Forum on Fossil Capital Part 4: From Steam Fetishism to Solar Fetishism

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July 14, 2023

Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital offers a detailed and politically-astute account of the first great energy transition—from what Malm describes as the energy of flow to the energy of stock. But the impact of his book doesn’t end there. I’ve found thinking with and against Malm’s counter-history of energy, technology, and modernity to be essential for understanding the second great energy transition already underway (if still too slowly and tentatively): from fossil fuels to renewable energies–from stock back to flow.

That there are historical differences between the two transitions is obvious enough. The two hundred years between 1823 (plop in the middle of the period Malm explores) and 2023 are so different as to render weak even broad analogies. For a start, the circumstances of the present transition have been shaped profoundly by the earlier one; for this reason alone, to see the transition to and from fossil fuels as an energy transition in the same sense is a category mistake. But this isn’t the only distinction that needs to be made. Unlike the switch to renewables, the transition from water to coal wasn’t a socio-political project deliberately and directly focused on transfiguring the forms of energy in use on a global level and in short order. Nor was the transition to renewable energy the consequence of attempts by elites to defuse labour struggles, as Malm shows the first transition so clearly to be. The forces driving the current energy transition are instead to be found elsewhere. 

Energy cost is once again part of the story. Historically, coal was adopted despite being more expensive than its alternative, for reasons Malm outlines. By contrast, renewable energy is basically free once capital is invested to develop and install it, and so an ever-increasing number of governments and industries are now moving to adopt renewables to lower production costs. One might have thought there would be little financial interest in renewables. By comparison to fossil fuel extraction, they generate low returns on investment (near the end of Fossil Capital, Malm reminds us of the Lauderdale Paradox: “the less exchange-value that is attached to a necessity of life–such as light or air–the less interest capital will have in producing it as a commodity for the market.”1) And yet, the direction in which things are moving is clear enough: flow is fast being embraced not only by the environmental community but by everyone, which is why stock is being left behind.

But there’s more to the current shift than the potential for cost savings. Unlike the transition to fossil fuels, the solar transition is being mobilized and sustained—cynically at times, deeply felt at other moments—by ethical and eschatological considerations, by a sense of responsibility to future human generations and other inhabitants of the planet, and by the goal of deferring or delaying the end times that constitute the ultimate threat of climate change. Commitments to ethics and reflections on eschatology might seem far afield from the core principle of capital: the accumulation of profit. But remember: if using fossil fuels didn’t generate carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide didn’t make fundamental changes to the planet’s atmosphere, it’s unlikely there would be much, if any, interest in a transition back to flow. One of the biggest distinctions between the first and second transition, between the shift to fossil fuels and the shift away from them, is the introduction of a set of values into capitalism (that best of shapeshifters) that one would never have expected to find there—values concerning collective goods, ethical actions, and the fate of humanity.

In a crucial chapter of Fossil Capital, Malm describes the process by which coal-powered steam became an essential component of nineteenth-century bourgeois ideology and thus deeply embedded in narratives of the modern. The power generated by the technology of steam was understood by the bourgeoisie in multiple ways. It was simultaneously a utopian project, the perspective of a governing class, and a reflection of an emergent modernity—a folding together of grand narrative, ideological outlook, and raw history that is now difficult to pry apart. An explicitly class project that Malm names “steam fetishism,” interlaced technology and science with progress, wealth, private property, and freedom, thus producing a liberal capitalism both propelled by and legitimated through fantasies of technological innovation. 

The language of solar transition depends on the same set of equivalences (i.e., progress, freedom, wealth, and all the rest), with one important difference: those who commit to solar transition can also claim to bring an ethical perspective to energy history. An emergent green bourgeois ideology now disavows steam as an energetic mistake due to the environmental consequences of its use. But remarkably, doing so doesn’t thus unnerve the original connections established in steam fetishism between technology and wealth, science and freedom, and steam power and history. One might have thought that the shifts and realignments of liberal ideology from dirty to clean energy would cause the fantasy underlying liberal capitalism to weaken, or even to crumble altogether, once the energy lie of modernity is revealed. Instead, a commitment to solar transition seems to have managed the feat of transfiguring capitalism from the principal cause of eco-collapse into the one force with both the infrastructural capacity and the ethical authority to do something about it. 

In honour of everything Malm has brought to the study of energy, let’s call this new ideology “solar fetishism,” an emergent twenty-first century bourgeois ideology which, like its steam progenitor, combines a utopian project, the perspective of a governing class, and a common sense now in the process of being nervously composed and imposed. Whether solar fetishism can be as successful as its steam counterpart remains to be seen. We can only hope that Malm is hard at work on a book called Solar Capitalism, which will provide us as clear a map about energy futures as his Fossil Capital did of our energy pasts.

Imre Szeman is inaugural Director of the Institute for Environment, Conservation and Sustainability and Faculty Lead of the EaRTH District, and Professor of Human Geography at the University of Toronto. The Future of the Sun is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press in 2024.

Part 1: Self-Sustaining, Self-Devouring Growth by Jennifer Wenzel

Part 2: The Ideology of Fossil Capital by Daniel Worden

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


1. Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London, 2016), 371.

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