Since the proclamation of the “green turn,” which occurred, not coincidentally, around the time of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, fossil capital has defended its dominance of global energy markets and even sought to lead the development of so-called green future markets. Certainly, if this corporate transition is realized, the driving force of our world will no longer be defined as fossil capital, since the value created will no longer come from burning fossil fuels. But, as scholar-activist Tatjana Söding argues in her contribution to the “Allied Grounds” text series, the destructive effects of fossil capital, especially on the working class and the environment, will continue to trouble even a world powered by renewable energy.
Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the United States as its declared victor, Francis Fukuyama wrote his essay “The End of History.” In it, the political scientist argued that the evolution of history was coming to an end as Western liberal democracy seemed poised to spread around the globe: the last man of history is the one who witnesses the “endpoint of humanity’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Fukuyama was not suggesting that no event of historical significance would ever occur again, but that “the ideal form of political organization” – liberal democratic states tied to market economies – had been reached and needed no further surpassing. Small adjustments, certainly, but no transformation.
While Fukuyama’s thesis has gained enormous popularity, it has also been met with a wave of criticism for its self-proclaimed Eurocentric conviction and idealistic stance. In the end, Fukuyama’s theses did not match the political developments that followed the publication of his essay: neither did liberal democracies like the United States come closer to Fukuyama’s ideal, nor did authoritarianism wither away. The end of history was not written after the Cold War.
The future horizon of capital
Unfortunately, as the world goes up in flames, liberal democracies and fossil capitalists alike are making another attempt to lock history into an ahistorical temporality. By pouring fossil capital – a term I will expand on below – into large-scale renewable energy projects, fossil capital, closely tied to the liberal forms of democracy we have come to know, is struggling to transform its business model in order to thrive in a greener future. While much attention has been paid to climate denial and delay on the one hand, and inadequate techno-optimist greenwashing campaigns on the other, little critique has been directed at fossil capital’s investment in a climate-neutral future. And why should it be?
As the latest publication from the International Panel on Climate Change reaffirms, the primary driver of the climate crisis is rising emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. As early as 2021, the International Energy Agency has stated that the only way to stay within the 1.5 degree global warming limit is to stop building new fossil fuel projects. We’ve known for decades the way to stop the climate crisis: cancel plans for new fossil fuel projects, switch to renewable energy infrastructure as quickly as possible, and invest in reforestation projects to suck carbon out of the air and prevent further warming. But global policy is doing none of that.
US-President Joseph Biden’s approval of the Willow Project, a decade-long effort to extract some 600 billion tons of oil from under the lands of Alaska’s North Slope, is just one example of paving the way for climate disaster. But the United States is not going it alone. Here in Germany, the Green Minister of Economy and Climate, Robert Habeck, has signed a 15-year deal with Qatar: starting in 2026, 2 million tons of liquefied natural gas will ensure Germany’s “energy security,” supposedly threatened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Shortly after announcing the sealed deal, Habeck backed the fossil fuel giant RWE to expand the Garzweiler II coal mine in western Germany, forcing police violence against thousands of activists and citizens peacefully protesting for the German government to live up to its climate commitments.
But to frame fossil giants like RWE as ignorant towards the future of renewable energies is false – and has, as I will argue here, important socio-ecological implications. Profits from coal, RWE CEO Markus Krebber announced in August 2022, are not part of the “core business” anymore. Instead, the company sought to invest more than 50 billion euros into the expansion of renewable energy infrastructure – an investment 30 percent larger than originally planned. As the extraction of fossil fuels is slowly but surely becoming less economical, green energy becomes the future horizon of fossil capital.
“Roadmap to fossil freedom”
Others are following suit: Germany’s third-largest utility, EnBW, has announced that it will exit the fossil fuel business earlier than required by German law: instead of completing the transition by 2035, EnBW aims to have its business model based on renewable energy by 2028. By 2022, EnBW’s profits from renewables will already account for more than a third of its total revenue, and will grow faster than its profits from fossil fuels. Finally, the Swedish state-owned energy company Vattenfall is drawing up a “roadmap to fossil freedom.” The energy giant, which operates in a coal mine in eastern Germany, has launched a marketing campaign centered on an upper-class imaginary that seeks to become the leader of a transition to renewable energy “within a generation.”
