What does the transition away from fossil fuels mean for the future of capitalism?
Decarbonising the economy will be impossible unless we transform our economic and social systems.
Students are back at school, and preparing for another wave of Friday strikes in protest at politicians’ failure to tackle global warming. Shocking images of floods in Indonesia, wildfires in Australia and other climate change induced weather events add to the sense of urgency.
Judging by the placards and slogans at their demonstrations, the school strikers seem increasingly to see the indivisibility of climate justice and social justice as a core principle.
How will those aims be achieved? Because climate change is so evidently global, it is throwing up global-sized political questions more forcefully than at any time since the economic and political crises of the 1970s: can the climate crisis be tackled under capitalism, and by its political representatives? Does dealing with it mean confronting capitalism, and if so how?
This essay reflects on these questions, firstly by considering how fossil fuel use has grown to unsustainable levels through history; then, by highlighting the disastrous failure of the international climate talks process; and, finally, by arguing that a transition away from fossil fuels means changing not only the technological systems that use them, but also the social and economic systems in which they are embedded.
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How fossil fuel use became unsustainable
There are three significant turning-points in the history of fossil fuel use. The first is the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which marked the beginning of fossil fuel use on an industrial scale. The substitution of human and animal labour power, and water power, by fossil fuel-driven machines, produced leaps forward in labour productivity and, with the steam engine, the geographical spread of capitalism.
The second industrial revolution of the late 19th century was at least as important as the first, in putting fossil fuels at the core of the world economy. In place of steam engines came steam turbines; these drove electricity networks, which in turn underpinned automated manufacturing. The internal combustion engine laid the basis for widespread motorised transport.
What emerged were not just technologies, but complex technological systems. These were the main consumers of fossil fuels through the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first: road transport systems; electricity and heat networks; urban built environments, industrial systems and military systems. Another technology that came during the first world war – the fabrication of chemical fertilisers – was key to the development of industrial agriculture, another giant fossil fuel user.
The third turning point was the mid 20th century. There was a sharp acceleration of fossil fuel use, associated with the expansion of the capitalist economy after the second world war. In the mid 20th century, many other impacts of human economic activity on the natural world – extinction of other species, disruption of the nitrogen cycle, pressure on fresh water resources, various measures of chemical pollution – also surged.
This turning point is defined as the “great acceleration” by earth systems scientists who research the Anthropocene epoch – that is, the idea that the impacts of human activity on the natural world work at the same scale as, or even greater scales than, big natural forces.
To probe further fossil fuels’ role in the economy, it is vital to focus on the big technological systems by and through which most fuels are consumed. The final consumption at the end of these systems, for example by someone burning gas to cook or burning petrol to drive their car, is only a small part of the whole. Moreover, these technological systems have evolved in the way they have because of the social and political systems in which they are embedded.
Car-based urban transport systems are an excellent example. This means not only the cars, but the whole system of roads and parking spacesof urban environments that put cars at the centre. Such systems developed in the USA from the 1920s, and many other rich countries from the 1950s.
In the USA, alternative forms of transport – railways between cities, trams and street cars inside cities – were undermined thanks to political lobbying by car manufacturers. Immediately after the war, the US government spent more than four times as much on the national highway programme as it did on the Marshall plan for post-war reconstruction in Europe.
From the 1950s, suburbia proliferated – again, first in the USA and then elsewhere – so that millions of people in rich countries actually needed a car to get to work, even to get to the shops. The place awarded to the car in our culture gives drivers an illusion of freedom, while those without cars are penalised.
The story continues in the late twentieth century, when efforts to make cars more fuel-efficient were resisted by the manufacturers. When the US government finally tightened fuel efficiency standards, the manufacturers resorted to selling people sports utility vehicles that are classified as light trucks. From the 1980s, these fuel-intensive urban transport systems started to spread into developing countries too.
If governments were really aiming for a happy way of living, compatible with our natural surroundings, they would have regulated such cities out of existence
Car-based systems have evolved as a function of the growth of oil markets, of car corporations, of the social compromises between governments and rich-country populations. Obviously, they are an incredibly energy-intensive, inefficient way for people to move around cities.
If governments were really aiming for a happy way of living, compatible with our natural surroundings, they would have regulated such cities out of existence over the last 30 years, when they have been talking about dealing with global warming.
Social and economic forces have shaped – or rather, mis-shaped and deformed – not only car-based urban transport, but all the important fossil-fuel-burning technological systems.
The egregious use of plastics is, in the first place, driven by the expansion of the petrochemicals business and by new types of marketing in rich countries. Similar stories about social and economic drivers may be told with respect to urban built environments, industrial systems, military systems, or electricity networks.
