Book Club

The Chair read for you L’anthropocène contre l’histoire : le réchauffement climatique à l’ère du capital de Andreas Malm [🇫🇷]

Published on 26 June 2019

The book L’anthropocène contre l’Histoire is a 2016 essay by geographer Andreas Malm. The author seeks to show that global warming is not due to human nature but to a particular mode of production: capitalism (chapter 1). To support its thesis, Chapter 2 details the conditions for the adoption of coal in the British cotton industry. It is on these two parts that we will focus, leaving aside the author’s theses on the links between literature (chapter 3), revolution (chapter 4) and climate change.

Malm begins his work with a critique of the concept of anthropocene which, by mobilizing the biological category of the human species, erases the relationship between humans and the differentiated responsibilities in the face of fossil combustion. The author also criticizes the tendency to present the anthropocene as a kind of fatal slope inscribed in human nature, in germ since the discovery of fire. Indeed, coal remains untapped by precapitalist societies, even when they control fire and have abundant coal reserves. Fossil exploitation requires difficult work, which in India will require the military work assignment of populations colonized by the British Empire (p. 34). Fossil combustion is a “condensed form of inegalitarian social relations” and is not part of human nature “since no human being has ever engaged in coal’s systematic extraction to satisfy his vital needs” (p. 45). In short, the concept of the anthropocene is relevant to the natural sciences when they seek to measure the damage of the social system to the natural system. But it is no longer so for social sciences, which seek to study and quantify human actions and their particular historical responsibilities.

Malm then seeks to understand “who started and spread the fire of the fossil economy […] why, where and how? » (p.26). He is interested in the reasons that led to the adoption of coal in the cotton industry. This conversion is not self-evident, because Watt’s invention must compete with free hydropower. It was not until 1830, more than 40 years after its invention, that coal began to play on a par with hydraulics (p. 83). However, this replacement is not due to a saturation of rivers (p. 85) or to a better technical efficiency of coal (p. 87). Coal remains more expensive and less efficient than hydraulics (even in 1866 when Jevons wrote The Coal Question, p. 150). 

According to Malm, the adoption of coal is explained by the quest for profit, because it makes it possible to squeeze the workforce more. By “cutting its spatial chains” (p94), coal has allowed capital to escape from the countryside and establish itself in the cities with a “reserve army trained in industrious habits”. Hydraulics, which were usually more efficient, were suitable for a context of small market production, but its fluctuations associated with those of the workforce made exploitation too fickle, especially in times of social conflict and reduction of working time. Cotton capitalism then turned to coal because “its objective is to ensure that the worker does as much work as possible in a given time” and that coal “offers greater power over the workforce” (p. 112), allowing it to modulate the pace of work and easily replace undisciplined workers. The passage from concrete time in hydraulics to what Malm calls the abstract time of coal, extracting production from the material and temporal contingencies of natural cycles, is according to him “characteristic of the spatio-temporality of the capitalist mode of production” (p. 131). It is the search for profit that causes the need to go beyond material limits; rather than anthropocene, the author prefers to speak of capitalocene

Regardless of the author’s thesis, these two chapters are worth reading. The discussion of the concept of the anthropocene is relevant and the story of the adoption of coal is fascinating, punctuated by period texts that sometimes strike by their prescience. Of course, the general thesis will not always convince. It is doubtful that another mode of social organization seeking to increase wealth would have not used the formidable source of calories represented by fossil fuels. Moreover, the author makes his own refutation by referring to coal mining in the USSR in what he calls “fossil Stalinism” (p. 49-55). Nevertheless, this story seems interesting to us because it traces the particular conditions that led to fossil fuel combustion and provides a new illustration of the classic concept of externalities in economics: the search for private profit does not always lead to the public good. It is regrettable, however, that the discussions on how human societies have extricated themselves from the temporality and spatiality of renewable energies have not been further developed (p. 131-139). As the environmental frontier rapidly approaches, the mismatch between economic infrastructure and climate objectives becomes a critical issue.

Jérôme Deyris, intern “Financial markets facing the climate challenge”

Malm, A. (2017). L’anthropocène contre l’histoire: le réchauffement climatique à l’ère du capital Éditions La Fabrique, 250p, 15€

For non french-speaking readers, in depth developments of Malm’s thesis can be found in his magnum opus : (2016) Fossil capital: the rise of steam power and the roots of global warming. Verso, 496p, 20£ ody>