For many activists, scholars, and policymakers concerned with the foreseeable severity of the unfolding climate crisis, the news that fossil giants are finally turning green comes as a relief. However, this corporate transition from fossil fuels to renewables is not a foregone conclusion. If it is, the evidence for this transition is mixed. As Brett Christopher’s wrote in 2021, the returns on investment – the generator of capital for accumulation – from renewable energy remained lower than those from fossil fuels, hampering the transition. Two years later, looking at data from SolarPower Europe, Adam Tooze finds the opposite. Geopolitical shifts, national policies and the pressure to remain competitive in a globalized market are just some of the factors that caution us against seeing the transition away from fossil fuels as set in stone. What’s more, the goal of achieving ‘climate neutrality’ or a ‘net zero economy’ most often involves not a total reduction in emissions, but the production of negative emissions: by sucking carbon out of the air, the continued release of emissions into the atmosphere is intended to relieve industry of the pressure to fully decarbonize. Finally, while fossil capital invests in renewables, it continues to operate the fossil business for the time being.
With one foot in each market, it is too early to say that fossil capital will transition. After all, it is profit, not heroism, that fossil capital is after. Nevertheless, I would like to offer a critical reading of an energy transition orchestrated by fossil capital. My central thesis is that the DNA inscribed in fossil capital is one that undervalues nature, oppresses labor, relies on global inequalities, and hinders the development of radical forms of democracy. In short, I suspect that fossil capital’s attempt to paint its business model green will not serve to achieve the good life for all within planetary boundaries, a goal repeatedly called for by activists and scientists, and recently included in the IPPC’s Sixth Assessment Report. Rather, fossil capital’s adaptation to a government-induced demand for green energy must be seen as yet another attempt by fossil capital to continue the legacy of its power in a warming and dying world.
Moreover, it must be understood as yet another attempt to overcome the challenges posed to the fossil-fuel capitalist system and (neo)liberal democracies, and to end the writing of history. To counter this development, I argue for an energy transition implemented through a democratization of the workplace and society at large that does not rely on a homogenized or ontologized working class as an agent of change, but rather uses tactics of fossil capital disruption as well as discursive and experiential strategies to build allies for the overthrow of fossil capital. In order to argue against the end of history envisioned by fossil capital, it is first necessary to revisit its hour of birth.
Revisiting fossil capital’s history
In his magnum opus, “Fossil Capital,” Andreas Malm returns to 19th-century Britain to trace the dynamic that binds capitalism to fossil fuels. At the beginning of the century, Britain’s economy was based primarily on water power, a cheap and abundant resource. Factories were located near rivers and depended on the natural dynamics and limitations of water flow. By the end of the century, however, water mills had become an antiquity. The steam engine – developed by James Watt and first patented in 1784 – had taken over and reshaped the productive mode of the British economy. Contrary to the popular narrative of the Ricardian/Malthusian paradigm, Malm argues that the triumph of coal over water was neither purely economic nor ecological. He rejects the common assumption that population growth required more efficient production of the means of subsistence than water could provide, and that the majority of the population valued a shift from water to coal as the main driver of the economy as a relief from the pressures of poverty. One of the many pieces of historical evidence that Malm, a trained human ecologist, gathers to support his argument is the time lag between the development of the steam engine in 1784 and its widespread use in 1850.
Malm’s account tells the story of the transformation of the British economy from water to coal power as a story with deep social intentions and implications. The integration of the steam engine allowed capital accumulation to run on steroids. Economic production had previously depended on the presence of labor near rivers, and had fluctuated according to the irregular flow and geographic availability of water. With fossil fuels, capital production could be freed from concrete space and time: Fossil fuels could be brought to cities, where a more populous and largely impoverished society was willing to take on jobs and allow factories to operate without external circumstances hampering business. By removing the engine of economic activity from natural flows and placing it directly in the city, capitalists could centralize production, draw on a large reserve army of workers, and produce as much as was economically desirable – the capacity of a steam engine could be multiplied as much as seemed appropriate.