At every stage, engineers have been aware that technologies were being shaped and mis-shaped in this way. There were always “roads not taken” by technology.
That phrase was coined by Amory Lovins, an electricity researcher who in the 1970s – when political elites in the rich countries realised that oil supplies were neither infinite nor always cheap – went to the US Congress and argued for technological approaches that were less energy intensive.
He pointed to electricity networks, for which coal was burned, producing heat energy at thousands of degrees in power stations. Typically, and due to the laws of physics, half of the energy content goes straight up the chimney. The remaining heat energy drives a turbine, which produces electricity. That is transmitted to people’s homes, losing another 10% on the way. The electricity is used to raise the indoor temperature by perhaps five or ten degrees – something that could probably be done by insulation, heat pumps, solar water heaters, or whatever, depending on the environment.
Lovins said that this was like “cutting butter with a chainsaw”. This is just one of many technological systems that use a great deal of fossil-fuelled energy, despite the fact that the result at the end – in this case, keeping someone’s home warm – could easily be achieved by a system that uses much less fossil fuel, or none at all.
Fossil-fuelled economic expansion
The post-war boom of the 1950s-60s, which was the longest period ever of sustained economic growth by the large capitalist countries, further took fossil fuel use to unsustainable levels. A number of aspects of economic growth – industrialisation; changes in the labour process; urbanisation; motorisation; electrification; and household material consumption and consumerism – drove fossil fuel consumption growth. It accelerated during the boom, slowed during the 1970s recession, and accelerated again from the 1980s, very much as a result of so-called globalisation.
I tried to tell the complex story of these changes in my book, Burning Up. Here I will point to three aspects of electrification.
First: in the last half century, the number of people with access to at least some electricity has tripled, to almost six billion. The most dramatic changes were outside the rich world, both in capitalist countries and so-called socialist countries such as the USSR and China. But in all cases, electrification was uneven.
Once again, social and economic factors determined the way that technologies were used.
Industry was prioritised, everywhere. Towns were electrified sooner than the countryside. Rural households were always and everywhere left behind. In South Africa, electrification was provided to industry and to white people’s households, and, as a matter of policy, black people were deprived of it. In other developing countries, the divisions were on class, rather than race, lines: electricity was provided to shanty towns in urban settings, or to villages in the countryside, but only to those who could afford to pay. Once again, social and economic factors determined the way that technologies were used.
Second: the availability of electricity and electric appliances, firstly in rich countries, brought about what Ruth Schwarz Cowan, the historian of technology and domestic labour, called “the industrialisation of the home”. The character of domestic labour, done overwhelmingly by women, changed, as some of the most back-breaking tasks, such as washing clothes and floors, were mechanised – although only a fraction of these technologies’ potential to reduce the hours worked by women in the home, like the hours worked by women and men in factories and offices, was realised.
Third is what the so-called ‘third industrial revolution’ – the development of computers, and information and communications networks since the 1980s – shows us about the relationship of technological, social and economic factors.
In the early days of the internet, its perceived potential was both as a means to widen and deepen democracy, and as a way of conserving energy, for example in the management of electricity networks. Today, after several decades, neither of these potentials have been realised while, ironically, the internet and other communications technologies now consume more electricity than India does. And the internet’s vast power has been harnessed to reinforce wasteful types of consumerism on one hand, and state and ideological control on the other.
The international climate talks
Fossil fuel consumption growth has also been enabled by a key political factor: the failure of the international climate talks. At the first international meeting, at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, all the world’s governments accepted the scientific evidence that fossil fuel use was the main cause of global warming, and therefore needed to be reduced. Since then, the annual global use of fossil fuels has risen by more than 60%.
It is important not to normalise this colossal failure of government on a historical scale. In my book I compared it to the failure of governments in Europe to prevent the slide to war in 1914, although that analogy is in many ways incomplete.
They pretended that market mechanisms, rather than regulation, could be used to curtail fossil fuel use and encourage so-called “green growth”
One obvious explanation for this failure is that all the most powerful governments were opposed from the start to setting binding targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Although this is often blamed on climate science deniers such as the presidents of the USA and Russia, the majority of political elites, such as the US Democrats and most European politicians, accepted the reality of climate science but also rejected binding targets. They pretended that market mechanisms, rather than regulation, could be used to curtail fossil fuel use and encourage so-called “green growth”.
This approach has been combined with the continued disbursement of subsidies to both fossil fuel production and fossil fuel consumption, running into tens and hundreds of billions of dollars over the years. In other words, a gigantic non-market mechanism has been used to shore up fossil fuels, while politicians talk about market mechanisms.
