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Searching for the Origins of the Fossil Economy

John Merrick 4 December 2015

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As part of our series looking critically at climate change and the ongoing COP21 talks in Paris we have an exclusive extract from Andreas Malm's Fossil Capital. In it, Malm outlines his distinctive approach to the contemporary fossil economy by looking back to its contingent origins during the Industrial Revolution. It is only through this, Malm argues, that we can truly understand the crisis we are in today.

What do we mean by ‘the fossil economy’? A simple definition would be: an economy of self-sustaining growth predicated on the growing consumption of fossil fuels, and therefore generating a sustained growth in emissions of carbon dioxide. Roughly synonymous with ‘business-as- usual’ in the lexicon of climate politics, this, we submit, is the main driver of global warming. It first appeared during the Industrial Revolution, whose great historical feat was to inaugurate an era of ‘self-sustaining growth’, meaning a process of growth that was not episodic, evanescent, broken off after a brief efflorescence, but persistent and unremitting, a secular progression propelled by its own inner forces. In biophysical or thermodynamic terms, no growth can, of course, feed upon itself: one of the key lessons of ecological economics is that it always relies on the withdrawal and dissipation of natural resources. But through mechanisms to be specified later, the fire of modern growth reproduces an economic gas that necessarily ignites as more growth, the result of the process spurring it to advance further, the loop reinforced anew on a grander scale – and in this and only this sense is it self-sustaining. The fossil economy was born when that fire began to be fed by the material fuel of fossil energy.

Now we immediately see that the fossil economy, under this definition, cannot account for all human influence on the climate. Fossil fuel combustion is only one cause of global warming, just as the sun is only one of the bodies in the solar system and the American president only one in a larger team: the others, puny by comparison, revolve around it. ‘Land-use change’ – read: deforestation – accounts for a fourth of all CO2 released since 1870, but its share is secularly diminishing, now standing at around 8 percent of current emissions, fossil fuels taking up virtually all the rest. Then there are the other greenhouse gases – methane, nitrous dioxide, ozone, sulphur hexafluoride... – whose social histories would have to be recounted for a full picture to emerge. But it is safe to say that the burning of fossil fuels is the hard core of the problem, quantitatively dominant and qualitatively determinant. It deserves special focus.

If emissions of carbon dioxide ceased to increase and stayed constant, atmospheric concentrations would still continue to climb: absolute volumes of CO2 are, in the end, what matters for climate. Then why include their growth in the definition of the fossil economy? Because it is the union of economic expansion and fossil energy consumption that has pushed emissions up to the present, utterly unsustainable – and still rising – levels: this is the really existing process, the alloy that has brought us to this warmer place. Three major deviations from the norm are possible. An economy that grows while its emissions flatten out, even if on a high level, can be classified as a decoupled fossil economy; it might still be overwhelmingly based on fossil fuels, but only one of the two components remains in motion. One with no trend in either respect may be termed a steady-state fossil economy, while one with continuously diminishing emissions – due to spontaneous breakdown, deliberately orchestrated policies or some other factor – is a fossil economy in decline. To the extent that these variants have existed at all, they have been exceptions proving the rule, or aberrations from business-as-usual (pretensions to decoupling gainsaid by rising emissions embodied in imports; steady-state situations a transient feature of crisis, such as in 2009; decline – notably in Eastern Europe in the 1990s – followed by rebound). None undermines our definition of the object of historical inquiry.

The fossil economy has the character of a totality, a distinguishable entity: a socio-ecological structure, in which a certain economic process and a certain form of energy are welded together. It has some identity over time; contrary to the axioms of methodological individualism, the embryonic individual is suspended in its fluid. A person born today in Britain or China enters a preexisting fossil economy, which has long since assumed an existence of its own and confronts the newborn as an objective fact. It possesses real causal powers – most notably the power to alter the climatic conditions on planet Earth, but this only as a function of its power to direct human conduct. A factory manager will be pressured to obtain energy by plugging into the current from the nearest coal-fired power plant rather than building her own waterwheel. The company owner will send her commodities to the world market on cargo vessels, rather than sailing ships. A cashier may have little choice but to commute to the super- market in a car – she certainly won’t ride a horse – and if she wants to go on vacation, she will encounter intense advertising for flying as a transportation option. Moreover, none of these emitting actions would be possible without integration into the fossil economy: alone on an island, or living in a country untouched by this economy, an individual could complete none of them. As such, then, the fossil economy is an altogether historical substance. It must have undergone its own birth once upon a time. The causal powers it now exerts are emergent properties: they were not always there. Agents must have created it through events amounting to a moment of construction, much as, once erected, a building’s structure is now an enduring feature of the world; entrenched in the environment, it conditions the movements of the people inside. Eventually it appears indistinguishable from life itself: business-as-usual. But the fossil economy was once constructed and has since been reproduced and enlarged, and anything built over time can potentially be torn down (or escaped).

