Climate Change

Capitalism is the culprit

Fossil Capital, which is the Swedish Marxist Andreas Malm’s first book in English, is a wide-ranging explanation of the manner in which capitalism tends toward climate crisis in the present era. Through his examination of the rise of English industry in the early decades of the nineteenth century, he provides a convincing rebuttal to antihumanist theories of the Anthropocene era and offers some key clues about how we can transcend the “fossil economy” as a species.

Malm situates the origins of climate change in the transition to the coal-powered steam engine from waterpower in Britain’s textile industry. Coal had been used for centuries in Britain, but only to heat and cook in the domestic sphere. (It was widely used in China under the Northern Song dynasty as well.) Even after James Watt invented the self-acting steam engine in the 1770s, it was not adopted on a mass scale until decades later.

Watt’s invention at first seemed exorbitantly expensive for a developing industry. Water wheels, which Karl Marx noted had been bequeathed to Europe by the

Roman Empire as “the elementary form of all machinery,” continued to operate most of Britain’s industry into the 1820s. Even long after the transition to coal, there were strong advocates among British industry arguing that waterpower was cheaper, cleaner, and more effective.

The coal-powered steam engine, however, offered several advantages that water could not. First, rivers are not located everywhere. Enterprises based on waterpower had to summon their workers from elsewhere. Secondly, the currents of rivers do not always flow the same. Water mills hence could not run on the regular hours of capitalist enterprises elsewhere.

In chapter 6, Malm shows how inventors and visionaries like the Scottish engineer Robert Thom argued against the mass employment of steam engines. Thom developed plans for large-scale industrial colonies along rivers in southern England, where textile mills could share the abundance of the nearby water as well as housing and facilities for workers recruited from the cities. Thomas Ashworth, a fellow engineer, pioneered similar plans for his home county of Lancashire. In presenting a plan for three large reservoirs on the River Tame to a select committee of Parliament in 1837, he stated, “I believe the plan proposed is the cheapest mode of . . . giving mechanical power . . . I have no doubt that they will give up steam engines.”

Reservoir schemes by Thom, Ashworth, and others kept running into the same problem: Capitalists would have to collaborate in order to make a return to water effective. For capitalists invested in the booming textile industry, banding together to figure out how to evenly distribute the power from water required intelligence, skill, and management that many were not inclined to learn. “Steam,” Malm writes, “was the ruder option, more easily understood and manipulated, [and] less of an art.”

Transitioning to steam allowed capital to set to work when and where it wanted to, and to recruit workers how it liked. In the 1820s, the steam-powered self-acting mule allowed textile manufacturers in Lancashire to throw a whole generation of striking skilled workers out of employment and bring them back as unskilled machine-minders, begging for a pittance. Malm notes that water, a common resource unlike coal, hardly lent itself to a similar capitalist division of labor.   

In the central chapter of his study, which bears the same title as the book, Malm argues for an alteration of Marx’s equation for the circulation of capital proposed in volume one of Capital. Supplies of fossil fuel are a presupposition for modern capitalist production. Fossil fuels, whether in the form of coal, oil, or natural gas, are also, of course, produced and sold as commodities under capitalism. This explains the great power of the fossil fuel lobby and hints at why conquering our dependence on this fuel seems such an enormous task.

Malm devotes a chapter in the middle of the book to the relationship between fuel and workers’ resistance. Radical workers understood the role of fuel in the industry that oppressed them to the point that they deliberately “went to stop the steam,” pulling out the plugs of steam engines and thus debilitating them during the Chartist general strike of 1842. He notes that capitalism’s reliance on coal gave a potentially huge amount of power to coal miners, while the transition to oil power a century later led to dependence on workers in the oil fields of the Middle East. 

By situating the beginnings of climate change specifically in British industry during the nineteenth century, Malm is able to overcome to a significant extent the moralism that has plagued various formulations regarding the Anthropocene era—the most recent period of geological time in which human activity has profoundly affected the planet.

Some of the most extreme argue that by containing easily combustible resources, the planet Earth itself is responsible for global warming. More moderate proponents will argue instead that human activity, beginning with the discovery of fire, leads directly to climate change. Reading Malm makes clear that the discovery of flame cannot account for global warming. Humans used fire, and indeed coal, for millennia without affecting the climate. It is only under a specific kind of social relation—fossil fuels linked to perpetual industrial growth unique to capitalism—that global warming occurs. 

Even such a pioneering and innovative study as Fossil Capital has its weak points. It is based on Malm’s doctoral dissertation, and its erudition in one specific area of social science can be difficult for readers (like myself) who do not share his background. Similarly, Malm draws deeply on several different schools of Marxist thought, including Robert Brenner and Ellen Wood’s historical interpretation of the rise of capitalism in England, the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser, and Henri Lefebvre’s work on capitalism’s production of space. Readers not familiar with these various schools of Marxism may find it difficult to follow some of Malm’s arguments, though time spent reading his book carefully will be well compensated.

More concerning is Malm’s near-exclusive focus on the development of the fossil economy in England alone from the years 1770–1840. One advantage of this approach, as with Brenner and Wood’s “political Marxism,” is that it allows him to account for the rise of the fossil fuel economy in the dynamic of a very specific period in capitalism’s history, but there emerges the problem of applying tendencies specific to one country to the rest of world capitalist history. This is evident at the end of Fossil Capital, where Malm abruptly shifts from nineteenth-century England to “China as the chimney of the world” without much attempt to bridge the historical gap. The transition from coal to petroleum is left unaccounted for. 

Possibly Malm will begin to cover this in the sequel, Fossil Empire. Anyone with an interest in ecology, and anyone opposed to capitalism, must read Malm’s crucial contribution to understand how and why capitalism makes war on planet Earth. But it should be read alongside general works of left-wing ecology, like John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology and Chris Williams’ Ecology and Socialism, and specific historical work, like Robert Vitalis’ America’s Kingdom, on the rise of the oil economy.

Issue #104

Spring 2017

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