By Dr. David Zylberberg

Energy sources are interchangeable for many purposes. Pre-industrial people burned various woods, peat, coal, dung and straw for cooking and basic manufacturing. In such societies, fuels varied between communities depending upon local availability and cost in either money or labour. Pre-industrial people cooked with whatever fuel required the least of their effort.

Energy has never been free or unlimited as the availability of each energy source faces its own limitations. Wood, dung and straw growth are all limited by annual photosynthesis and the need to use land for growing food. Societies that rely upon these energy sources are often characterized as organic economies and had limited carrying capacities for human populations. One such example is England in 1600, when it had a population of 4.15 million but was self-sufficient in food, energy and raw materials. Most of the population lived in villages, where their houses were relatively small and made of wood. Brick was rarely used as the fuel to bake bricks made them prohibitively expensive. Although the country was self-sufficient in food and most people had enough, we generally teach that population growth in the preceding century increased poverty as the region was pushing its carrying capacity for humans. Sixteenth-century England had a fair bit of manufacturing compared to other parts of the world but this mostly involved hand-spun wool cloth. E.A. Wrigley famously captured the organic limitations on metal use when he observed that if all of England were turned over to growing wood for smelting iron, it could only produce 1.25 million tons of bar iron a year.

Since 1600, economic and population growth has been intimately tied to increasing energy consumption. Much of this has involved finding energy sources that don’t rely upon photosynthesis or directly compete with agricultural land use. The adoption of coal as a household and manufacturing fuel was uneven. If population grew beyond those 1600 levels in areas without access to coal or peat, they could not produce sufficient fuel for all households to cook. I have previously written about the limitations of local food sources for the English population as it rose over 6 million after 1763. In the same years that English and other Europeans were becoming shorter, rising fuel costs priced an ever-larger portion of them out of cooking their own food. Instead, such households came to rely upon purchased bread or cooking as little as once a year and eating stale biscuits for the rest of the time. Even in areas of relative fuel abundance, heating homes when not cooking was an unimaginable luxury for most 18th and 19th century Europeans. In short, compared to organic economies our mineral-fuelled world currently has many more people, who are better fed, live in larger, warmer homes and use previously unimaginable materials. [click to continue…]


By Sean Carleton

Vancouver punk band The Rebel Spell are touring across Canada this fall to promote their new record, Last Run. Released in late September, Last Run showcases the band’s song-writing skills and passion for social justice. What is most interesting for readers, however, is the fact that The Rebel Spell have included a song on their album about a historical event: the little-known Tsilhqot’in War in the colony of British Columbia in 1864. The song “The Tsilhqot’in War” commemorates the 150th anniversary of a significant moment in Canada’s colonial history that does not generally receive a lot of popular attention (see the Further Reading section below for some notable exceptions).

The Tsilhqot’in War was a conflict between Indigenous peoples of the Tsilhqot’in Nation in the interior plateau of the colony of British Columbia and a crew of construction workers building a road from Bute Inlet to the goldfields in the Cariboo. In the early 1860s, politician Alfred Waddington sponsored the building of an alternative route to the Cariboo goldfields to compete with the established Fraser Canyon road. Construction on the alternative route began in 1862 without proper consultation of the Indigenous peoples whose territories the road would travel. In that same year, a devastating smallpox epidemic, introduced by settlers, spread throughout the Pacific Northwest killing many Tsilhqot’in peoples. [click to continue…]


The Home Archivist – The Grand Seduction

October 22, 2014

By Jessica Dunkin In the series’ inaugural post, I gave readers a brief overview of The Home Archivist, a project in which I—a professional historian—process and arrange a collection of nineteenth-century letters. The context in which a collection was produced, what archivists refer to as provenance, is central to these practices of processing and arranging […]

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World War One in Winnipeg – Conscription

October 21, 2014 is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.  By Jim Blanchard It is well known that the adoption of conscription in Canada during the First World War was very unpopular […]

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How Should We Measure Climate Change? What the Past Can Tell Us

October 20, 2014

By Dagomar Degroot Last month, world leaders met at UN Headquarters in New York City for Climate Summit 2014. As protests raged across the globe, diplomats established the framework for a major climate change agreement next year. The aim will be to limit anthropogenic warming to no more than 2 °C, a threshold established by […]

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Video – Eroding Democracy: Canada’s Public Science Policy in a New Regime of Governance

October 17, 2014

On Tuesday May 27, 2014 as part of Congress 2014, a panel discussed the current government’s science policy, access to information, the ability of government scientists to communicate freely with each other, the public, and the media. This cross-disciplinary panel was jointly hosted by the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians, Canadian Population Society, Canadian […]

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Best Practices for Writing History on the Web

October 16, 2014

By Sean Kheraj As more of our reading moves from print to screens, learning how to write on the Web will become an increasingly important part of history writing skills. Just as we teach fundamental research and writing skills for print essays, we will likely begin to teach digital writing skills for the Web. Writing […]

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History Slam Episode Fifty-Three: What to Wear to the Birth of a Nation

October 15, 2014

Podcast: Play in new window | Download By Sean Graham The story has been told thousands of time in the same way: the Fathers of Confederation met in Charlottetown and Quebec in 1864 and laid the groundwork for Confederation. These were men of vision who, according the video shown at the PEI legislature, had few […]

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Anti-War Poetry in Canadian Newspapers at the Beginning of the First World War

October 14, 2014 is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.  By Russ Chamberlayne The war fever has reached an acute stage. It has now attacked the poets. – “Pertinent and Impertinent,” Calgary […]

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Passage to Promise Land: Voices of Chinese Immigrant Women to Canada, by Vivienne Poy

October 10, 2014

By Cristina Pietropaolo Passage to Promise Land: Voices of Chinese Immigrant Women to Canada is a thoroughly researched and eloquent documentation of the experiences of twenty-eight women of different ages (the oldest in their nineties and the youngest in their thirties) who emigrated from the southern coastal region of China to Canada between 1950 and […]

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