A final point about political inaction on climate change concerns China. The coal-fuelled industrial boom in China that started in 2002 after China joined the World Trade Organisation is one of the main drivers of increased global fossil fuel use over the last twenty years.
The boom resulted largely from the unprecedented expansion of China’s export-oriented industries – by China becoming the so-called workshop of the world, the supplier of manufactured goods, and energy-intensive semi-finished goods such as steel products and fertilisers, to the rich countries. This, and the urbanisation that has accompanied it, has driven up fossil fuel use.
It’s worth thinking about why a group of people calling themselves communists – the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – decided during the 1990s, when in possession of all the information about climate change and other ecological damage done by industrial expansion, to take this path of development.
There were alternatives put forward not only by dissident ecologists but even by economists working at the highest levels of government. These alternatives were rejected.
To be clear: as a relatively comfortable citizen of the rich world, I am not suggesting that people in China and India can not have things I have, because the ecological burden is too great. The point is that China’s economic policy decisions were not primarily about providing things for people. They were about linking Chinese economic development to the further progress of unsustainable economic growth in rich countries.
The conclusion, in my view, is as follows: not only is capitalist economic growth unsustainable and leading to disastrous ruptures in humanity’s relationship with the natural world, but equally unsustainable is the path taken by the Chinese variant of Stalinism that has embraced the dominant economic logic of capitalism, just as it has embraced capitalist-type labour relations in Chinese industry.
The transition away from fossil fuels: social change and technological change
Despite the steady increase of fossil fuel use, the media and many politicians endlessly repeat exaggerated claims that the world economy is starting to decarbonise. In reality, progress is extremely modest.
The proportion of total commercial energy supplied by fossil fuels fell from around 94% in the 1960s to 87% in the 1980s, thanks mainly to hydro and nuclear power. In the 2010s it fell again to about 85%, thanks to renewables. Nevertheless, the total volumes of coal, oil and gas continued, and continue, to rise.
So while it is welcome that substantial investment is being put into renewable energy, and that even in electricity markets designed to favour incumbents it is competitive, this is not yet a qualitative or systemic change. Given what we all know about climate change, the question of how to move more rapidly away from fossil fuels is literally a matter of life and death.
This transition can only seriously be envisaged as one in which not only technological systems, but also social, political and economic systems, are transformed.
To start with, the choice of technologies is already a highly political issue. Take electric cars, for example, which are claimed to be a key to decarbonisation, but are largely a means of avoiding more fundamental change. Electric cars have real advantages. They reduce urban air pollution and, in an integrated energy system, could help supply battery capacity. But they are not, and probably never will be, much help in tackling global warming.
Roughly speaking, an electric engine is twice as efficient as a petrol engine. But if the electricity is supplied from a fossil-fuelled power station, that power station will almost certainly be less than 50% efficient, due to the laws of physics. So the energy content of the gas or coal going into the power station to produce the electricity will be about the same as the energy content of the oil from which the petrol is made.
The answer, say electric car enthusiasts, is to produce electricity from renewables. But in the real world, 66% of electricity is currently produced from fossil fuels and 23% from renewables including hydro.
If electric cars are built in large numbers, this will increase electricity demand. And the danger, obviously, is that while new renewable capacity supplies electric cars, fossil fuelled power stations continue to supply other users, and the total of fossil fuels burned will not fall.
Furthermore, replacing petrol cars with electric cars does nothing to reduce the mountains of fossil fuels used in building car-centred transport systems, and the cars themselves.
If politicians anywhere really want to reduce carbon emissions, they do what the city councils of Amsterdam, Barcelona and Tallinn do: discourage car use. But to do this on a large scale would mean challenging the political power of car manufacturers, and the cultural power of the car industry in capitalism. There is little sign of this.
Electric cars are a survival strategy for car manufacturing corporations, and not the way to combat global warming. There are other technologies, including supposedly “clean” or “green” fuels such as hydrogen, that are claimed to advance decarbonisation but may not.
Then there are geo-engineering technologies, popular among political elites, most of which are designed to take carbon out of the atmosphere, rather than disrupt the systems that put the carbon there in the first place.
While these technologies are hyped, the gigantic decarbonisation of other technologies remains unrealised, due to social and economic factors.
An example is the integration of urban energy systems, which, by knitting together electricity generation, residential heating, hot water and transport systems in a city, can take giant leaps towards total decarbonisation.
A recent briefing paper from Imperial College reviewed the substantial body of research showing how this could be done. In their conclusions, the authors noted that “market arrangements will need to be changed so that they reward new and different types of flexibility […] A whole systems approach, in which one single party has responsibility for optimising technical performance, may be required.”
