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Andreas Malm Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming

As the first part of IZOLYATSIA’s resource list developed for our work on the topic of Grounding, we offer excerpts from the book by the Swedish researcher of human ecology Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, published by Verso in 2016, but not yet available in Ukrainian.

Identifying global warming as one of the most dire problems of today, Malm demands that we reëxamine our history with “eyes wide open,” starting with the question "when did it all begin?"

With this chronological approach, he traces the origins of the Anthropocene from the Industrial Revolution. His narrative draws a line from preindustrial self-sustaining growth, to the subsequent economic expansion of the industrial era, which included the extraction of minerals and their combustion, and led to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the resulting global warming.

The first part of the book discusses the history, factors and social phenomena that led to the adoption and then the victorious dominance of steam engine energy in England’s industrial production.

He goes on to criticize the notion of the Anthropocene as an era in which humanity is recognized as a unified geological actor, noting that social inequality and differential responsibility are central to this story. Instead of blaming all of humanity, it is necessary to explore the internal mechanisms of economic development, and by so doing, making it clear that the climate crisis is a result of the enrichment of capitalists, while workers, like nature, find themselves in the ranks of the victims.


Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming 

Given that carbon dioxide acts as a thermostat in regulating the temperature on earth, and given that this temperature sets the climatic conditions in which all life exists on earth, the magnitude of the rise — from 285 ppm as late as the mid-nineteenth century to the current 400 plus — implies Homo sapiens function as geological agents. The Holocene has come to an end. A growing chorus of geologists, chemists, environmental historians, sustainability scientists and others, argue the idea that a new epoch has dawned: the Anthropocene...

The term Anthropocene suggests that the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the interglacial state Holocene. Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita.

The claim is not, of course, that humans never left any imprint on their environments in earlier times, but rather that a qualitative scale-up has occurred. Global warming, however, is only one of the truly epochal changes wrought by humans, as theorists of the Anthropocene are keen to stress. 

A question than imposes itself: when did it all begin?

The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentration of carbon dioxide and methane. The date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784...

Seen from another angle, global warming is a sun mercilessly projecting a new light onto history. Only now is it becoming apparent what it really meant to burn coal and send forth smoke from a stack in Manchester in 1842. When natural scientists discovered global warming, they passed on a discovery of a scale heretofore unrecognized in a comprehensive scale: these things were there for two centuries, invisible up to the present. Now it is the time to turn over a thousand stones, to unearth the climatic implications of innumerable actions — not merely because the smallest puff of smoke in Manchester in 1842 released a quantity of СО₂ which then lingered in the atmosphere, playing a microscopic part in the creation of the current climate, but also, and more importantly, because the fossil economy was established, entrenched and expanded in the process...

In Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, celebrated ecocentric Timothy Morton outlines a bold new worldview appropriate to the Anthropocene in general and global warming in particular, and he knows more than most. ‘The end of the world has already occurred. We can be uncannily precise about the date on which the world ended’, Morton writes, giving the event a rather odd interpretation and a very exact date: ‘It was April 1784, when James Watt patented the steam engine, an act that commenced the depositing of carbon in Earth’s crust — namely, the inception of humanity as a geophysical force on a planetary scale’. So the world no longer exists, thanks to Watt’s patent...

They [theorists of the Anthropocene] propound a general framework for understanding the historical causality behind the transition to fossil fuels, which, for reasons of logical necessity, they deduce from human nature. If the dynamics were of a more contingent character, the narrative of an entire species — the anthropos as such — ascending to biospheric supremacy would be difficult to uphold: ‘the geology of mankind’ must have its roots in the properties of that being. Anything less would make it a geology of some smaller entity, perhaps some subset of Homo sapiens. The answer to this historical question is therefore a story told around a classical element: fire. The human species alone can manipulate fire...

It is worth pausing to consider what is being said here. It is not that the Anthropocene began long before the Industrial Revolution. Rather, the claim is that the ‘essential catalyst’ and ‘primary reason’ for the large-scale combustion of fossil fuels as it spread in the industrial era are in fact the mastering of fire by a particular primate species some half a million years ago...

Debate continues to rage over the details of the Anthropocene: some advocate a far earlier date of birth for the epoch, but the Industrial Revolution still enjoys near consensus. Since 2008, and with another few years of negotiations expected before a verdict, the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London is considering the formal announcement of Anthropocene as the current epoch. A few dissidents allege that the concept belongs to ‘pop culture’ rather than rigorous stratigraphic practice, and indeed it has undergone a most spectacular career, spreading far beyond the ivory tower, embraced by everyone from The Economist to Marxist scholars...


Photo: Cai Guo-Qiang: 1040m Underground, IZOLYATSIA, Donetsk, photo by Dima Sergeev © 2011 Izolyatsia