REEs) essential to everything digital — and to our electric cars. Without neodymium, for example, we might be denied all those tiny high-powered motors that make so much of our lives automatic. . .

Sadly, I fear, our “Elemental Age” is presenting the same Victorian temptation to enjoy benefits while ignoring underlying human costs, because we fear opening cans of ethical worms in our desire to be perceived as “green”.

 

THANK God for the harvest? Yes, of course: but, just as Oxfam’s posters and footage from Biafra modified celebrations 60 years ago, so the picture continues to change, and maybe the coal sample should now be a microchip.

God’s people rightly give thanks for the whole breadth of the resources that sustain our lives. But it would be reasonable to reflect realistically that simply driving a Tesla to a well-lit place of worship with a good AV system demands continued extraction of fossil fuels, and those essential REEs, with their attendant human costs.

It is not possible to “just stop oil”, as some might think; neither can we stop researching into new elements that will satisfy our quest for the energy that we need to sustain our lives. But we can seek the least damaging ways forward for the earth and humanity, and pray for God’s guidance as we move ever onwards, exploring his provision.

 

The Revd Mark Rudall is a former director for communications, and a writer on industrial archaeology.

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