In my view, it is clear that this “one single party” would be the state. Perhaps because they are engineers, and do not see it is as their job to comment on political issues, the authors do not spell that out.
Continuing that train of thought could focus on the way that capitalist economics and neoliberal politics obstruct the optimal technological solution. In my view, as long as electricity is traded as a commodity, public services are owned by private companies, and so on, the potential of integrated systems cannot be fully realised.
The relationship between technological change and social change is complex. It is not that no technological change can happen without social change. But it is universally true that social and economic forces play a powerful part in shaping technologies.
Systemic changes in future
What sort of changes could, or should, a transition away from fossil fuels involve? We could consider three types.
First: energy saving measures that are essentially adaptations of existing technological systems – electricity generation from renewables; energy conservation measures in buildings; and so on. Many such measures are included in the Green New Deal programmes under discussion in the Labour Party and the US Democratic party.
Second: changes that would supersede technological systems in their current form, such as the integrated urban infrastructure mentioned; completely new transport systems; changes to energy consumption technologies in industry; and reduction of waste and overproduction.
There is a grey area between adapting existing systems and completely transforming them. I make the distinction to stress that, without the deeper-going changes, many of the adaptations under discussion could produce reductions in fossil fuel use, only for these to be cancelled out by increases in other parts of the economy. There are already many examples of this.
Deep-going changes to technological systems would, in my view, inevitably involve the sharpest of confrontations with the powerful forces in society who benefit from things as they are.
I do not see how the necessary transformation of transport systems can be reconciled with the private interests of car manufacturers, construction companies and oil companies. Or how agriculture can be transformed, to move away from the fossil-fuel-intensive industrial agriculture model, without confrontation with the big agricultural and chemical multinationals. Or how markets in all sorts of consumer products can be transformed to reduce wasteful use of plastics without confronting petrochemicals companies.
One group of technological systems that will have to be largely dismantled is the system that produces oil, gas and coal. Extinction Rebellion supporters who occupied an oil rig in Dundee harbour last month should be congratulated for underlining the urgency of this issue.
This brings me to the third type of change: changes in social and economic systems. To my mind, the climate emergency can most effectively be addressed in the transition to a socialist society. That means, in my understanding of socialism, a society that produces for use, not profit. The nature of what is produced would completely change, and with it, the way that energy is used.
In such a society, neither material products, nor types of energy, would be treated as commodities, but rather as things that are useful to people, so that commodity markets and the financial system that underpins them would no longer exist in their current form. Wage labour as an activity controlled by the owners of wealth, would be superseded, and replaced by purposeful and creative activity that contributes to human welfare and happiness. This would also make possible huge changes in the way that energy is used.
Inevitably, this sounds abstract. It is speculation about the sort of future society that would provide the best conditions to move away from fossil fuels.
Possibilities for decarbonisation will be constantly frustrated and limited under capitalism
Is such a society a real prospect? That can only be answered in life, not in an essay like this. What is clear, in my view, is that such a vision of moving past capitalism is a powerful means of bringing climate justice and social justice issues together.
Possibilities for decarbonisation will be constantly frustrated and limited under capitalism; effective moves towards decarbonisation will inevitably conflict with structures of power and wealth. While I do not deny that some limited progress towards decarbonisation can be made under capitalism, I just cannot see how the most deep-going changes in technological systems can be made without deep-going social changes, that is, transitioning to a post-capitalist society.
What to do?
The reality I see in the coming years is one in which we – by which I mean society, acting collectively – will find ways of bringing together the fight to reduce fossil fuel use and the fight for social justice, for a society free of exploitation, violence and hierarchies. This will be a long series of battles with power and wealth, which will resist.
We must not allow ourselves to be sucked in by the false discourse around the international climate negotiations, and other similar political word games. There is a huge circus that surrounds the talks in which, we are told, governments take decisions and non-governmental organisations give civil society a voice. For thirty years, greenhouse gas emissions have risen relentlessly, while governments have used this circus to claim that they are taking action.
This political deception extends from global to local level, so that, for example, we now have borough councils declaring a so-called “climate emergency” then continuing to do less than nothing about regulating fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Society as a whole needs to learn how to act independently of these political structures, in order to overcome them.
One heartening development is that the school students’ “climate strikes” have, from the outset, rejected the hypocrisy around the climate talks and, by implication, the political process as usually understood.
We should all adopt this starting-point very consciously: that is, take matters into our own hands, outside of the political structures.
Simon Pirani is author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto Press, 2018) . This is an edited version of a talk given at the Centre for Culture and Ecology at the University of Durham on 16 January 2020.v
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