Why is capitalism addicted to fossil fuels?

Issue: 153

Amy Leather

A review of Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso, 2016), £20

One of the biggest challenges that humanity faces is how to stop global warming. It is clear that if we don’t cut carbon emissions quickly then we face climate catastrophe. There is one very simple solution: to stop burning fossil fuels and make a rapid switch to the use of renewables such as solar, wind and tidal. But the problem is the very opposite is happening. The last decade has seen a boom in what may be termed dirty energy—fracking, deep water drilling and tar sand extraction have all been recently developed to enable the continued extraction of coal, gas and oil from hard-to-reach locations.

So why is this happening? When the entire future of the planet is at stake why are we not breaking from using fossil fuels, and switching to renewables as fast as we can?

Andreas Malm’s fantastic and fascinating book begins by identifying that it is “vested interests” that are preventing action. Malm takes us back to the industrial revolution in Britain to look at why capitalism developed a dependence on fossil fuels in the first place. He then leads us through to the present day, showing how the central dynamics of capitalism accelerated fossil fuel use, driving first coal and then oil extraction out across the globe. He goes on to examine how the logic of capitalism prevents the break from fossil fuel use today.

In the early decades of the 1800s an energy transition took place in Britain. The first machines of the industrial revolution, the spinning and weaving machines of the cotton industry, were driven by water—its potential power harnessed by giant water wheels with names like “The Hercules”. By 1800 there were at least 1,000 water mills concentrated in Lancashire and Scotland. Even as late as the early 1820s most mills in Manchester were still water-powered. However, according to cotton historian Stanley Chapman, just ten years later, steam generated by burning coal had “become the predominant form of power in every cotton town in the North of England”.

It is often assumed that this transition to steam was an inevitable consequence of James Watt’s invention of the rotative steam engine in 1784. However, as Malm shows, the move to widespread use of steam power was by no means guaranteed. Instead a protracted battle took place between steam- and water-power before steam eventually won out as the dominant energy form.

So why did such a shift, setting a course to fossilised energy based systems, take place? As Malm summarises: “The transition from water to steam in the British cotton industry did not occur because water was scarce, more expensive or less technologically potent—to the contrary, steam gained supremacy in spite of water being abundant, cheaper and at least as powerful, even and efficient” (p93).

Malm’s essential argument is that the shift to steam took place because ultimately it allowed capitalists to better exploit labour. The use of steam gave them better access to and control over workers. Early on in the book Malm identifies the dual meaning of the word power: it can refer to “a force of nature, a current of energy, a measure of work” but can also mean “a relation between humans, an authority, a structure of domination” (pp17-18). Malm argues that “the power derived from fossil fuels was dual in meaning and nature from the very start” in that we can see steam arising “as a form of power exercised by some people against others” (p36).

This gives an important framework to the arguments about climate change that run throughout his book. Although we are all affected by global warming, class interests influenced the adoption of fossil fuels right from the very start and have perpetuated their use further. The decisions that have set us on track to catastrophic warming were not made by all of humanity, but rather by a specific class of people.

The main advantage of water was that it was free. However, although the power it generated could easily match, if not exceed, that of the early steam engines there began to be problems with its use. Even in the rain-soaked areas of Manchester and Scotland, where the cotton industry was concentrated, there were times when there was not enough rain or even too much to allow for a steady uninterrupted supply.

Malm explores the fascinating experiments in water-power carried out by Robert Thom, a mill owner on the Isle of Bute who devised elaborate hydraulic systems that would allow the flow of water to be controlled. Water was stored in reservoirs and then released when required using waterways, aqueducts and sluices to regulate its flow. When Thom’s project was completed in 1824 it provided more power than steam could at the time and was so successful that other areas considered adopting similar schemes. Ambitious plans were drawn up for the Irwell valley starting above Manchester—a mammoth project involving 15 reservoirs with a vision of powering hundreds of mills. The plans were even discussed in parliament but in the end were abandoned. The cooperation between the mill owners needed to implement such plans came up against the dynamic of competition. Arguments quickly broke out over the costs of the project and how the flow of water would be utilised. The crux of the problem was that individual capitalists would not be able to control their own power. This is an early example of the limitations capitalism imposes on the solutions required to tackle climate change. If such schemes could be envisaged 200 years ago just think how technology today could be used to harness not only water but also wind and solar.

Coal had another advantage when compared with water—its mobility. This came to be seen as an immense benefit by the new capitalist mill owners.

To harness the power of water mills factories had to be built where the water source was, near to the rapids or waterfalls used to power the giant wheels. Disciplined workers were hard to find in such rural areas. The water may have been free to use but the individual mill owner often also had to invest in what was called a “colony”—the building of a settlement near the water source to house and service workers. Not only was this an extra outlay but it also made the mills vulnerable to industrial strife. Striking workers might not only smash up the machinery, but could also destroy all the buildings of the colony, resulting in an even greater cost to the capitalist. The problem was further exacerbated as the rural location meant there was not a ready supply of workers to take the place of those striking.

The fact that coal could be moved around meant that the capitalist could take the power to the people, rather than having to take the people to the power. As Malm puts it, coal was “a ticket to the town” giving capitalists better access to disciplined workers in the newly expanding urban areas. The cost of paying for coal began to be offset by these benefits.

