The Subterranean Forest

Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution

Rolf Peter Sieferle

The Subterrranean Forest studies the historical transition from the agrarian solar energy regime to the use of fossil energy, which has fuelled the industrial transformation of the last 200 years. The author argues that the analysis of historical energy systems provides an explanation for the basic patterns of different social formations. It is the availability of free energy that defines the framework within which socio-metabolic processes can take place. This thesis explains why the industrial revolution started in Britain, where coal was readily available and firewood already depleted or difficult to transport, whereas Germany, with its huge forests next to rivers, was much later. This landmark text was originally published in German in 1982 and was thoroughly revised and updated for the White Horse Press in 2001.

Now also available as an ebook.


Read full text on JSTOR.

‘If anyone is still wondering what environmental history has to offer, this is a book they should read’.

Paul Brassley – Environment and History

‘Sieferle’s account of this transition, its preconditions and its lasting consequences, is an excellent contribution to the still inexplicably sparse literature on energy in human history: well informed, well written, revealing in many ways’.

Vaclav Smil – Journal of Economic History

‘An engaging source for anyone grappling with the history of the Industrial Revolution’.

Fredric Quivik Technology and Culture

‘The book is a fine and stimulating example of environmental history’.

Paolo MalanimaH-Net.

‘… possibly the most important book I’ve ever read’

Jason ZuzgaGood Reads



I. Energy Systems and Social Evolution

1. Palaeolithic Hunter-gatherer Societies
2. The Neolithic Revolution and the Problem of Dynamics
3. Traditional Agriculture – A Controlled Solar Energy System
4. The Structure of the Agrarian Energy System
5. The Dynamics of Agrarian Society
6. Crisis and Transformation
7. The Industrial System and Fossil Energy

II. Forest and Wood in Preindustrial Germany

1. Natural Foundations
The forest as a component of the agricultural biotope. Forms of forest use. The transportation problem
2. Preindustrial Wood Consumption
Commercial consumption. Iron smelting. Private households
3. Regulation Problems

III. England: Coal in the Industrial Revolution

1. Substitution of Wood by Coal
Why was coal first used in England? The rise and decline of coal consumption in the Middle Ages. A new rise. Resistance to coal burning. Coal as trump in the trade war. Land gained with coal use. Was England dependent on coal?
2. Wood and Coal in Iron Smelting
Technical problems. Fuel shortage and stagnation. The breakthrough in iron smelting.
3. Transport and Steam Power
Transportation of coal. Power sources for draining coal pits. From the steam pump to the rotating steam engine.
4. Significance of Coal in the Industrial Revolution

IV. Germany in the 18th Century: Wood Crisis and Strategies for Solutions

1. Conserving Wood
Fuel conserving stoves. Problems in the commercial field.
2. Functional Separation of Agriculture and Forestry
3. Substitution for Wood
Substitution of wood by coal. State measures in favour of coal. Resistance and prejudices. Ascendancy of coal.
4. Was the Wood Crisis an Energy Crisis?

V. Perceptions of Fossil Energy

1. The Finiteness of Fossil Fuels
2. Classical Political Economy and the Stationary State
3. Jevons and the Contraction of the Industrial System
4. Nuclear or Solar Energy


January 2010, 240pp.
ISBN-13: 978-1-874267-53-9 (PB) £25