Forum on Fossil Capital Part 1: Self-Sustaining, Self-Devouring Growth

12 Min Read

July 14, 2023

Jennifer Wenzel is jointly appointed in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University, where she teaches courses in postcolonial literature and theory and environmental and energy humanities. With Imre Szeman and Patricia Yaeger, she co-edited Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment (Fordham 2017).

Once upon a time, in an NYC summer, I read Fossil Capital with anticipation and immersive pleasure one might associate with a sprawling nineteenth-century English novel. I also read with growing annoyance. Andreas Malm’s gripping tale of conflicts–between flow and stock, water and steam, workers and owners–felt increasingly inadequate as I wondered about the parts of this story left untold, beyond the shores of Britain, which Malm dubs the fossil economy’s “incontestable birthplace.”1 Where did the cotton come from? Where did some of the capital that became fossil capital come from? 

I’m not certain whether Malm still plans a “Fossil Empire” sequel to Fossil Capital. Even amidst the literary pleasures of the first installment, I found Malm’s promise of an imperial, second-season spinoff to the insular, metropolitan story fundamentally misguided. The insights of innumerable thinkers (Marx, Fanon, Coronil) make it difficult to understand imperialism as distinct from or subsequent to capitalism. How can one narrate the “roots” of the contemporary planetary crisis from within such a narrow frame? One needs, rather, what Edward Said would call a contrapuntal approach, seeing one place always as juxtaposed and imbricated with another. “In reading a text,” Said writes, “one must open it out both to what went into it and to what its author excluded."2 How can Fossil Capital be opened out to what’s excluded from it? 

One way is to juxtapose Malm’s account with Julie Livingston’s Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa, which redirects attention toward the “militarized, toxic, and predatory reaches of the carbon economy.”3 Livingston writes about cows and cars rather than cloth and coal, yet her parable from Botswana leads me to ask how growth can be “self-sustaining” and “self-devouring” at the same time. Malm argues that growth becomes “self-sustaining” because the increasing use of fossil fuels enabled a circumvention of organic limits, creating “a secular progression propelled by its own inner forces” and an expanding feedback loop of further growth, along with ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions.”4 By contrast, Livingston finds in the carbon economy “self-devouring growth” (SDG) that is “predicated on uninhibited consumption” and characterized by a fundamental “imperative–grow or die; grow or be eaten.”5 This imperative is a false choice that obscures a hard truth: growth is itself an insatiable appetite; growth demands a devouring that risks death. The carbon economy “is consuming itself…eating away at the very ground beneath our feet.”6 Livingston invokes the analogy of cancer, another process of “out-of-control growth” threatening the vitality of the organism whose cells are enlisted into the disease process, against its own flourishing.7 

For Malm, the fossil economy is a fire that generates its own fuel; for Livingston, the carbon economy threatens the “planetary body” consumed by cancerous growth.8 Perhaps these metaphors are complementary, two views of the same problem. Malm offers an easily-missed caveat: growth is self-sustaining only in the capacity of fossil energy to fuel economic expansion (and emissions) beyond previous natural constraints.9 Livingston’s attention to externalities–toxic waste, resource depletion, drought and desertification, urban sprawl, and debt burdens borne by individuals and nation-states alike–indicates how this growth devours itself and the lifeworlds upon which it and we depend. 

Both authors emphasize growth’s normalization and naturalization. Malm observes, “Eventually it appears indistinguishable from life itself: business-as-usual.”10 Livingston describes self-devouring growth as “common sense, the unexamined imperative,” “so fundamental as to be unremarkable,” an “intractable” mindset “so powerful that it obscures the destruction it portends.”11 This capacity to rationalize or direct attention away from destruction is central to SDG, rather than a by-product or something that happens “eventually,” while the main action of growth proceeds, as in Malm. For Livingston, SDG is an economic and material phenomenon working upon the world, but it’s also a way of seeing (and not seeing): “Without us really noticing it, growth has become this unmarked category granted magical powers…as so much is done in its name, a cascade of unseen consequences, side effects, also become second nature.”12 When those consequences do emerge into visibility, they’re rationalized as unavoidable: in the case of automobility, SDG is the tacit logic whereby “the road commands a certain amount of death and damage as a necessary price for its freedoms and opportunities.”13 

Complicating Malm’s account of class conflict in the fossil economy, two forms of unevenness are at work in Livingston’s parable. First, the uneven distributions of benefits and burdens: “Ever more intensive forms of capitalist consumption animate a system that will harm everyone, even those whose consumption mainly remains aspirational.”14 The rich consume a lot; the poor consume a lot less while also confronting the destructions caused by the consumption of the rich. Nonetheless, the poor often aspire to consume like the rich: they also inhabit the common sense of SDG, even if that common sense makes no sense within the calculations of their household economies. This confrontation with the limits of common sense reveals another kind of unevenness at work–not of distribution, but of perception: the contradictions of SDG are most legible to those at its margins. The capacity to understand out-of-control growth as anything other than a historical construct, not something necessary and natural like the air we breathe (at least in some bygone pre-anthropogenic world), is the product of a habitual disregard that is mostly a privilege of the rich and powerful–something like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s idea of sanctioned ignorance, what the powerful can get away with not knowing.

I read Livingston’s parable contrapuntally with and against Malm as a corrective to a history of fossil capital that is methodologically blind to fossil empire; this blindness is, perhaps, a corollary to the willful blindness that is SDG itself. Livingston emphasizes the space that growth occupies in the social imaginary, shaping not only developmental policy and built environments but also dreams and desires. The conflation of out-of-control growth with necessity, nature, and common sense is, I argue, a crucial reason the fossil economy persists. It’s easy to conjure the sensorium of American-style automobility on the open road as iconic of such dreams and desires, but Livingston offers a powerful complement to such images: she shows how cars have replaced cows as “paradigmatic objects of desire” in Botswana.15 In southern African cattle-based societies, the cow is not merely a means of transport and sustenance, but a “total social fact”: a mode of wealth, nexus of social ties and political power, and link to the ancestors. SDG abstracts beloved, beautiful cattle into beef produced at industrial scale. Now the primary objects of desire, cars are equally “diverse in their shapes and colours and features, their graceful movements, as the cows of old,” which were “once the subject of poetry and aesthetic passion.”16 Yet in the face of clogged traffic, accidents, debt, and disrepair, “one day the car is no longer a luxury, a cow, a dream. It has become a dead weight, a bloated carcass under which one buckles.”17 It’s as apt an image of the dead end of the carbon/fossil economy as I can imagine.

Part 2: The Ideology of Fossil Capital by Daniel Worden

Part 3: Malm's Fossil Capital and Green Social Movements by Andrew M. Rose

Part 4: From Steam Fetishism to Solar Fetishism by Imre Szeman


  1.  Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: the Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London, 2016), 13.
  2.  Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York, 1994): 32, 67.
  3. Julie Livingston, Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa (Chapel Hill, 2019), 106.
  4. Malm, Fossil Capital, 11.
  5.  Livingston, Self-Devouring Growth, 5.
  6.  Ibid., 1-5.
  7.  Ibid., 5.
  8.  Malm, Fossil Capital, 5. 
  9.  Ibid.,  11.
  10.  Ibid., 13.
  11.  Livingston, Self-Devouring Growth, 1-5.
  12.  Ibid., 4-5.
  13.  Ibid., 92-96.
  14.  Ibid., 6.
  15.  Ibid., 89.
  16.  Ibid.,112.
  17.  Ibid., 119.

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