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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Geology of the UK

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History as geology.

I don't often buy the Times, but today I did. It had a front page story on how Exxon have (despite their claims to the contrary) been funding climate change denialists, giving them £1 million last year. Such funding has helped cast doubt on the science of global warming/ climate change. This in turn has made it more difficult to create the political climate necessary if the economic changes required to limit the damage are to be put in place.

Although it is our economic dependency on oil that is the present problem, it was the rapid expansion of the use of coal in the late eighteenth century which first increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere. It was therefore the industrial revolution which began the destabilisation of the earth's climate. If nothing is done, the destabilisation of the earth's climate will set in motion a series of social, economic and political changes which will halt and then reverse the process of industrialisation. Humanity will be thrown back to subsistence level survival. Even this level of survival will be difficult if the stable climate of the Holocene era (the geological era since the last Ice Age ended 12 000 years ago) is lost. It has been the stability of the Holocene climate which allowed settled cultures and civilisations based on agriculture to emerge. This process began with the Natufian culture which emerged at the eastern end of the Mediterranean about 14 000 years ago. It took another 7000 years before the first historic civilisation ( meaning had a written language and was city based) emerged at Uruk in Iraq.

In contrast to these thousands of years of human history/prehistory, it is only 300 years or so since the first practical fossil fuel powered steam engine (used as a pump) was developed by Thomas Savery in 1698. It took another 100 years for coal powered steam engines to become thermally and mechanically efficient enough to create an industrial revolution. This breakthrough occurred in Manchester in the 1790s when James Watt's improved (more thermally efficient) steam engine was geared up to power cotton spinning machinery. This advance was facilitated by an existing by a network of canals which conveyed coal to Manchester and linked Manchester with the port of Liverpool through which raw cotton was imported and processed cotton exported. If the local geology had been different – if there had been no local sources of coal or if ridges of rock had obstructed navigation along rivers and the construction of canals – these developments would have been checked. Building a railway between Manchester and Liverpool would also have been more difficult – and without access to coal, the development of Manchester which provided the economic justification for the railway would have been absent.

But would the industrial revolution have happened anyway? Would it just have occurred elsewhere?Possibly. On the other hand from my researches into the history of south west Scotland, I know that the development of Liverpool and Manchester was facilitated by a group of young men men who moved to the two cities from south west Scotland. Thanks to its geology, south west Scotland had a much smaller population than north west England and also lacked reserves of coal. Although attempts to industrialise (including the building of water powered cotton mills) south west Scotland were made, the attempts failed. The region remained (as it still is) an agricultural region.

To move from the local to the global, at the same time that the industrial revolution was taking off in Manchester, there was a revolution in France. Quite which of these two revolutions – the industrial and the French- had the greater impact is hard to judge. But if global warming becomes the defining problem of the twenty first century, then it is the industrial revolution which becomes the most significant. If so, then the lives of hitherto obscure individuals like John Kennedy from farm in the Glenkens of south west Scotland become more significant. Kennedy founded a cotton spinning firm which became the largest in Manchester by a combination of mechanical improvements and business skills. Kennedy also played a key role in the Liverpool and Manchester railway project. By his actions, and those of his contemporaries, John Kennedy helped set in motion global climate change.


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