Written by Simon
Mair (@simon_mair) and first published at New
the perspective of geological history, our current climatic and economic
conditions are unusual. For most of the last 60 million years, the climate has
been wildly unstable. It was only 10,000 years ago that it settled into its
current stable state, and within this period that the Holocene emerged, during
which human societies shifted their relationship with nature though
agriculture, and then creating complex settled socio-economic forms, including
omnipresence today, capitalism itself is very young. But it has its roots in
that stabilisation of the climate and the subsequent development of
agriculture. Fully-fledged global capitalism has been with us for no more than
300 years. In the 4.5 billion year history of the earth, capitalism is a brief
moment within the blink of an eye that is human existence.
brief moment is a global force. It is capitalism that has placed us on a path
to leave the stable climate of the Holocene. Thanks to capitalist development,
the earth is currently 0.8 of a degree warmer than the pre-industrial average.
Without overthrowing capitalism, we are likely to warm the earth to levels that
humans as a species have
never lived with.
terrify socialists. As I will argue here, the environmental system and the
economy have co-evolved. The economy is dependent on the environment. Once we
leave the stable climatic conditions of the last 10,000 years, we have very
little guidance on how to build a socio-economic system that works. There is no
particular reason to think the systems we have developed in one set of
environmental conditions will flourish in another. There is also no reason to
believe that such conditions provide fertile ground for the development of a
more compassionate or humane socio-economic system.
If we want to
stand a chance of building socialism in the near future, we must become
eco-socialists and stop catastrophic climate change now. At the same time, to
stop catastrophic climate change, environmentalists must also become
eco-socialists. The dynamics that drive climate change are core to capitalism.
Serious action on climate change will necessarily amount to the first steps of
a programme to end capitalism.
the energy system, and the environment: co-evolutionary systems
the energy system and the environment have evolved together. They draw on one
another, passing materials between them and absorbing one another’s wastes. All
economic activity ultimately rests on the transformation of material resources.
These must be drawn from the environment and then worked by labour. Marx makes
this interdependency explicit:
The use values… i.e. the bodies of
commodities, are combinations of two elements–matter and labour. If we take
away the useful labour expended upon them, a material substratum is always
left, which is furnished by Nature.1
Marx uses the
example of linen–which is produced by workers (labour) who transform the fibres
of the flax plant (environment). But this interdependency also holds true for
more modern commodities. For example, the servers that host the files for music
streaming services are made of up various minerals and metals that have been
rearranged by labour.
interdependency comes in the form of energy. At every stage of the production
of a commodity, energy is being used to transform matter from one form to
another. Metals are heated, melted and transformed into iPhones. Cotton is
grown, harvested, woven, and dyed to make scrubs worn by surgeons. The energy
used in these processes cannot be created. It can only be transformed.
used in the economy is entropic: it comes from a repurposing of energy found in
the earth system, and exacting it in return for a cost. Coal is dug from the
ground and burnt, solar energy is captured by photovoltaics, or in plants that
we cook and eat. The energy system which enables economic activity is entirely
dependent on the environment.
We see here
how the environment influences the economy. The economy is the process of
transforming materials extracted from the environment by repurposing energy
flows from the earth system. The result of this, is, to quote Marx’s citation
of the economist William Petty, that when it comes to material wealth, “labour
is its father and the earth its mother”.2
But at the same time, the environment and the energy system are shaped by the
economy. The priorities of the economic system determine the valuation of each
element, as well as which materials are extracted, changing the composition,
look and dynamics of the environment.
of extraction itself is not exclusive to capitalism. Agricultural practices
that pre-date capitalism have reshaped our landscapes. Take sheep farming, for
Heavy grazing tends to change the biological make up of heathland. Eventually,
heathland may lose all of its herbs and woody species and become grassland. As
grasses can survive for longer as the sheep eat them than woody plants and
herbs, the transition from heathland to grassland can make conditions more
favourable for sheep grazing as the sheep have more to eat.
This is less
helpful for bird life, as the grasses are a poor habitat substitute and the
sheep compete with birds for certain types of fruit, and reduce the
availability of various insects. Through pastoral grazing economic activity has
transformed former heathland landscapes.
change is another example of the co-evolution of the economy and the
environment, but this time, one specific to capitalism. As we will see, the two
are inextricably linked. Without fossil fuel deposits, capitalism could not
have become the dominant force it is today. Similarly, without capitalism,
fossil fuels may never have become the backbone of the economy.