Thus, Malm argues that the replacement of the watermill by the steam engine must be seen as a move both to assert power over workers and to increase profit maximization for capitalist factory owners. The dual impetus for the shift to coal was social and environmental. Workers had been organizing since 1825 to fight for shorter working hours. By the time the Ten Hours Act was finally passed in 1847, water mills had become uneconomical. Factory owners could no longer call workers back to the machines once the water flow had returned to abundant power, no matter how late in the night it was. It became more expensive to build worker colonies along the rivers, and the isolated geography of such colonies made it easier for workers to press their demands on factory owners. Fossil fuels once and for all overcame these concrete space and time limitations of water as a prime mover. Coal supplies had no natural rhythm and could be transported to where it was best for business: the cities. Labor was abundant in urban areas, raising the barriers to labor strikes. Now that labor power had been limited – with workers put in their place –, they would rather submit to the dictates of capital than speak out and rebell, only to be replaced the next day.
The concentration of labor and energy in cities thus allowed capitalism to create an abstract space and time. Production was no longer tied to any particular geography or natural rhythm. Coal allowed capitalism to produce ever higher profit margins wherever and whenever. But not just profit: The production of CO2, ever more oppressive class relations and alienated working conditions are, as Malm writes, inscribed in the DNA of fossil capital. And as the latter accumulates, so do the former variables.
Greening social and ecological oppression
This brief excursion into 19th-century Britain allows us to distill some key qualities of fossil capital. First, it creates abstract space and time. Second, it seeks to maximize its control over labor, third, it allows for a high(er) degree of capital accumulation, and fourth, it creates CO2 pollution and natural destruction as a necessary by-product. Fifth, and finally, as an accumulation of all the previous factors, fossil capital creates global inequalities by extracting resources from one place for the benefit of another’s economy, and by moving factories to more populous locations abroad to further tighten its grip on labor. The energy that drives an economy has deep social and ecological implications: it shapes the class structure of a society, instills desires, and shapes its relationship to nature.
Applying the lessons of the history of fossil capital to the present, the question arises: Will the fossil giants’ restructuring of their business model toward renewable energy change or continue the characteristics of fossil capital? Toward the end of “Fossil Capital,” Malm writes that “fossil fuels alone have the properties that allow for the formation” of abstract space and time divorced from natural cycles. Malm continues: “It may well be that renewable energy can become as reliable and all-encompassing as fossil energy-when massively scaled up and supported by super-grids, overcapacity, intercontinental transmission, electricity storage, and all the rest – but in the meantime, we may do well to ask whether inaction on the most critical issue in human history is rooted in the constraints of self-expanding value.” Since these lines were written in 2013, I would like to hypothesize the socio-ecological and socio-economic consequences that might unfold if this “meantime” passes.
Fossil capital’s investment in renewable energy has created technological and socio-economic solutions to the limitations on capital accumulation imposed by energy sources tied to more concrete space and time, such as sunlight, water flow, or wind. Of course, these are still in their infancy, as evidenced by the continued reinvestment of capital in new fossil fuel projects. But, as Malm has demonstrated, a transition from one prime mover to another may eventually occur if the social and natural relations that can be formed by this change become suitable for the production of ever more surplus value. Four major developments can bring about such a transition enforced by fossil capital: the discourse of CO2 reductionism, flexibility mechanisms for renewable energy allocation, the normalized oppression of minorities and peoples of the Global South, and state legislation dictating climate neutrality.
A transition enforced by fossil capital
First, the reduction of the multiple causes and consequences of the environmental crisis to the variable of CO2 emissions can be traced back to a capitalist interest. As has been amply demonstrated, the broader socio-environmental catastrophe, often referred to as the crossing of the nine planetary boundaries, cannot be solved by switching to renewable energies alone. On the contrary, the intensification of natural resource extraction to finance the energy transition exacerbates land system change, freshwater depletion and biodiversity loss. Ignoring the need to address the capitalist agricultural model of factory farming and monoculture will do much the same damage – and increase the risk of zoonoses becoming just another tipping point. Many more examples could be given, but the point is clear: by reducing these intertwined crises to the single variable of CO2, fossil capital can fend off a broader attack on its business model and offer technocratic solutions that allow for the continued creation of abstract space and time and the accumulation of capital in a net zero world.