So how did it all begin? Where would the search for a moment of construction lead us? While several countries could lay claim to being the cradle of modernity, capitalism, enlightenment or liberal democracy, the fossil economy has one incontestable birthplace: Britain accounted for 80 percent of global emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion in 1825 and 62 percent in 1850. There is a margin of error in these figures, but they give us an idea of the proportions and trends, suggesting that Britain lost some of its paramountcy as the consumption of fossil fuels spread to other countries but continued to generate more than half of the world’s emissions far into the nineteenth century. The origins of our predicament must be located on British soil.

Consequently, there has been a minor flurry of interest in revisiting the British Industrial Revolution for clues as to how all of this happened and, not the least, what to do now. An energy transition – most simply defined as ‘a switch from an economic system dependent on one or a series of energy sources and technologies to another’ – occurred at that time; we are heading towards another transition; thus, the argument goes, we need to learn from the past to proceed as best we can now. If we think of the fossil economy not as a static building but rather as a train put at a point in the past on the current perilous track, we require knowledge of the switching mechanism to enter a safer course. The British Industrial Revolution here assumes the status of a unique archive of lessons. What do they say? ‘First, the transition was slow. Second, it was driven by prices. Third, it required new technology.’ Add human capital, scientific discovery, cooperation and narrow self-interest in equal measures and, concludes economic historian Robert Allen, a future transition to sustainable energy will also share these characteristics. Most importantly, ‘people respond to price incentives’.

One lesson often taken away from the switch to fossil fuels is precisely that it was protracted, passing through several phases of stumbling experimentation, the agents slowly learning to master the novel form of energy – and hence the shift away from them should follow the same pace and refrain from ‘pre-mature scaling up of technologies and industries’. A transition must be given time. Even more critical, as we shall see, is the presumed lesson of prices: fossil fuels won the original race because they were cheapest, and the same advantage will now have to be secured for renewable alternatives if they shall have a chance. Moreover, if the British Industrial Revolution stands as a model for ‘the second industrial revolution’, or the green or the low-carbon or the sustainable one, yet another lesson seems unavoidable: ‘The profit-motive of small and medium-sized enterprises rather than community action might drive innovation. The fact that’ the instigators of the switches back then ‘were competitive capitalists and became wealthy as a result’ counsels us from assuming that ‘only communal initiatives can drive radical change.’ Capitalists slowly unrolling technologies with lower prices: this is the manual to follow.

But any straight parallelism between the entry into and the exit from the fossil economy is spurious. It comes close to the fallacy of presupposing that the present is essentially the same as the past, allowing for an immediate transfer of precepts, such as when generals have drawn up their strategies from the lessons of ancient battles and suffered grievous defeat, forgetting the Heracleitan rule that you cannot step into the same river twice. As several scholars have pointed out, the transition now impending – if indeed it is – would be motivated by the urgent need to stave off or at least minimise catastrophic climate change, a danger humanity has never before confronted, and one which certainly did not figure in the calculations of early British industrialists. The most highly prized quality of renewable energy would be low or zero emissions of carbon dioxide: a public good, not a private benefit. Time is already characterised by being short. For these and other reasons, the next transition cannot share the canonical features of the British Industrial Revolution; above all, this time it would have to be collectively planned. But it would face impediments. Measures necessary for an enforced, rapid, politically driven phaseout of fossil fuels may, as IPCC tersely notes in a ‘Summary for Policymakers’ from 2007, be ‘difficult to implement’ due to what the panel labels a ‘key constraint’: namely ‘resistance by vested interests’. In these few words, a planet of antagonism briefly comes into view. So fossil fuels have to be dis- carded for human civilisation to endure and thrive – but there are ‘vested interests’ standing in the way. What are they?

Here might lie a better reason to revisit the Industrial Revolution. If the fossil economy is a train that never stops but always accelerates, even when approaching the precipice, the task is to pull the brakes (or maybe jump off) in time, and if there is a driver who seeks to keep this from happening, she has probably been seated in the locomotive for some time: we need to know who she is and how she works (or perhaps it is an automatic engine, a driverless construction – but the need would be the same). The interests that once put the train in motion may still be driving it. The previous transition, then, would be not so much a template for the next as a key to understanding and removing the impediments. We cannot know this for sure: it is a mere suspicion. It is, of course, conceivable that the initial reasons for taking up fossil fuels are entirely unrelated to the interest in clinging to them now, which might have taken over at some point along the journey. But if we want to know more about the propulsive forces of the fossil economy, its laws of motion and the interests invested in it, the beginning seems a good place to start.

Whether we frame this as a search for parables or for enemies, the underlying assumption is that meaningful action can be undertaken: it is not yet too late. But what if it is? ‘If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late’, declared Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, in 2007: ‘What we do in the next two or three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.’ What if that were no mere rhetoric, but an accurate forecast soon to be fully vindicated – then would there be any point in delving into the annals of the fossil economy? If any historical matters exist that would be of interest under sea levels two metres higher, this might be one of the few. Or, with Gardiner: there is a ‘task of bearing witness to serious wrongs even when there is little hope of change’. The militant reason for studying the history of the fossil economy has a meditative backup. Both boil down to, in the simplest possible terms, that one burning question: how did we end up in this predicament?


Filed under: anthropocene, climate-change, cop21