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

Reviewed by Michael W.

Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (New York: Verso, 2016), 496 pp., $29.95.

If we are to rescue ourselves from the looming catastrophe of climate change, one of our tasks is to understand how we became enmeshed in an economy powered by fossil fuels. It would be hard to find a more illuminating book for this purpose than Fossil Capital, a history of the rise of coal-fired steam power in Britain. In the tradition of historians such as Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood, Andreas Malm gives central importance to the capitalist social relations in which steam power is deployed as a form of power over people, challenging technological determinist accounts of the rise of the fossil economy (that steam power was inherently more efficient), as well as the “Anthropocene narrative” that sees the fossil economy as the inevitable outcome of human use of fire, and the Ricardian-Malthusian narrative that coal power was adopted because it was more abundant and cheaper than water.

All work requires expenditure of energy. The “prime movers” for much of human history have been animate (animals or humans), supplemented by “flow”—wind and water—and more recently “stock”—primarily fossil fuels. The central question Malm explores is how, as non-animate sources of energy accelerated in the Industrial Revolution, the shift took place from flow to stock, from the water wheels driving textile mills on rivers in the British countryside, to the steam engines in mills concentrated in cities. This historical question is also a vital question for the present, as we are in the midst of the stalled task of moving from stock to flow, in a rapidly closing window of opportunity to avoid tipping points into runaway warming, glacial melting, and sea level rise.

A pivotal moment in the story is the financial crash of 1825, after which factory owners began substituting machines for skilled and organized mule spinners, as well as for weavers who, although cheaper to hire, were hard to keep from embezzlement. The difficulty with the Ricardian-Malthusian explanation for the shift to steam engines is that at this time water power was still abundant and was one eighth the cost of steam. Why then did steam triumph? Part of the answer is that capitalists could not cooperate, and resisted the collective planning needed to even out the flow and ensure equal shares up and down the rivers. But the main advantage of steam power was its mobility. It could be located in the towns, where labor was plentiful. After 1825, factory discipline in towns was more habitual than in the countryside. With the shift to the power loom, although weavers were displaced, demand surged for operatives. Substitutability of workers became important as class struggle intensified.

In the rural water mills, before the crisis of 1825, mill owners could rely on indentured servants, but later changes in labor law compelled them to attract workers to expensive “colonies” with cottages and other amenities. Wage cuts provoked strikes, to which the rural mills were more vulnerable than their urban competitors. “The class contradictions of the crisis could only be resolved—or displaced—on a steam footing” (153).

To these advantages for steam may be added the availability of raw materials and markets for products in the towns, the formation of “agglomeration economies,” and the proximity of coal (the towns having expanded in coal regions because of the availability of coal for heating).

A further disadvantage of water was irregularity due to the weather. This traditionally was accommodated through overtime work when the flow increased. But the 10-hour movement and ultimately the 10-hour bill in 1847, and increasing limits on child labor enforced by factory inspections, made reliable steam power more attractive to owners, particularly as pressure for exports grew. The adoption of high-pressure boilers, despite the danger of explosions, reduced the price of steam, reducing the price advantage of water power. But the primary drivers of the transition were social.

“A shadow of resistance followed virtually every new machine rolled out in the industrial revolution, and the steam engine was no exception” (223). From the burning of the Albion mill in 1791 to the Luddite revolt (1811-16), steam-powered machinery was resisted. The British state responded to sabotage with death penalties. One of the most significant events in Malm’s history is the general strike of 1842, “the greatest revolt of the British working-class in the nineteenth century” (226). What other historians choose to ignore, he says, is the extent to which the strike involved a revolt against steam power. Chartism—the movement for voting rights and other democratic reforms—was at the center of the strike, and “Chartism had its base in the textile industry” (227).

The revolt began with colliers striking against wage reductions. Their principal method of closing the mines was by “raking out the fires under the boilers or pulling out the plugs.” The strike spread to the mills under the slogan “go and stop the smoke.” “‘Plug drawing’-- shorthand for the repertoire of acts of sabotage against steam engines-- was not incidental but constitutive of the general strike.” The point is not that the strike was against steam power. Rather “the working class could impose its will on capital by closing the spigots of the fossil economy,” and finally was defeated only by military power (228-35).

Malm disputes the idea that steam power arose as an inevitable outcome of human enterprise. “Steam won because it augmented the power” of capitalists over workers (267). It was not a response to population growth. And in later stages of the fossil economy, population growth has been highest where emissions are lowest and vice versa. In a reversal of Marx’s famous aphorism, “the steam mill did not give us society with the industrial capitalist, but precisely the other way around” (272).

