Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013)15-68
The Origins of Fossil Capital:
From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry*
Human Ecology Division/LUCID, Lund University
The process commonly referred to as business-as-usual has given rise to dangerous climate change, but its social history remains strangely unexplored. A key moment in its onset was the transition to steam power as a source of rotary motion in commodity production, in Britain and, first of all, in its cotton industry. This article tries to approach the dynamics of the fossil economy by examining the causes of the transition from water to steam in the British cotton industry in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Common perceptions of the shift as driven by scarcity are refuted, and it is shown that the choice of steam was motivated by a rather different concern: power over labour. Turning away from standard interpretations of the role of energy in the industrial revolution, this article opens a dialogue vWth Marx on matters of carbon and oudines a theory of fossil capital, better suited for understanding the drivers of business-as-usual as it. continues to this day.
Fossil fiiels, steam power, water power, cotton industry, labour, space, time, carbon dioxide, capital accumulation
In those spacious halls the benignant power of steam summons around him his myriads of willing menials, and assigns to each the regulated task, substituting for painful muscular effort on their part, the energies of his own gigantic arm, and demanding in turn only attention and dexterity to correct such little aberrations as casually occur in workmanship.
- Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufactures^
The chemical changes which thus take place are constantly increasing the atmosphere by large quantities of carbonic acid [i.e. carbon dioxide] and other
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