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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
* Many thanks to Alf Homborg, Stefan Anderberg, Rikard Warlenius, Max Koch, Wim Carton, Vasna Ramasar and other LUCID colleagues, and two anonymous reviewers for very helpfial comments at various stages of this work.
1. Ure 1835, p. 18.
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and so on. Valorisation proceeds through combustion. Fossil capital, in other words, is self-expanding value passing through the metamorphosis of fossil fuels into CO2. It is a relation, a triangular relation between capital, labour and a certain segment of extra-human nature, in which the exploitation of labour by capital is impelled by the combustion of this particular accessory. But fossil capital is also a process, a flow of successive valorisations, at every stage claiming a larger body of fossil energy to burn. It recognises no end. One could think of this as the biophysical shadow of Marx's general formula of capital, coming to the forefront only in the times of unexpected biospheric dusk. The general formula of fossil capital, in these simple, extended and extrapolated versions, does not, of course, capture the entire field of fossil fuel consumption even in a capitalist society. The most obvious omission is a form of consumption preceding fossil capital by at least six centuries: the purchase of use-values whose very usage emits CO2. Heating cottages with coal falls into this category, as does, to take but two examples, driving to work in a car, or surfing the web with a computer (in so far as these run on fossil energy). The immediate cause of combustion in these cases is the satisfaction of some need or other in the sphere of private consumption. Here the formula would rather be:
But even though such individual consumption predates the productive consumption of fossil fuels as a source of rotary motion, it does not give rise to business-as-usual, for individual consumption is not the ignition mechanism of capitalist...
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