Coal, the great divergence and the
origins of capitalism
mid 1500s and 1900, there was an explosion of coal use in England. On average,
English coal use more than doubled every half century during this time period. By
1900 coal represented 92% of English energy use and was providing 25 times
more energy than all energy sources combined had in the mid 1500s.
time period the English economy also grew rapidly. For mainstream economic
historians, the period from 1700 onwards marks the start of ‘the great
divergence’. England began the industrial revolution and its economy took off,
becoming much larger than other economies that had until that point been a
It is not a
coincidence that coal use and economic growth expanded simultaneously. Coal is
a high quality fuel. It offers a much greater amount of energy out for every
unit of energy required to produce it than wood, for example. Consequently, it
enables more work to be done–more materials transformed – than muscle power
alone, or even wood or water–the dominant fuel sources in the nascent English
geographical distribution of coal is not, by itself, enough to explain English
economic growth or the ‘great divergence’. In 1700, China had widespread
domestic coal use, just like England. And until 1700 China had a similar sized
economy, with similar levels of market activity. But neither Chinese coal use
nor the Chinese economy grew exponentially in the way that England’s did.
was the consolidation of capitalist social relations in England. We can locate
the pressures that lead to capitalism, and the capitalist exploitation of coal,
in the agrarian economy of 1500s England. As these pressures grew, they drove
coal use and economic growth in England.
Though pre-capitalist China was
incredibly well-developed, had an extensive use of wage-labour within markets,
it never became dominated by proto-capitalists, and so did not develop the same
systematic pressures. Coal use and the economy, subsequently, did not see the
same qualitative expansion.
Political Marxism and the Fossil
of the Political Marxist approach to modes of production, Ellen Meiksens Wood
argues that a capitalist economy is one where a majority of people depend on
the market to meet their basic needs.4
This distinguishes capitalism from feudalism, in which there is a large peasant
class largely self-sufficient in terms of basic needs, and in which the more
powerful classes depend not on market power to support their consumption, but
on military and extra-economic power.
Wood further distinguishes between the
form of markets under capitalism and those that characterise pre-capitalist
economies. She argues that markets originally functioned and made profit by
providing a means of getting goods that could only be produced in one part of
the world to other parts, where those goods could not be produced. She goes on
to argue that capitalist markets operate differently: profit here is achieved by
reducing costs and improving productivity.
substantially debated, this approach was developed by Wood (alongside Richard
Brenner) as a reaction to what she saw as ahistorical explanations of the role
of markets in the development of capitalism—particular the claim, coming from
Adam Smith, that capitalism is “…the necessary, though very slow and gradual
consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…the propensity to truck,
barter, and exchange one thing for another.”5
Against this, Wood argues that capitalism began in England because of its
unique constellation of social conditions.
landmark work The Origin of Capitalism,6
Wood argues that capitalism could only have begun in agrarian England. Unlike
other nations with similarly sized economies, England had the unique
combination of a large national market, substantial numbers of tenant farmers
(as opposed to peasants, tied to the land by social convention), and highly
centralised state power. These three components come together to create a
transition to a market dominated economy.
Highly centralised state power took
political and military power away from land owners. So unlike in Holland, for
example, the primary way for landowners to exploit the surplus of their workers
was through market means rather than direct coercion. This was possible because
of the existence of the large national market in which they could sell goods
for a profit, and because of the existence of tenant farmers, which meant they
could remove unproductive farmers from their land.
It is the
development of capitalist markets, as Wood describes them, that creates the
conditions for fossil fuel exploitation. Capitalist markets, like all economic
systems, turn on the necessity of using economic tools to extract surplus. This
dynamic creates capitalism’s drives to reinvest in productivity growth and to
discipline the workforce in order to increase output. Because landowners were
now dependent on the market for their own livelihoods, they tried to reduce
costs and maximise outputs.
This fundamental change in the nature of production
created a system in which the ability of energy to do extra work became very
attractive. Although Wood never directly discusses energy, her work has
influenced Andreas Malm, whose Fossil Capital 7
does pick up the energy question.8
that under the conditions of capitalism, coal came to be a tool of social
control. Coal centralises production, bringing workers under one roof. This
serves the dual purpose of making them less able to embezzle from their
employers, allowing improved scales of production, and also enabling employers
to more easily regulate the times of work and levels of production. In
addition, coal—alongside the machinery it allows—improves productivity: by
giving them a greater source of energy than food and their muscles alone, coal
increases the amount of output that can be produced by workers.
