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The interdependence of political power and energy power


The Verso blog has an excerpt from the publisher’s upcoming book Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming by Andreas Malm, which argues that the historical emergence of steam power had more to do with disciplining labor than with steam’s alleged superior energy output. In the excerpt, Malm shows that “power” in the sense of energy (e.g., steam power) and “power” in the sense of political might are not just coincidental synonyms, but instead mutually constitute each other, as the history of steam power shows:

It is proven beyond all reasonable doubt that global warming does not have natural causes. Solar radiation, volcanic outgassing, endogenous variations in the carbon cycle, and other similar suspects have been decisively cleared of responsibility for the rise in temperatures, the root causes firmly passed to the social side of the equation. Once we cross that line, we immediately encounter power — indeed, this happens as soon as we use the term “fossil fuels.” They are, by definition, a materialisation of social relations. No piece of coal or drop of oil has yet turned itself into fuel, and no humans have yet engaged in systematic large-scale extraction of either to satisfy subsistence needs: fossil fuels necessitate waged or forced labour — the power of some to direct the labour of others — as conditions of their very existence. If we take the message of climate science seriously, we should direct our attention to power in the dual sense, first of all in the process of labour. That is the point of contact between humans and the rest of nature, where biophysical resources pass into the circuits of social metabolism, where coal and oil and gas are extracted, transported, coupled to machines: burnt. The process is peopled. “As a primary agent of energy and matter transformation through the labor process,” writes environmental historian Stefania Barca, “workers are the primary interface between society and nature,” wielding and subject to power. That is the sphere where the fossil economy must have originated.

Neither environmental nor labour history has, for their own particular reasons, been very keen on connecting the dots of workers and the wider environment, class and climate. The same silence reigns in research on energy in the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, climate change as such remains primarily an object of natural science, recent spurts of interest in the social sciences notwithstanding. We are awash in data on the disastrous effects but comparatively poor on insights into the drivers. Or, to paraphrase Marx: most climate science still dwells in the noiseless atmosphere, where everything takes place on the surface, rather than entering the hidden abode of production, where fossil fuels are actually produced and consumed. Natural scientists have so far interpreted global warming as a phenomenon in nature; the point, however, is to trace its human origins. Only thus can we retain at least a hypothetical possibility of changing course.