12 Min Read
July 14, 2023
There’s a famous aphorism from Mark Fisher, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Žižek–“it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”1 It is by now familiar to associate this speculative claim with the crude reality of climate change–the end of the world seems to be happening slowly now–while capitalism churns on right in front of us. Toward the end of his book, Fossil Capital, Andreas Malm revises the “end of the world versus the end of capitalism” slogan when he writes of climate change mitigation efforts: “It has become easier to imagine deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system than in capitalism.”2 Malm performs a clear ideology critique here by highlighting the negative truth that global commitments to “green energy” have deepened capitalism’s hold on the climate, and thus also resist any revolutionary change to energy systems that could reduce carbon emissions.
Yet this negative truth is preceded in Fossil Capital–and has since been reiterated in Malm’s subsequent books–by the historical reality that fossil fuels became dominant not because of cost efficiency or technological superiority but instead through struggles between labour and capital. Moreover, the future presents a horizon of struggle over capitalism’s determination of not just energy systems but also of culture more generally. Malm’s extensive study of waterpower and coal in Fossil Capital itself is a reminder that there have been alternatives to fossil fuels from the very beginning. Realizing these alternatives, however, requires a cultural commitment to energy transition, a commitment that seems paradoxically both widespread and nearly unfathomable today. The stakes are high, especially because of fossil capitalism’s alliance with recent fascist movements across the world.3
Given these high stakes, Malm lays out the case for radical environmental activism in the short book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, published in January 2021. Reflecting on how the book may have inspired groups like the Tyre Extinguishers, a direct action group that deflates the tires of 4x4 SUVs in urban areas of Sweden, Malm writes that “in the age of social media, books become not less but more important…Countering the evanescence of an update or tweet, they serve as repositories of tactical lessons and strategic knowledge; but they must be written anew for every cycle of struggle.”4 Accordingly, Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline is just one in a flurry of books, including his collaboratively authored White Skin, Black Fuel on fossil fascism as well as The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, and most recently Fighting in a World on Fire: The Next Generation’s Guide to Protecting the Climate and Saving Our Future, an adaptation of How to Blow Up a Pipeline for young readers by the climate activists Jimmy and Llewyn Whipps.
While these recent books are focused on the contemporary climate struggle, Malm’s earlier Fossil Capital chronicles the long history of fossil fuels, detailing the transition to coal that would initiate the later development of oil and gas in the twentieth century. This revisionist history is also an example of the kind of book that is “written anew for every cycle of struggle,” outfitting readers with the concepts and ideas needed to connect their contemporary circumstances to the struggles of the past. Malm’s Fossil Capital helps to make it clear how a revised cultural history of modernity can synthesize energy and capitalism, how criticism can make visible our culture’s authorization of fossil fuel systems, and how a thinker might distinguish between fossil capital’s ideological forms and the forms of alternatives.
Fossil Capital’s revisionist history has helped me to read fossil capitalism into works that did not necessarily identify carbon emissions and extractive industries with the same terms that we do today. In Karl Marx’s “The German Ideology,” for example, the concept of “big industry” refers to much of what Malm describes as “fossil capital.” For Marx, “big industry” is the “application of elemental forces to industrial ends, machinery and the most complex division of labour.”5 Big industry, in “The German Ideology,” leads to global markets and universal competition, and big industry thus “forced all individuals to strain their energy to the utmost. It destroyed as far as possible ideology, religion, morality, etc.”6 Marx goes on to expand on big industry’s effects, ultimately stating that big industry “makes for the worker not only the relation to the capitalist, but the labour itself, unbearable.”7
With Malm’s Fossil Capital in mind, I understand Marx’s concept of “big industry” as an indication of a crisis point in contemporary fossil capitalism. Everyday life under capitalism becomes unbearable not because of the exhaustion of energy resources, but instead because of the continual quantification and “speeding up” made possible by outsized energy production and consumption. For Marx, who lacked the scientific knowledge that we have access to today about carbon emissions and climate, big industry’s control over labour constituted a breaking point. Malm’s Fossil Capital provides the backdrop for this sense of historical struggle–if the transition to fossil fuels was determined by capitalist interests and the transformation of labour power into quantifiable units of energy, then the transitions to other energy systems can be motivated by anti-capitalist imperatives and the transformation of energy into a collectively managed public resource. Indeed, as Malm, Naomi Klein, Matthew T. Huber, and so many other leftist thinkers have argued, a commitment to reducing carbon emissions necessarily entails anti-capitalist action.8
This dialectical movement from the history of capitalism to the current climate crisis demands a revised sense of cultural history, new concepts and terms for the contemporary moment. This has been a long-standing and deeply important part of energy studies and the environmental humanities. As Patricia Yaeger asked in her 2011 editor’s column in PMLA, “what happens if we sort texts according to the energy sources that made them possible?”9 This question and others like it has to lead to the ongoing creation of art, scholarship, and writing that strives to rework our past into something workable for our contemporary climate crisis.
Just as Malm identifies the struggle between the waterwheel and steam engine at the center of the often-thought-to-be “technologically determined” transition to fossil fuels, I have become more and more interested in how media forms worked during the transition to fossil fuels. How has fossil capital shaped the forms, technologies, styles, and even content of art and cultures today, especially since any media form is likely to be utterly dependent on fossil capital’s modes of production, distribution, and consumption? If the history of capitalism has been inflected by fossil capital, then so have aesthetic forms. I find it impossible to think of media forms like the comic book, the film, the photograph, or the video game outside of fossil capital these days. They all seem to carry along their material make-up with them, as so many instantiations of carbon emissions, so many examples of global logistics.
Yet it has also been in art objects that most fully project their connections to energy culture that we see fossil capital most clearly. In the vibranium of the Black Panther movies, in the unobtanium of the Avatar franchise, in the sci-fi/horror film Nope and its allegory of inhuman labour power, in the hydrogen fuel named “Klear” in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, in all of these contemporary media artifacts, energy is the struggle. I think teaching and writing the history of these moments is one way of making sure that they stick around, and that these struggles over energy culture are understood as expressions of a potential transition.
Daniel Worden is an Associate Professor of Art at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the author of Neoliberal Nonfictions: The Documentary Aesthetic from Joan Didion to Jay-Z. A scholar and teacher of American print and visual cultures, Daniel has also edited many books, including Oil Culture with Ross Barrett and New Directions in Print Culture Studies with Jesse W. Schwartz.
~Putin’s War in Ukraine and Europe’s Carbon Democracies: Paying the Price of Half-Hearted Climate Politics