How did our economic system create the climate crisis?

Andreas Malm’s latest book analyses the introduction of fossil fuels into the British Economy and sheds light on one of the conundrums of our time: how did we get into this situation where economics drives a climate crisis?

In this masterful new history, Malm claims that it all began in Britain with the rise of steam-power. So why did manufacturers turn from traditional fuels, notably water, to steam?

Many think that the coal engine was superior to the time-tested water wheels powering British factories. Not true:

From the review of the book in the New Inquirer:

Most of the engine’s first adopters found it decidedly inferior to water power. Steam engines required frequent repair, sometimes exploded, and had an unreliable lifespan; waterwheel technology was time-tested, and a good iron wheel might last one hundred years. Coal “vomit[ed] forth smoke, polluting earth and air for miles around,” in the words of one engineer; water didn’t. And most importantly, water was free whereas coal was expensive. Watt and Boulton, ( inventors and salesmen for the first steam engines ) themselves kept waterwheels at their business ventures well into the nineteenth century, epitomizing the general trend. For years, mill owners stayed uninterested in steam.

Steam power from coal enabled factory owners to locate their factories close to supplies of endless cheap labour: the cities. It enabled the factory to be run according to schedule and not according to the amount of water in the magazine. And it enabled factory owners to get the most out of their labour.

Water power was cheaper, more environmental, but coal was the enabler to keep labour under control.

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.”

 

Energy and Economy, General

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