Malm examines how a number of factors came together in the 1820s and 1830s. The Factory Acts, which limited the number of hours that could be worked, affected mills powered by water more than those using steam. Previously, if these mills lost production time due to a lack of water supply, they would make it up by forcing workers to work even longer hours than usual. Once this avenue was closed the advantage began to fall to steam. The development of high pressure steam also contributed to the shift. Essentially the adoption of steam enabled capitalists to better exploit workers and thus compete. Coal was no longer simply associated with heating homes but became tied to “self-sustaining economic growth”.

There are a number of conclusions that follow from Malm’s analysis. First, that the fossil economy has one clear incontestable birthplace: Britain. However, Malm makes it clear that rather than this being a collective decision by the whole British population, steam was used as a form of power by the newly rising capitalist class against industrial workers. In fact Malm shows throughout the book how the introduction of steam was often fiercely resisted by workers who saw a threat to their jobs or as part of wider resistance such as the Plug Plot Riots in 1842 which were linked to the Chartist movement. Workers pulled the plugs out of the steam engines, stopping production by allowing the water to escape.

But, crucially, once steam was introduced it unleashed a process, a path of development, with fossil fuels at its heart. Although it is quite possible to imagine capitalism developing without coal, oil or other fossil fuels, for example if these fuels had never been discovered, once some capitalists began to use them they all had to turn to steam to stay in business through the pressure of competition.

As Malm shows, the shift to coal didn’t stay confined to Britain. Through the pressures of economic competition and military invasion, the fossil economy was projected out across the globe. I am already looking forward to Malm’s next book Fossil Empire which will explore these processes further.

Later in the book Malm brings us up to the present day with a particular focus on China, where an emissions explosion has taken place over the past 15 years. Malm makes the point that we live in a global economy, where what matters for the climate is total emissions. China is often blamed for emissions but in fact it is producing goods that are consumed elsewhere in the world, in particular the West. It would be easy to fall into the trap of blaming Western workers for demanding cheap goods. Instead Malm is clear—the decisions to relocate production to places such as China are made by those at the top of society seeking cheaper labour costs and fewer environmental protection laws: “American or other Western workers never made the decision to outsource manufacturing. In fact if there is anyone who has ever resisted such moves, it is they” (p333).

There are a few minor weak points in the book. While Malm says “capitalism gave birth to the fossil economy” he also says “a fossil economy does not necessarily have to be capitalist” (p277). Here he is referring to the former Soviet Union with its abysmal environmental record. Although there is no further investigation of this topic in the book—Malm says this would not be relevant given the regimes no longer exist—it does give ground to arguments that the Soviet Union and other Eastern European states were socialist or something other than capitalist. The International Socialist tradition would see them as state capitalist—driven by competition, and resting on exploitation.

Malm is also very dismissive of the concept of the Anthropocene. My interpretation of his reasons for this is that he rejects some notions of the Anthropocene as being about blaming all of humanity or human nature. While I would agree with some of these arguments—there are many interpretations and indeed definitions of the Anthropocene—the concept itself can be useful when analysing the impact of human activity on the environment particularly since industrialisation. Indeed it was the energy transition to steam and subsequent developments that Malm identifies during the 1800s that paved the way for the “great acceleration” in emissions post-1945 that Ian Angus explores in his book Facing the Anthropocene.

As Malm concludes, an economic and social system became dependent on fossil carbon to power its growth and the history of capitalism since then has been marked by its ever increasing use of coal, gas and oil. Capitalism and fossil fuels became inseparable and remain so today, hence his term “fossil capital”. As Angus argues: “fossil fuels are not any overlay that can be peeled away from capitalism leaving the system intact. They are embedded in every aspect of the system.”

Today we live in a world of vast historic sunken investments in the fossil fuel industries and economy. These enormous investments would have to be written off if a transition was made to renewables. From the coal mines to the oil fields, the power plants to the vast network of oil and gas pipelines, the oil rigs, the refineries, the gas fields, not to mention industries such as road and aviation, plastics, petrochemicals, industrialised agriculture and much more, the whole infrastructure of capitalism has been built on fossil fuel. All of this would need to be scrapped in order to make the transition to renewables. Such a vast global write-off of capital would be unprecedented in scale.

Malm also makes it clear that class interests were bound up with the decision to adopt fossil fuels right from the start. Of course, those early mill owners could not have known they were setting the world on course for catastrophic global warming (although, as Malm points out, air quality in the new mills and towns such as Manchester was a major source of complaint by workers). However, we do know now about the impact of burning carbon. Unfortunately the scale of historic investment in the fossil fuel industries and landscape, and the colossal vested interests that exist with the power to lobby governments mean that we are up against massive economic and political obstacles.

Fossil Capital is essential reading for any activist or socialist seeking to understand why fossil fuels are so dominant. This thought-provoking book is a text to return to time and again. Not only does it further our understanding of why we are where we are, but also puts class struggle centre stage. As such it offers the possibility of a way out of the environmental crisis. Malm explores the possibilities for renewable energies, showing that the barriers to introducing them are not technical but because they come up against the limits of capitalism. The logical conclusion, the need to get rid of capitalism, and thus the need for revolutionary change, is impossible to ignore.

Amy Leather is joint national secretary of the SWP.