England did the capitalist class benefit from these features of coal. Economic
structures elsewhere followed fundamentally different logics that did not reward
productivity and output growth. Though markets existed outside of England,
central power and surplus was derived from military and political power, and
only peripherally from economic power. Consequently, although productivity
increases may have occurred by chance, societies were not systematically driven
by the need to continuously produce more, or to do so more productively. As
Debeir et al. put it, Chinese coal use:
…did not create new social needs, did
not constantly push the borders of its own market
outwards…proto-industrialisation and economic growth were remarkable
achievements but failed to generate an accelerated division of labour.9
this more fully, let us now examine the nature of capitalist markets in more
Capitalist Markets and the Pressures
ecological economists Tim Jackson and Peter Victor call the above dynamic the
It occurs because, under capitalism, workers must be able to sell their labour
to be able to obtain a decent standard of living. Capitalists depend on market
power for their profits and therefore constantly reinvest in productivity
Productivity gains mean fewer workers are needed to produce a unit of
output. So if output stops growing, employment will fall. This creates a
legitimate desire amongst workers for more growth, and gives governments a
mandate to do everything they can to expand economic activity.
this ‘productivity trap’ is self-reinforcing. The expansion of markets drives
the division of labour. Adam Smith argued that as workers become more
specialised, they are better able to improve the production processes they’re
engaged with. And at a higher level of specialisation you develop whole classes
of workers whose job is purely to make production more efficient. In this way
market expansion itself leads to productivity gains.
But as people become more
specialised this means that they come to depend on markets to get more and more
of their goods—because (to use a personal example) people who sit in offices
reading long-dead economists for a living don’t spend much time growing food,
sewing clothes, or saving lives. So the expansion of markets creates both the
conditions for further growth and the need for it.
We also need
to talk about consumer capitalism. Innovations leading to productivity gains do
not in themselves create a market for the greater volume of goods produced.
This means that capitalism must alter consumption as well as production. Today,
this increasingly involves the stimulation and artifical creation of consumer
needs and desires by the capitalist class—who need us to keep consuming if they
are to continue earning profits.
Morris argued that in order to get and maintain profits, capitalists must
sell a “mountain of rubbish…things which everybody knows are of no use”. In
order to create demand for these useless goods, capitalists stirred up:
a strange feverish desire for petty
excitement, the outward token of which is known by the conventional name of
fashion—a strange monster born of the vacancy of the lives of rich people
body of more modern work suggests that current society encourages the idea that
consumption is the path to self-betterment. Psychologist Philip Cushman argues
that the dominant present configuration of the “self” is as an empty vessel
that requires filling up with consumer goods.11
The emptiness, he argues, comes from a lack of community, tradition, and shared
These are not things that will be solved through consumption. Under
consumer capitalism, there comes a collective inability to imagine social and
personal change except through consumption. As a result, even ‘radical’ leftist
to revolve around ever increasing levels of material consumption, rather
than imagining new ways to live that prioritise our need for community and
purpose beyond consumption.
No decarbonisation under capitalism
the structural drivers towards growth that we see under capitalism, it is
extremely unlikely that capitalism can avoid catastrophic climate change. The
structural drive for growth means that efforts to reduce carbon emissions will
be overwhelmed by the expansion of economic activity. This is controversial to
most mainstream environmentalists (and to many socialists). But it is the clear
experience of the history of capitalism.
resources have not been conserved under capitalism. Rather when we become more
efficient or find new resources, this frees up resources that are used by other
parts of the capitalist machine.
This explains why, for example, renewable
energy and nuclear power remain only a small part of the global energy system
(Figure 2). Under capitalism, low-carbon energy sources have grown but they
have not replaced fossil fuel at any meaningful scale. Instead low-carbon
energy is simply another energy pot available to fuel growth in economic
activity in order to generate profits.
Figure 2 Global Primary Energy Use by
type, 1900-2014. Source: Author’s own calculations based on data from De Stercke, 2014.
The same is
also true of energy efficiency gains. Energy efficiency can be a key
contributor for decarbonising the global economy. But only if it is coupled to
a plan to limit the size of the economy. Under capitalism, energy
efficiency measures actually drive economic growth. This happens for the
same reason renewable energy doesn’t lead to decarbonisation. Energy efficiency
improves productivity and reduces costs. In this way it reinforces capitalist
growth imperatives, driving the expansion of the economy which requires more
energy to be used overall.
This is also
why progressive action on climate change will undermine capitalism. We will
only successfully avoid catastrophic climate change if we are able to break the
dominance of the market, and break the social imaginary that ineffectually ties
fulfilment to consumption.