In a striking image, Malm observes that woodpeckers, whose bills are their tools, cannot have property relations, because their bills cannot be separated from their bodies and concentrated. Capitalist property relations separate workers from their means of production, and then unite them again under terms favorable to the capitalist, by means of money—Marx’s famous M-C-M’ circuit of capital. Because the motive of investment is profit, this circuit requires continuous growth at the level of the firm, and hence aggregately.

What Malm adds to this classic story is how “fossil fuels become the necessary material substratum for the production of surplus value” (288). Not only the drive for profit, but also market competition vitiates any attempts at collective management of a common energy source, such as persisted successfully for long periods from the Nile and al-Andalus, to Nepal (292-4).

In the closing chapters Malm illustrates how a theory of fossil capital illuminates what must be done in the present. He reminds us that “half of all CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels [from 1751 to 2010] occurred after 1986,” and these have been rising annually at an average of 3%. This boom is centered on China, which is now the top emitter, by 2007 producing two thirds of all carbon emissions. As China has taken on an increasing proportion of the world’s production, a rising share of its CO2 emissions are a result of its production for export. Thus when looked at through the lens of globalization, countries that have reduced their carbon emissions have simply exported their emissions to low-wage countries, from which they import their consumer goods.

It would be a mistake however to put all the blame on consumers, ignoring the decisions made by owners of the means of production. There are three mechanisms by which globally mobile capital increases global carbon emissions, all evident in China. First is the expansion effect, the positive feedback loop between expansion of energy infrastructure and foreign capital investment. Second, the intensity effect: although carbon intensity declines in wealthy countries, if it is advantageous to invest where labor is cheap, but carbon intensity is higher, there will be a relative rise in carbon intensity overall, even if carbon intensity declines in both countries, because of expanded production (Jevons’s paradox, or the rebound effect) (337). Third, there is the integration effect: higher emissions from globalized transport. As the cost of labor rises in China, investment shifts to lower wage economies with cheap energy infrastructure powered by coal. “Where capital goes, emissions will immediately follow.” While it is conceivable that carbon intensities could fall fast enough to offset growth in scale and production, “in reality, Jevons’s paradox constantly negates them on a global scale” (353-4).

The solution to the climate crisis is a kind of unwinding of the story that Malm tells: “our best hope now is a return to the flow” (367). Some hopeful studies estimate that we could make a technological transition away from fossil fuel by mid-century or sooner. Sunlight and wind, like water in the earlier transition, are abundant. Yet renewables, with the exception of hydro, still make up only 3 percent of electricity generation. In 2013 more energy was generated from coal than any other fuel. Although the prices of solar and wind are falling, fossil fuels remain cheaper. But the main problem is that capitalist firms will generally not invest in renewable energy. As a BP executive put it, “we really never made money” investing in solar (370). The standard explanation is that renewable energy is not present everywhere and not all the time, suggesting two solutions: localization and concentration.

Proposals for the localization of energy production run up against the facts of globalization. Means of production would have to be “shackled to communities formed around energy nuclei” (374). This movement from abstract space back to concrete space would empower workers, just as the mobility of capital has weakened them, and for that reason will be resisted.

The intermittency of wind and solar power clashes with “the reign of abstract time [that] has penetrated every moment of existence.” In the words of critics of transition scenarios, “mismatches with peak demand are not acceptable in any modern economy” (375). Concentrated solar and offshore wind are intended to shoehorn the flow into abstract space and time. But the difficulty here is “they require advanced planning and coordination” (376), as did the water reservoirs for the river mills before the transition to steam, and such coordination is undermined by the competitive market. No concentrated solar installation has happened without massive public investment. This perhaps suggests a way forward. The city of Los Angeles is headed toward one-third renewable electricity by 2020. If it is successful it will be because “the city has retained full ownership and control of its utility” (381).

But building public infrastructure is not enough. “Merely building the flow infrastructure will accomplish a tenth of a transition, unless there is a simultaneous ‘direct suppression of fossil fuel use’” (382). Malm does not mention a carbon tax, which could certainly contribute to this task. But if global emissions must shrink by at least 3 percent annually, even a large carbon tax is probably not enough. Planned market recession may be necessary, and this will be resisted by investors looking for profit.

In the concluding chapter Malm drives home the importance of understanding this history in order to come to grips with the present. Climate change is but the latest manifestation of a system that has privileged capital by defeating and exploiting labor. He invokes Benjamin: “the only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.” But cold prediction leads to pessimism. We need to remind ourselves that hope is not optimistic prediction; it does not rest on the facts alone; it is a moral attitude that springs from an awareness of what others have done, and what it is possible (however difficult or unlikely) for us to do.

Michael W. Howard
Department of Philosophy
University of Maine