Such technocratic solutions are too numerous to list in their entirety. One important such development is what James Angel has called the “flexibility fix.” In a nutshell, the introduction of flexibility mechanisms aims to spread the demand for renewable electricity more evenly throughout the day, thereby reducing the load on the power grid during peak hours of energy consumption. Such mechanisms include large-scale battery storage, smart grid information and communication technologies, and financial incentives for electricity users to shift their consumption to off-peak hours. Following Malm, Angel convincingly analyzes how such flexibility measures – as the term immediately reveals – are just another attempt to create abstract space and time. Moreover, flexibility mechanisms reproduce the class divisions created by fossil capital and increase workers’ alienation from concrete time and social embeddedness. Angel hypothesizes that the lion’s share of those struggling to make flexibility measures work will be members of the working class, who will have to adjust their household chores to night time in order to take advantage of the financial incentives offered, or who will not be able to afford the electricity supply to charge their electric vehicle when needed. The social implications of this transition, which Angel sees beginning to develop in the UK, are enormous.
By switching to renewable energy, fossil capital intends to extend its rule not only over the working class of the Global North, but also over the minorities of the Global North and the working class of the Global South. As human geographers critical of “industrial-scale renewable energy and the grid-centric systems it powers,” as Alexander Dunlap puts it, have amply demonstrated, the siting and construction of renewable energy creates sacrifice zones. Since the basic logic of fossil capital continues to seek production targets that allow for cheap and abundant labor and consistently high levels of energy input, the transition to renewables draws a new map of global energy production and industrial manufacturing, but does not unhinge the fossil capitalist mode of production. Because of the inequalities produced by the legacy of fossil history, it tends to gravitate toward building renewable energy infrastructure in places in the Global South and/or inhabited by indigenous minorities, as the recent example of Vattenfall’s attempt to build its largest onshore wind farm to date in Sami territory in northern Sweden has shown. Because governments in the Global South are trapped in debt traps that can only be alleviated by allowing foreign capital to invest in their economies, and because peoples and minority groups in the Global South have been historically marginalized and oppressed by and within the capitalist system and have few means of organizing against the fossil capitalists’ transition to renewable energy, these often sunny or windy regions, though labeled ‘economically dormant,’ constitute a crucial gateway to accumulation in a net zero world.
Finally, the transition to renewable energy has become not only a government policy in some places, but also a lucrative market. Governments are pumping massive subsidies into the super-rich fossil fuel industry to incentivize fossil fuel capital to finance the transition to renewable energy. Since coal mining may become uneconomical in the future – either because CO2 pricing mechanisms will finally put enough pressure on the energy market to make the transition, or because coal mining will become less economical as production costs rise due to rising fossil fuel prices – fossil capital has long been looking for new markets to increase its revenues. Again, I do not want to imply determinism in the full completion of the energy transition. And even if the global economy were to cease burning fossil fuels in the future, there is ample scientific evidence to support the bleak prospect that the 1.5 degree target will already have been exceeded by then. Nevertheless, the struggle for climate justice does not stop at this critical crossroads. It must continue with every decimal degree of temperature rise.
Fossil capital may not be defined as fossil capital in the strict sense of the term after the transition to renewable energy as the driving force has been completed; after all, the surplus value generated will no longer come from the burning of fossil fuels. Nevertheless, I argue that the characteristics of fossil capital outlined above will remain the driving force of capital accumulation in a world powered by renewable energy. Since fossil capital, in the dynamics of its original accumulation, firstly created abstract space and time, secondly maximized its control over global labor power in order to enable a high(er) degree of capital accumulation, and thirdly created natural destruction as a necessary by-product, its switch to renewable energy must not be understood as a relief from these intentional by-products. Rather, it is a serious effort to modernize capital’s production of abstract space and time in order to keep the machinery running as it faces its greatest challenge yet: ‘the underproduction of nature.’ As has been made clear, however, the restructuring of fossil capital will not succeed in halting the climate crisis, nor in ending its rampage against ecosystems and livelihoods.
What can be done to ensure that the transition to renewable energy goes hand in hand with an anti-capitalist, working-class and holistic ecological agenda? A recent debate within the eco-left sheds light on this daunting question. In his latest book, “Climate Change as Class War,” human geographer Matt Huber makes a double move. On the one hand, the self-proclaimed ecomodernist attacks so-called degrowthers who argue for a downscaling of the material input of the economy. For Huber, every proposal from the broad degrowth community is designed to impose top-down austerity programs on workers: fewer boat cruises, fewer car rides, fewer individually owned technologies. Following Friedrich Engels and the broader Marxist tradition, Huber argues that it is the working class that is – and should be seen as – the agent of change. The logic underlying this argument is, at least for most on the left, commonsensical: First, because workers have suffered oppression and alienation, material and affective stratification within the capitalist system, they have an interest in overthrowing that very system. Second, because workers are a central productive force in the capitalist system, they are in a powerful position to bring about change. Thus, Huber’s vision of class struggle against the capitalist drivers of the climate crisis focuses on the democratization of the electricity sector as a crucial bottleneck for the broader eco-social transition.
