Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, by Andreas Malm (Verso, 496 pp., $29.95)
Andreas Malm longs for the good old days. In his new book, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, Malm, who teaches human ecology at Lund University in Sweden, pines for a time when manufacturing depended on waterwheels instead of steam engines. Indeed, Malm spends more than 300 pages—about 75 percent of the text—discussing why English manufacturers abandoned waterwheels and replaced them with coal-fired steam engines. It’s worthwhile history. But in the hands of an avowed Marxist like Malm, it’s tedious sledding. In Malm’s view, the rise of the steam engine was little more than a ploy by evil capitalists to subjugate workers, and because of that, we are now all going to die from global warming.
Yes, that’s a simplistic analysis, but Malm has written a simplistic book. He quotes an economist, Richard Jones, who, in the 1830s, wrote that water power is “cheap but uncertain. The steam engine is costly but powerful and its action is certain and continuous.” Jones goes on to explain why waterwheels had to go. For some reason, Malm prefers the days of yore, when production had to be shut down because of drought, or flood, or frozen rivers. He attempts to explain the complex world of energetics by marrying Marxism with climate-change catastrophism. By doing so, he puts himself squarely in the camp of the climate doomsayers—a group that includes Canadian author/activist Naomi Klein and U.S. environmental activist Bill McKibben, who have claimed that the solution to climate change is to abandon modern society and organize a socialist, organic-agriculture economy, where we can all, no doubt, have free yoga classes. In a 2011 essay published in The Nation, Klein—who provided a blurb for Malm’s book, calling it “the definitive deep history on how our economic system created the climate crisis”—called for nothing less than “a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal.”
It’s not Malm’s fellow travelers who are the problem, it’s his blinkered approach to basic physics, and in particular, to the essentiality of power density—that is, the ability to concentrate the flow of energy from a given area, volume, or mass. Ever since humans began walking upright, we have been trying to corral more energy so that we can turn it into more effective power, whether for farming, heating, or computing. Farmers moved from doing all the planting and hauling themselves to using draft animals, which helped increase production. Over centuries, they perfected their harnesses, going from throat-and-girth harnesses to breastbands and finally to collar harnesses, which allowed animals to pull loads as much as ten times heavier than they could pull with the earlier models.
Over the last seven decades or so, we have moved from electricity-hungry computers based on vacuum tubes to ones based on nano circuits millions of times lighter and more efficient. Malm insists that every joule and BTU we use is infected with class struggle. In the first chapter, he writes that “fossil fuels necessitate waged or forced labor—the power to direct the labor of others—as conditions of their very existence.” Yet, he doesn’t provide a single example of any place on the planet where modern workers are being forced to produce oil, coal, or natural gas. Malm decries the steam engine at every turn, but ignores how steam power led to a revolution in transportation that allowed even low-skilled workers to travel and search out better opportunities on railroads and steamships. Malm condemns all hydrocarbons, yet he ignores the creation and perfection of the internal combustion and jet engines. In doing so, he leaves aside discussion of the parallel creation of the global oil and gas sector, which is among the world’s biggest industries. Malm also ignores electrification, though electricity production (the biggest share of which is provided by coal combustion) now accounts for about 40 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Malm spends 13 of his 16 chapters decrying coal and steam. He notes with approval that in medieval England, coal fields were often controlled by the king or local bishops, and that they often imposed “restrictions on output, guaranteeing that the enterprises would be puny.” He continues: “Thriving on sword and cross, they could afford to stay aloof from subterranean riches.” In his fourteenth chapter, “China as Chimney of the World: Fossil Capital Today,” Malm details the rising concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide and denounces “the bourgeois ideology of eco-modernism” because of its belief that technology can help bring more people out of poverty.
In chapter 15, we finally get to Malm’s solution, which is, wait for it . . . central planning. A few paragraphs after quoting Leon Trotsky, Malm notes that the majority of global greenhouse gases are emitted from four places: the U.S., the E.U., China, and India. The way to cut those emissions is simple, says Malm. We merely need to “set up one special ministry in each and we would be on our way.” Ah yes, a special ministry. Welcome, comrades, to Professor Malm’s Climate Gulag. It’s for your own good, after all.
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