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Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming

How capitalism first promoted fossil fuels with the rise of steam power
The more we know about the catastrophic implications of climate change, the more fossil fuels we burn. How did we end up in this mess?

In this masterful new history, Andreas Malm claims it all began in Britain with the rise of steam power. But why did manufacturers turn from traditional sources of power, notably water mills, to an engine fired by coal? Contrary to established views, steam offered neither cheaper nor more abundant energy—but rather superior control of subordinate labour. Animated by fossil fuels, capital could concentrate production at the most profitable sites and during the most convenient hours, as it continues to do today. Sweeping from nineteenth-century Manchester to the emissions explosion in China, from the original triumph of coal to the stalled shift to renewables, this study hones in on the burning heart of capital and demonstrates, in unprecedented depth, that turning down the heat will mean a radical overthrow of the current economic order.

Reviews

  • “Malm forcefully unmasks the assumption that economic growth has inevitably brought us to the brink of a hothouse Earth. Rather, as he shows in a subtle and surprising reinterpretation of the Industrial Revolution, it has been the logic of capital (especially the need to valorize immense sunk investments in fossil fuels), not technology or even industrialism per se, that has driven global warming.”
  • Fossil Capital is a theoretical masterpiece and a political-economic-ecological manifesto. It looks unblinkingly at the catastrophe that could await human society if we fail to act on the words System Change or Climate Change. It is a book that I will return to again and again—and take notes.”
  • “The definitive deep history on how our economic system created the climate crisis. Superb, essential reading from one of the most original thinkers on the subject.”
  • “Will climate change make us evaluate differently the achievements of George Stevenson and James Watt, Industrial Age pioneers? For it was in Britain, which accounted for 80 per cent of fossil fuel combustion in 1825, that “the fossil economy” began. Malm’s history is expansive and detailed, and often quite terrifying in its analysis. Essential reading.”
  • “Has Andreas Malm written the crime story of the year with his book Fossil Capital? Or submitted the fossil world order to psychoanalysis? Both. The depth of his inquiry into how our economic system created the climate crisis is impressive. (...) Very concrete, very beautiful, and perfectly reasonable.”
  • “The birth of the fossil economy, avers human ecologist Andreas Malm, arrived when steam eclipsed water power in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. Around that, Malm builds a deep, insight-packed history of how society came to be in thrall to the twin engines of combustion and capital.”
  • “His thorough account of the switch to steam shows quite convincingly that coal did not make Britain great for everyone, and the transition was rooted not in technological superiority or environmental scarcity but in good old fashioned class conflict.”
  • “This impressive book speaks to several emergent areas in ecocriticism: material ecocriticism, the ubiquitous Anthropocene, environmental history, ‘Victorian Ecology’...Such a formidable body of historical evidence has the potential to ignite both ‘Victorian ecology’ and a more socially engaged ecocriticism.”

Blog

  • Neither Promethean nor Primitivist: A Response to Andreas Malm

    In May, Andreas Malm appeared at Verso's Brooklyn office for a panel discussion on Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming with Aaron Jakes, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Anthony Galluzzo, whose contribution we present below.  


    (James Eckford Lauder, James Watt and the Steam Engine: The Dawn of the Nineteenth Century, 1855. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

    Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital represents a much needed intervention in a series of recent, oftentimes irrelevant, and sometimes irresponsible debates on the Marxisant left, about a properly socialist response to anthropogenic climate change. These debates see-saw between two, superficially antithetical, poles. On the hand, we find fatalist catastrophism exemplified by geographer Nigel Clark,  who contends that climate change is ultimately rooted in an innate and immutable human proclivity for combustion, originating with homo erectus. Human beings are “fire apes" or self-igniting Prometheuses, according to this iteration of Anthropocene theory. In other words, here is an ideologically over-determined myth that conveniently effaces the specifically capitalist origin and character of the climate crisis.

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  • 2016 Deutscher Prize Shortlist Announced

    The shortlist for the 2016 Deutscher Prize has now been announced. The prize has been awarded annually since 1969, to the most innovative work of Marxist scholarship published in that year. Previous winners have included such classics of Marxist writing as G.A. Cohen's Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, Barbara Taylor's Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, The Brenner Debate, and Robin Blackburn's The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800



    We've very proud to announce that this year's shortlist contains two books published by Verso in the past year; Andreas Malm's Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, and Tony Norfield's The City: London and the Global Power of Finance

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  • Het Fort van Sjakoo: The Anarchist Activist Collective Bookshop

    This year the UK-wide event Independent Booksellers Week takes place during the week of 18th-25th June, and we will be profiling our favourite radical bookshops alongside their top 5 radical reads each day next week on our blog. 

    Het Fort van Sjakoo is an anarchist bookshop in Amsterdam. As a warm-up for next week's indie bookshop focus, volunteer Joris takes us around the brilliant and revolutionary bookshop. 


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