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.

Reflecting on my practice – the limits of social enterprise

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

One of the most important things I learned from my father is that our economic system does not reward work based on social utility.

I’ve been working around social innovation circles for about ten years now. Repeatedly, I have come across a fervent statement that people working on social good have an unhealthy relationship to money, that we must not demonise money, that we must reconcile profit and purpose.

That discourse has always irked me for its short-sightedness.

Even in a narrow for-profit framework, the question is not just how much return you get on your effort, but risk and time-horizon. When you focus on social good, impact is added to the list. And this is where things get confused.

In a Lunchclub conversation last year, I heard from an architect about the second and third order consequences of the Sydney Opera House. Its construction used a range of new technologies, that were trialled then, and gave birth to new industries. Once built, it served as an icon, prompting tourism, and a sense of civic pride. Such positive externalities are retrospectively visible, if not clearly measurable. They benefit the collective – but cannot be directly listed on the developer’s bottom line.

If impact is truly what matters, then economic returns are ill-suited to measure and guide it. And if impact is not what matters, then pretending is hypocrisy. 

Any discourse on balancing income and social good says: favour the venture that will yield a predictable income in the short-term, over the one that might result in large scale impact. It therefore creates a norm that discourages radical risk-taking intended to benefit the collective.

Not to mention, balancing profit and purpose creates a vested interest in the current paradigm. If you rush to monetise your social impact in the current economy, your long-term interests become tied to the present logic. Or as the Gospel says, where your treasure is, there also your heart is.

Is social enterprise, then, nothing but a desperate attempt at saving capitalism? And by promoting it, are we not distracting driven, ambitious, promising young people from more important work – tying them down to the present system, and preventing them from embracing a more radical approach – one that * could * prove much more impactful?