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Sunday, 21 October 2018
Book Review - Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption by Simon Pirani
by Gordon Peters
a short time very recently the latest IPCC report on climate change hit the
headlines and everyone - not just those committed to reducing it - was reminded
of the accelerating costs to the planet and continuing livelihoods of carrying
on the burning of fossil fuels. The report did not pull punches and said we had
until 2030 to take steps well beyond any yet enshrined in policies to prevent
the impending 3 degree rise this century, with the devastating impact on
millions of lives, on cities, on species survival entailed.
in our high consumption and celebrity news culture, that message again recedes
and being able to do business as usual, or even faster, whether with Brexit or
without Brexit, colonises discussions of public interest. Climate change is
important perhaps, we seem to be told, but getting markets and business
opportunities in order has to come first.And the market can find further incentives to help tackle climate
it is the very functioning of the market and the social and political relations
constructed to maintain and enhance it which have driven fossil fuel extraction
to such high levels, and just as importantly steered the ways in which
technological invention and change to produce energy have developed. It took
the Industrial Revolution and the drive for entrepreneurial profit, to give
coal a central position in the economy. And the big acceleration in energy
consumption from the 1970s following the oil shocks and crises of that decade
has been driven by neo-liberal and de-regulatory capitalism.
are conclusions drawn by Simon Pirani in this new book which traces the history
of fossil fuel burning from pre-industrial times to the present day, with a
comprehensive review of available data and a wide-ranging use of sources across
the world. He notes the now accepted terminology of the Anthropocene but is
quick to point out that what matters most is how the political economy of
societies determines demands for energy and then directs technological know-how
in certain directions.
electrification in India varies considerably between states depending on the
social, political and economic pressures at work so that where for instance a
social movement was strong electrification was rolled out while elsewhere urban
and industrial investment meant the poor and the countryside were neglected.
South Africa the economic and political weight given to mining meant that
electrification went in that direction and underlined the impoverishment and
separation of black communities left without. Social and class forces shaped electrification everywhere. In terms
of energy generation technology overall, it was with the invention of the
combined-cycle gas turbine that electricity power plants became more efficient
leading to large scale investment in gas pipelines, tying in carbon extraction
increasingly to geopolitics.
At the same time the global development
agencies, the IMF and World Bank, played a big part in the post-crisis
expansion of neo-liberal policies pushing a ‘standard model’ of electricity
market reforms across the developing world, reducing subsidies, and skewing
reward to foreign corporate investment with risks left to states to pick up,
and growing indebtedness of countries and people.
the 1990s fossil fuel consumption has intensified as the labour process has
begun to undergo significant change, with technological innovation not only
driving productivity but altering expectations of working time, of job security
and employment rights, and in the tendency towards mass consumption and debt. The
potential then for ‘de-coupling’ economic growth from resource use which more
efficient technologies promised has been overtaken by the scale and volume of
resource use, particularly oil and gas, and despite some attempts to wean off
it, coal as well.
with rapidly increasing financialisation in the global economy, and the
co-option of new technologies to restore profitability, the money created from
energy transactions in the past thirty years or so has embedded fossil fuels in
is hope in some quarters - and successes in divestment exist - for stranded
assets being a way out of this vicious circle. Pirani does not discuss
stranding assets as a tactic or strategy at much length. He considers the
weight of vested economic and political power to have shown itself well capable
of overshadowing such regulatory attempts as have been made.
is certainly now clear that the Rio, Kyoto and Paris protocols are of
themselves insufficient to make much difference, as the IPCC has found out.
Closer to home we need only look at how the Conservative government has reduced
support to renewables and maintains high subsidies for fossil fuel extraction.
That there might be a technologically inspired route out of fossil fuel
dependence which would free us from capitalist imperatives, as proposed by Paul
Mason or Snricek and Williams, is given short shrift by Pirani.
confounds them. He turns ‘automation to post-capitalism’ on its head, saying in
effect that while technological opportunity is moulded by the needs of capital
accumulation and reproduction, its own potential is in fact constrained, and
that we need a social and economic transformation to free the technologies that
will act more for natural and human benefit.
a historian Pirani well demonstrates that left to the political elites and
market reforms there is little chance indeed of de-carbonisation of the economy
going far. Carbon trading does not change stock market priorities nor begin to
tackle entrenched inequalities, as long as the rich world can continue to
cordon itself off.
‘’tiptoe steps’’ such as we have are very far from enough, as all the data on
most recent accelerations show so well. In a very useful chapter this book
outlines how the different sectors of energy consumption add up, namely from
industry, agriculture, military [so often underestimated] to transport,
buildings, households and waste which situates the context so much better than
the often heard division between what individuals contribute, or can do, and
what the system, state or other institutions contribute, or can do.
latter injunction –we can only do so much -too often tends to a feeling of
relative powerlessness. Pirani addresses the question of power head on.The potential of Internet related
technologies to conserve energy and enhance decentralized networks for
electricity distribution, and for that matter local generation and
distribution, are hardly tapped at all and impeded by large scale commercial
control which indeed has greatly added to wasteful consumption.
long as market-based solutions are the vector for change such state regulation
as is tried will only go so far, and much of the public discussion by elites
will be at the level of paying lip service. Decentralised grids are eminently
feasible, and renewables costs keep falling – but the market pricing structure
and subsidies still heavily favouring fossil fuels inhibits mainstream adoption
of smaller scale and renewable technologies.
book points towards a transformative economic and social approach to the use of
energy which challenges market predominance, and urges collective movement of
people in situations where they mobilise their own commitment and resources for
a different order capable of sustaining life and community not predicated on
inexorable economic growth.
reminds us very well that we cannot depend on existing elites, or new elites
for that matter, even well-meaning ones, if the world of markets remains
unscathed. It refers to protests and movements such as those in India, and in
Nigeria, against corporate or state vested interests of exploitation where
fossil fuel extraction and its human costs have been challenged, with some
does not offer particular suggestions on how collective struggles could
coalesce, or where alternatives to fossil fuel dependence through technology
could ally with mobilisations for economic and political change. But that is
now the challenge. Preston Road
anti-fracking action and the political implications now playing
out show how important it is to make such alliances. Pirani’s book gives all
the evidence needed to support such a movement.
Gordon Peters is a
political activist and a supporter of the Ecosocialist Network