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The first six essays are fundamental contributions to the study of the preconceptions that drive thought and modern science and their origins. The next nine essays apply Veblen's thinking to critiques of other economists and capitalism. Three of these nine essays represent fundamental components of Veblen's view of capitalism and its problems are of lasting interpretive and analytic value.

The final three essays in the book, and in particular the last two, are examples of a genre of thinking which, while not uncommon among social scientists of the period in which Veblen worked haven been discredited and certainly have no lasting value, being conjectural history using such concepts as natural selection.

As Warren Samuels notes in his stimulating introduction to this new edition, "Veblen was heterodox, iconoclastic, sardonic, caustic, and satiric. He also was brilliant, penetrating, original, courageous, literarily dramatic, and unique, as well as intellectually distant.

The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation and Other Essays - Thorstein Veblen - Google книги

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Our civilisation collapses. The post-apocalyptic survivors find themselves in a devastated world of decaying, deserted cities and roving gangs of bandits looting and taking by force. We bounce back. Sooner or later, peace and order emerge again, just as they have time and again through history.

Stable communities take shape. They begin the agonising process of rebuilding their technological base from scratch. Is there any chance, for instance, that a post-apocalyptic society could reboot a technological civilisation? Today, we have already consumed the most easily drainable crude oil and, particularly in Britain, much of the shallowest, most readily mined deposits of coal.

Fossil fuels are central to the organisation of modern industrial society, just as they were central to its development. So, would a society starting over on a planet stripped of its fossil fuel deposits have the chance to progress through its own Industrial Revolution?

Or to phrase it another way, what might have happened if, for whatever reason, the Earth had never acquired its extensive underground deposits of coal and oil in the first place? Would our progress necessarily have halted in the 18th century, in a pre-industrial state?

The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation and Other Essays

In everyday life, their most visible use is the petrol or diesel pumped into the vehicles that fill our roads, and the coal and natural gas which fire the power stations that electrify our modern lives. But we also rely on a range of different industrial materials, and in most cases, high temperatures are required to transform the stuff we dig out of the ground or harvest from the landscape into something useful.

It is fossil fuels — coal, gas and oil — that provide most of this thermal energy. In fact, the problem is even worse than that. Many of the chemicals required in bulk to run the modern world, from pesticides to plastics, derive from the diverse organic compounds in crude oil. Given the dwindling reserves of crude oil left in the world, it could be argued that the most wasteful use for this limited resource is to simply burn it.

But my topic here is not what we should do now. Presumably everybody knows that we must transition to a low-carbon economy one way or another. Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels?

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And the answer to that question is: maybe — but it would be extremely difficult. Many of our alternative energy technologies are already highly developed. Solar panels, for example, represent a good option today, and are appearing more and more on the roofs of houses and businesses. Well, it could, in a very limited way.

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If you find yourself among the survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, you could scavenge enough working solar panels to keep your lifestyle electrified for a good long while. Without moving parts, photovoltaic cells require little maintenance and are remarkably resilient. They do deteriorate over time, though, from moisture penetrating the casing and from sunlight itself degrading the high-purity silicon layers. The electricity generated by a solar panel declines by about 1 per cent every year so, after a few generations, all our hand-me-down solar panels will have degraded to the point of uselessness.

Then what? New ones would be fiendishly difficult to create from scratch. Solar panels are made from thin slices of extremely pure silicon, and although the raw material is common sand, it must be processed and refined using complex and precise techniques — the same technological capabilities, more or less, that we need for modern semiconductor electronics components.

These techniques took a long time to develop, and would presumably take a long time to recover. So photovoltaic solar power would not be within the capability of a society early in the industrialisation process. Perhaps, though, we were on the right track by starting with electrical power. Most of our renewable-energy technologies produce electricity. In our own historical development, it so happens that the core phenomena of electricity were discovered in the first half of the s, well after the early development of steam engines.

Heavy industry was already committed to combustion-based machinery, and electricity has largely assumed a subsidiary role in the organisation of our economies ever since. But could that sequence have run the other way? Is there some developmental requirement that thermal energy must come first?

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In a world without fossil fuels, one might envisage an electrified civilisation that largely bypasses combustion engines, building its transport infrastructure around electric trains and trams for long-distance and urban transport. How could an industrialising society produce crucial building materials such as iron and steel, brick, mortar, cement and glass without resorting to deposits of coal? You can of course create heat from electricity.

We already use electric ovens and kilns. Modern arc furnaces are used for producing cast iron or recycling steel. An alternative is to generate high temperatures using solar power directly. The heat concentrated in this way can be exploited to drive certain chemical or industrial processes, or else to raise steam and drive a generator. Even so, it is difficult for example to produce the very high temperatures inside an iron-smelting blast furnace using such a system. No, when it comes to generating the white heat demanded by modern industry, there are few good options but to burn stuff.

Long before the adoption of coal, charcoal was widely used for smelting metals.


In many respects it is superior: charcoal burns hotter than coal and contains far fewer impurities. Released during combustion, they can taint the product being heated. During smelting, sulphur contaminants can soak into the molten iron, making the metal brittle and unsafe to use.

It took a long time to work out how to treat coal to make it useful for many industrial applications. And, in the meantime, charcoal worked perfectly well. And then, well, we stopped using it.