Fossil Capital

My rhetorical pet hate is the use of ‘our ancestors’ to make a point. Modern human behavior explained on account of mammoths and cavemen, with no sources quoted.  

Myths justify the world we live in. To work, they need to pass as history. So, freedom and change depend on serious historians challenging dominant narratives.

My favourite read of 2020 was Fossil Capital by Robert Malm. The book questions our understanding of the industrial revolution – and therefore, our present economy, society, and environmental predicament.

The large-scale adoption of coal for industrial purposes is typically presented as a story of human ingenuity and scarcity overcome. Previous energy sources were used up. New technology made coal available for production. We discovered, harnessed, and triumphed. 

Yet coal had centuries of use for household heating. Wind and water resources were hardly deployed at capacity by the 1800s-1820s. The usual story doesn’t hold.

Malm offers a different explanation. Wind and water are wild forces. By contrast, ’steam promised both temporal and spatial protection from extreme weather events. Coal was utterly alien to seasons; factories could be placed at a safe distance from riverbanks liable to inundation. In short, the desire for independence from the vagaries of weather provided one motive to the transition.’ In short, the industrial revolution was about control, not scarcity.

Renewables demand that we master flows. We must adapt our action to forces greater than us, beyond human control. Coal and gas are stock, reliable and predictable.

Transitioning towards a low-carbon future means embracing flow, and accepting less control. Humans adapting to changing weather patterns: storms, floods, and droughts.

Which in turn will demand flexibility, risk-awareness, and humility. For which we need new myths, and a different history.

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