In the autumn of 1917, a severe coal shortage hit the United States. Riots even broke out over the lack of energy as the nation went into the winter months. Some people were calling for conservation, but one snarky newspaper article insisted that conserving was for suckers. Why? People of the future — specifically, the people of 100 years hence — wouldn’t be using coal anyway.
Coal miners in England in 1910 (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
I recently came across this article in the 12 November 1917 edition of the Lincoln Evening Journal in Nebraska which ran under the headline “Looking Ahead”. The piece was reprinted from the Chicago News and ridiculed the idea of worrying about whether people of the future would have enough coal. They needed coal now, and there’s absolutely no way that people of the year 2017 would still be using coal as energy.
What will be people be using a hundred years hence? The author speculated that perhaps someone will find a way “to put the sun’s energy in storage, and pump it into people’s houses thru pipes”.
Solar power! It wasn’t such a silly idea, of course, as some people had been inventing strange solar-powered devices in the 19th century. And the 1930s would even see this solar-powered refrigerator.
The author of the article explained that their grandfathers had “fussed around with tallow candles” and that “highbrow writers” warned people to save their candles. But it was all for nought, of course. Better energy sources were found and humanity progressed.
“And these gifted lunatics who are worrying about the coal supply are in the same class,” the writer from 1917 continued. “It doesn’t occur to them that in a hundred years people will be saying, ‘Our grandfathers, the poor boobs, actually used coal for heating purposes!'”
In some ways this writer from 1917 is right. When we heat our homes here in the year 2017, very few of us have to literally use coal in a furnace that’s sitting in our houses. But in 2015, roughly 67 per cent of America’s energy needs were from fossil fuels. The largest single source? Coal, at 33 per cent. Solar energy accounts for less than one per cent of American energy. And in Australia, around 77 per cent of energy was produced by coal, and only two per cent by renewables. We haven’t progressed very far when it comes to our energy sources, sadly.
Much like oil, which we aren’t running out of any time soon, we need to move away from coal because it’s the right thing to do for the environment. And even if you somehow don’t believe in humanity’s role in climate change, at least do it for the future.
If nothing else, it’s kind of embarrassing that a writer from a hundred years ago had absolute confidence that we’d have moved to better technology by now, and we’ve all proven him wrong.