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.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #15

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

30 december

Before the year ends, I want to find my own centre of gravity – and I want to reconnect with my own story. As I looked outside the window, coming up from Guangzhou along the Yangtze basin, I realized I had no unified family story.

My father has a story – born from a modest family in the south, he studies and becomes an engineer in Strasbourg – his first marriage collapses but he loves his son. Successful, he goes up to Paris where he marries up into a Parisian family, and has two more children.

My mother has a story – last girl, unwanted, from a southern family migrated up north, her dream has always been to escape her local destiny and live in a beautiful sun-drenched warm country. For that, she may count on her charm. She marries a southern boy, handsome, successful – but things don’t work out, and she leaves him for someone else. Life is hard for a while, her new husband has money, but the relationship is tense. Where her son leaves for Paris, she opts for freedom, so moves to the West Indies, convincing her husband. He dies, she inherits, and marries again, a friendly local man.

But what is my story? Smart talented gay boy from divorced parents gets into the most prestigious college in France, with an ambition to become an intellectual and literary figure. Intelligent, he has academic success, but it is not his chosen path, and when he meets an Australian blog-artist, he follows him to Melbourne. There, he changes radically, embraces China, becomes a social entrepreneur and online editor? This, somehow, embraces the threads of both my parents.

I’m in Wuhan, the city of my childhood nanny Danhan. The faces here remind me of her. Wuhan was the capital of Chu, the city of the Dao De Jing and Laozi, the place where it was said that you should be like water, flow to your centre of gravity, because that is where your strength lies.

I will spend the last day of the year in Hangzhou, by the West Lake. A place I have always wanted to go, a place Marco Polo – my new role model – said was paradise on earth. I will be by a lake, a large mass of accumulated water, and ultimate expression of beauty.