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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 April 2019

University of Chicago
Department of History, University of Chicago, 1126 E 59th St, Chicago, IL


In the early nineteenth century, political economists, politicians, and geologists debated the size and duration of the British coal supply. For mineral Malthusians, the argument about a dwindling supply sharpened anxieties about population pressure, fuel demand, and limited resources. They introduced a new sense of geological limits and long-term obligations into the theology of atonement. But for cornucopian liberals, the shift to a mineral energy regime supplied a powerful refutation to the Malthusian forecast. Inexhaustible coal promised growth without end.

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I wish to thank Alison Bashford, Shailaja Fennel, and Duncan Kelly for the invitation to take part in this special issue and the opportunity to present an early version of the paper at the conference on ‘Malthus: food, land and people’ at Jesus College, Cambridge, in 2016. For their very helpful feedback, I am also indebted to Dipesh Chakrabarty, Emily Osborn, Julia Adeney Thomas, and the other participants in the Neubauer workshop on Planetary History at the University of Chicago. Finally, I want to express my deep gratitude to the peer reviewers at the Historical Journal for their many questions and comments.


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18 Report of the select committee on the state of the coal trade, pp. 244–5, 247. While Buckland's Bridgewater treatise would cast geology in an explicitly religious frame, Buckland did not mention providence in his testimony but spoke instead of the position of coal beds as the ‘accidental and successive accumulations of drifted vegetables’; cf. ibid., p. 247.

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