Capitalism and global warming

Fossil Capital: the rise of steam power and the roots of global warming by Andreas Malm published by Verso 2016.

Review by David Wickham

We all know that burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of global warming. The first aim of Andreas Malm’s book is to show that the introduction of coal-fired steam engines was a strategic decision by British mill owners to counter worker militancy during the industrial conflicts of the first half of the 19th century. It goes on to show how the steam engine welded an energy source to a specific set of social relations of production to create a self-sustaining capitalist totality, the Fossil Economy, first in Britain and then globally. Finally, Malm argues that unless we confront the vested interests that sustain the Fossil Economy, “business as usual” in the lexicon of climate change politics, we seriously weaken our chances of avoiding a global catastrophe.


Malm’s choice of the British cotton industry as a starting point is entirely logical. Cotton drove the British industrial revolution. By 1850 Britain’s CO2 emissions were twice those of the USA, France, Germany and Belgium combined: Britain was the historical heartland of global warming

Until the 1830s, the cotton industry was predominantly powered by water mills. Workers were housed in dedicated “colonies” located around waterfalls and near rivers. Water had its drawbacks, primarily its “irregularity” caused by the weather. But it was cheap, unlike coal. Watt’s steam engines were used as back-up when water failed. Malm shows how between 1825 - 1848, the ferocious conflicts between mill owners and workers drove the transition from water to steam. These were the years of the Factory Movement, Chartism and the first General Strike. When the workers won their demand for a 10 hour working day, mill owners could no longer adjust working hours to the rhythm of the weather: from now on they had to follow the clock. And that spelt the death knell for water.

The owners’ response to the 10 hour day was to turn, en masse, to steam. Steam engines could be installed in factories built in “populous towns” where there were plenty of workers to replace strikers. And they were not dependent on the weather. Once steam overtook water, there could be no going back. Water’s dependence on the weather meant that co-operative management was necessary to ensure each mill received its share. As competition between individual capitalists intensified, each needed control of his own energy source. Malm provides illustrates how co-operative management runs counter to the dictates of private property when he describes the failure of the Irwell Project in Lancashire, a system of reservoirs and sluices proposed by Robert Thom (“the Watt of water”) in the 1820s.

After tracing the switch to steam in the USA which followed the British pattern, Malm turns to present day China “ the chimney of the world”. Once it joined the WTO in 2001, China became the destination of choice for investment by globally mobile capital in industries producing goods for export. What made China so attractive was its carbon-intensive energy and transport infrastructure built during the 1990s and its abundance of cheap labour. Malm highlights the correlation between low wages, high profits and high emissions concluding that, “If Manchester was ‘the chimney of the world’ in the 1840s, the PRC (Peoples Republic of China) assumed that position in the early 21st century because globally mobile capital seized upon it as its workshop”. Pollution has been exported to China.

China’s example allows Malm to expose the hollowness of the eco-modernist idea that increasing affluence decreases pollution. The opposite is true: greater affluence in the west generates more pollution in the developing world at an ever-increasing rate.


The final chapters of the book are devoted to climate change politics. Malm examines environmentalist demands such as the “Emissions Embodied in Trade” (EET) measurement system as well as Anthropocene theories. By targeting consumers or “mankind” as a whole, both approaches fail to identify those, a tiny minority of mankind, who made the investment decisions.

So what is to be done? Geo-engineering says that injecting sulphates into the atmosphere using a fleet of privately-owned planes to create a global parasol will slow down global warming. But what if it all goes wrong? Back on terra firma there are those who argue for a “transition” to Renewables (Wind, Solar, Geothermal, Hydro) as the solution. The problem is the word “transition” because, as Malm points out, replacing the current fossil infrastructure would require capital write-offs on an unprecedented scale. Some “transition"

Renewables are certainly part of the solution. But they do have their problems, essentially the same problems as water - weather and geographical location. These problems can be solved  if, says Malm, energy policy is subject to public control and international co-operation, something that Fossil Capital will resist with all its power.

For Malm, the term, Fossil Capital, is not limited to the energy sector. “Energy makes everything work”. Without it, no economic activity is possible. Thus Fossil Capital is a concept that describes a totality of capitalist surplus value extraction grounded in specific historical conditions.

With public control, great changes can be achieved. Malm reminds us how, during the Second World War, entire economies were  subject to state planning around a single objective to achieve turnarounds in a very short time. However, he also reminds us, capitalism was not opposed to a war economy; the turnaround will not be easy. To achieve the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s target of keeping the global temperature increase below 2°C, Malm points out, the scientific consensus is that global emissions must peak by 2020 and thereafter reduce by 3% pa. This means a reduction of 5%- 10% pa in the developed world to give the developing world some breathing space. The movement combatting climate change is growing rapidly and globally. Our task argues Malm is to put this combat at the top of the political agenda.

The scope of Malm’s book goes far beyond this review. Historically it covers not only 19th century Britain and the USA but also 16th century England, 10th century China, Islamic Andalusia and 16th century Egypt. Philosophically it reinterprets both Historical Materialism and Marx’s economic theory alongside judicious use of insights from Lukàcs, Adorno, Benjamin and Althusser. Politically it provides a historical materialist framework for the climate debate which goes beyond the blanket demand to “change the system”. It would have been instructive to have an analysis of nuclear power as part of the solution. Likewise, an account of Fossil Socialism which Malm says no longer exists so it is not part of the problem. These are minor criticisms of what is undoubtedly a masterpiece.