Max Ajl

You have definitely heard this phrase or a close cousin: “We cannot say if any given weather event is the result of climate change. We can only say climate change makes extreme weather events more frequent.” From seventy-degree days in December in New York to droughts defying belief in the Syrian countryside, the climate is suddenly inescapably present. What are, for now, oddities in the core regions of the world can become acute stressors elsewhere. Such destabilization has led to war and will lead to more.

One cannot say if any particular drought is due to anthropogenic climate change. Still less can one say whether any particular war is the direct effect of drought. Causal chains in complex systems are difficult to trace. But there’s little question, except amongst kooks and ExxonMobil mercenaries, that carbon dioxide’s diffusion throughout the sky is causing major changes in our world. 

For that reason authors have dubbed the current era the Anthropocene. Some, anyway. Others take issue with this nomenclature. Have humans as humans been responsible for dumping such deluges of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? Or has it been some humans more than other humans? Has this been an issue of global North and global South—raising the urgent issue of climate debt? Or does that, too, flatten out the world a little too much, forgetting that some in the North have done very well in the current capitalist system, and some have not?

Such questions, including the origins of the transition to a world running on hydrocarbons, lie at the core of Andreas Malm’s mammoth tour de force, Fossil Capitalism, shrunk down from a still-larger 1000-plus page doctoral dissertation. 

The core of Malm’s argument returns to that well-trodden ground, the development of capitalism in Britain in the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. Here he takes head-on Ricardian arguments about the transition from water-power to steam-power in that crucible of the capitalist transformation, the cotton industry. Such arguments contend that it was ever-more-expensive water-based energy which pushed the textile manufacturers to opt for coal-fired steam engines. Water was more expensive because cheap and accessible sources of water were less and less available. The argument makes a classical claim about resource shortages driving technological change. In Ricardo’s framework, land got expensive due to more and more people chasing it. In the reworking of it to account for the transition from water to steam, what ran out were waterfalls and other high-velocity water sources suitable for spinning wheels at a speed sufficient to power looms and other devices of the textile industry. 

Instead, Malm finds, “The transition to steam in the British cotton industry occurred in spite of the persistently superior cheapness of water.” Indeed, water could be supplied cheaply, but it needed collective management of massive and tightly-engineered reservoirs, with sluicegates and other ingenious systems ensuring that the water pressure could be equally shared by a myriad of manufacturers. But capitalism tends to antagonism, with merchants and industrialists relentlessly and restlessly competing against one another. Such systems were still-born.

But other energies offered benefits which water could not. As Malm notes, 

Ironically, the same spatiotemporal profile of coal that made it dearer than water also made it more appropriate for capital. Having been brought into the marketplace by means of human labour, pieces of the stock circulated in physical freedom, available for combustion in absolute, indeed necessary detachment from other burners. 

Coal could be broken up into tiny pieces, traded, used anyplace with the technology to burn it, but then also concentrated and accumulated to be put to use in massive factories.

Malm then moots another explanation for the rejection of water and the embrace of coal. The issue was not an absolute lack of suitable water power. Instead, water power was decentralized since it was available where natural history had made it available. Coal could easily move from place to place.

Even more to the point, coal-powered weaving could take place in urban areas, where the formerly rural population’s intense dislike of capitalist time-discipline had been broken by decades of state violence, most beautifully narrated in Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged. Cities offered a ready supply of pliable labor, whereas watercourses demanded that labor be brought to it, trained, housed, clothed, and encoded with industrial discipline. And if labor unrest broke out, finding a fresh workforce would be an expensive proposition.

Malm then notes that the transition from water to coal under the pressure to control workers—and more to the point, to assure profit—led to a process in which “steam for mills exploded all previous ecologies because it dissociated coal burning from population growth.” Coal burning was no longer simply a question of heating homes in cities. It was linked tightly to the constant expansion of capital. This expansion had a universalizing drive. But what was being universalized, in Malm’s formulation, was a very specific process “unfolding through a universal appropriation of biophysical resources, insatiable in its appetite, starting and ever continuing with energy.” It takes the kind of fungible energy which coal and later oil supplied to enable capitalism, a unique relationship of power and powerlessness, to spread across the globe.

Malm then uses this historical and conceptual account to argue against a certain misanthropic anti-humanism which he detects in much of the literature on the Anthropocene. The word links climate change to humanity in general. But global climate change’s drivers are not in humans, our DNA and our species-wide drive to expand and engorge. Rather, they are in a set of specific social relationships and oppressions—the interaction not between a flat and equal “humanity” and burning fossil fuels, but between the burning of fossil fuels and capitalism. 

He also argues for the forceful suppression of firms profiting from the production of petroleum and coal, as there is simply no other way to prevent them from burning it. “Such a vast global write-off of capital would be unprecedented in scale’,” he writes: “talk of a transitional demand.” Since the stock value of the large energy companies is a function of their capacity to continue to profit from appropriating atmospheric space for the burning of CO2, such a move to decapitalize them would also be a move to retake the commons for the overwhelming majority of the planet which benefits so little from the prevailing condition called “progress.” 

Furthermore, in showing how capitalism and industrialism—which generally relies on fossil fuels—are locked together in a destructive spiral, he teases out the distinction between these two concepts, and then shows how they historically interlock. In so doing, he makes concrete the equation, capitalism = climate death. And he also suggests a concrete way to “class” environmentalism—one which, I should note, has already been attempted by radical governments like the Rafael Correa administration in Ecuador, which attempted to get the global North to pay it to keep its oil in the ground. Such governments have refused the offer.

Finally, if there is any niggling to be done over this remarkable book, it’s around issues the author himself has raised. He notes that in this account of the dynamics of capitalism as it raked the English working class, he paid scant attention to “the inhabitants of the distant shores” who were the victims of British gunboats and railway-fueled fossil colonialism. Nor does the author enter a much more vexed debate about the relative roles of global fluxes and flows in the development of British capitalism, reproducing a little-Britain centered account. 

Be that as it may, Malm has produced a rigorously researched and fluidly drafted revision of a major node of world history. The author’s coda reflects on climate change as what “should be the movement of movements, at the top of the food chain, on a mission to protect the very existence of the terrain on which all others operate.” If analysis is a weapon in the hands and minds of a movement, then Malm has given this movement a tool of great use.

Max Ajl is an editor at Jadaliyya and is on Twitter @maxajl.