So, where do we go from here?
the energy system, and the environment are all inextricably linked. Combining
ecological economics and Political Marxism, I have set out a framework in which
climate change can be seen not only as a consequence of capitalism but as
fundamental to it. Widespread fossil fuel use was enabled by, and necessary
for, the capitalist dynamics of productivity growth and expansion. Climate
change is a feature, not a bug of capitalism.
catastrophic climate change, we have to break the expansionary cycle of the
economy. Otherwise technological improvements, renewable energy, and energy
efficiency gains will do nothing but add to the stock of ways that capitalists
grow the economy and their profits. Likewise carbon taxes and other market
mechanisms will simply reinforce the core dynamics of the market and any
positive effects will be overwhelmed by growth. Growth will increase energy
use, including fossil fuel use.
This will plunge us into a world that we do not
know how to live in. It is likely that ‘hothouse earth’ will eventually destroy
capitalism. But not before destroying the livelihoods of millions through
extreme weather, greater incidence of disease, and ecological breakdown. There
is no reason to believe this will lead to a better future.
expansionary cycle of the economy in a just way requires rolling back markets.
We must instead use commons, household, and state-based production as the
principal means of meeting the collective needs of society. Only in this way
can we break the societal drive for productivity growth and expansion.
nothing inherently more sustainable in non-market forms of production (all
economic activity uses energy), but these systems lack the expansionary drive
of markets. Consequently, energy efficiency gains and new technologies can be
used to replace fossil fuels rather than add to them.
The overproduction of ‘stuff’ is
largely achieved by making a costly withdrawal from the worker’s body, a form
of life-impoverishing austerity. And a great deal of that ‘stuff’ is not for
workers’ consumption, but rather, where it is not consumed as profit and
dividends, is dead labour whose main effect is to achieve a further extraction
of labour. We might think of energy conservation as class self-defence.
way, consumption is an ineffective way of building a good life. Collectively
limiting our consumption could open a path to a better economic system.
links between such a program and other radical leftist programs for change.
Freedom from the market and repurposing of production along the lines of social
need rather than profit are central to the post-work movement.12
But this movement lacks a critique of consumerism, and its analysis of
capitalism fails to engage rigorously with insights from ecological economics.
Visions of mass space flight continue the fantasy that consumption can fulfil
us, and rely on the notion of continued expansion of output and energy use. It
is unclear why those who advocate ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (for
example) believe that a political programme whose key appeal lies in having
more stuff will find itself able to break free from the expansionary cycle that
lies at the heart of the ecological catastrophe. If the promise is more mass
consumption, doing away with the most reliable and efficient energy sources to
which we have access will be a hard political sell.
There can be no avoiding
growth in fossil fuel use under capitalism. But this does not mean that
anti-capitalist programmes are all equally good solutions. The route forward is
to embrace these radical impulses, but critique their obsession with
consumption, and highlight the destructive dynamics they share with capitalism.
out the terrain for political struggle. Socialists must engage mainstream
environmentalists and work with them. We have a common foe in the big capital
of the fossil industry. Many environmentalists are critical of the economy as
it is, but lack a full analysis of its mechanics. Extinction Rebellion is a key
example of this: a critical yet ‘apolitical’ movement. Yet they offer perhaps
our best hope for building institutions that give us community, autonomy, and
purpose, and for breaking with the expansionary capitalist fossil economy.
1 Marx, Karl.
(1856) 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1. Translated by Ben
Fowkes. London: Penguin, p.133 ↩
3 Ross, L.C.,
Austrheim, G., Asheim, LJ. et al. ‘Sheep grazing in the North Atlantic region:
A long-term perspective on environmental sustainability’. Ambio (2016)
45(5):551-566. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-016-0771-z ↩
4 Wood, Ellen
Meiksens. 2017. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. London: Verso. ↩
Adam. (1776) 1976. An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of
Nations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.17. ↩
Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global
Warming. London: Verso. ↩
Jean-Paul, Jean-Claude Debeir, Daniel Hémery. 1991. In the Servitude of Power:
Energy and Civilisation Through the Ages. London: Zed Books, p.59 ↩
Tim and Peter Victor. ‘Productivity and work in the ‘green economy’: Some
theoretical reflections and empirical tests’. Environmental Innovation and
Societal Transitions (June 2011) 1(1):101-108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2011.04.005
Philip. ‘Why the Self is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology’.
American Psychologist (1990) 45(5):599-611.
Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Anti-Work Politics and
Post-Work Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ↩