A few responses to Huber are relevant to our discussion. First, it is a welcome critique of degrowth thinking that individual changes in consumption patterns will neither serve to overthrow a system nor solve the climate crisis. A decade of climate-conscious consumers buying organic products, eating vegetarian or vegan, and switching to electric mobility, while witnessing both CO2 emissions and global mean temperature rise, must suffice as proof that morally incentivized individual change will not serve to solve a problem produced by a specific social configuration: the capitalist system. But degrowth scholarship and the movement as a whole – though diverse and thus not reducible to a single voice and interpretation – should not be understood as a rallying cry for individual action. To do so is a wholly uncomplex, though increasingly popular, counterposition to that taken by ecomodernists and defenders of material inequality further to the right. Degrowth, at least when implemented with social and regional inequalities in mind, does not equate to austerity. It does not aim to give less to those who already have too little. Rather, degrowth aims to question relational inequalities: who really has too little, and of what?
Degrowth is Huber’s analytical antidote precisely because it does not homogenize the working subject. Instead, degrowth thought seeks to imagine a society in which the identity of the worker as we have come to define it no longer exists, because the very existence of the categories of worker and owner of the means of production is unjust. Thus, the claim that degrowth policies will impose austerity on workers homogenizes workers’ desires, which have been imbued with a capitalist logic. There is no evidence that boating is the only way that working members of society can find relaxation or adventure. On the contrary, mass tourism has often been understood as a capitalist rescue to make workers more productive and as a form of advertising relaxation that further induces alienation. But by assuming that workers’ desires and habits will remain unchanged, Huber makes a tactical move to avoid one of the most pressing questions in Marxist thought: what happens to our understanding of the worker as a subject of change when his material interests coincide with the capitalist system?
Huber reproduces a methodological nationalism that may allow workers in the Global North to take ownership of their workplace and its conduct. But little change is in sight for peoples of the Global South and minority groups in the Global North. Liberal democracies have invested a great deal of reform in making it easier for many workers to identify with the middle class project. By including large sections of the population in property ownership – be it a small house, a car or even a family business – large sections of workers in the Global North have little direct interest in overhauling the capitalist system. The working class would clearly benefit from socialist planning of the energy transition, but it shows little sign of being the revolutionary subject to initiate such a change. Neither as a single nor as a homogeneous actor. Finally, Huber’s thesis also suffers from CO2 reductionism: electrifying the economy while maintaining consumption levels does not serve to address the broader crisis of overshooting any of the nine planetary boundaries.
Challenging fossil capital
What does this analysis leave us with? Not with a call to bury our heads in tar sands because a renewable energy transition orchestrated by fossil-capital will not undo the social relations it has produced. Rather I’d like to suggest two strategies to ponder about. One follows the logic of modern Luddism and concerns the destruction of fossil capital. Another focuses on the discursive modes and availabilities of lived experiences highlighting the benefits of ownership by communities or workers have over the means of production.
Threatened by the introduction of textile machinery in the early 19th century, the Luddites destroyed this very machinery in order to save their jobs and income. The movement has been taken up in many modern writings: sometimes as a positive example of property destruction, sometimes as a negative one, for it is not metal technology that the Luddites should have rebelled against, but the capitalist logic that replaced skilled workers with machines to increase profit margins. While this critique remains valuable for strategizing workplace democracy in the energy transition, the destruction of property must not be limited to it. As this article has shown, the investment of fossil capital in renewable energy is more than likely to reproduce the very structures of oppression that produced and continue to depend on it. Thus, the destruction of this very form of capital seems a logical step.
It is obvious that fossil capital is not only in the hands of those who own the big energy giants that have long made a business out of extracting and selling fossil energy. It is also in the hands of banks and large consulting firms that have made money from fossil infrastructure, global corporations that have built their empires on cheap energy provided by burning coal, or companies that sell products made with fossil fuels. Nevertheless, starting at the point of production of fossil capital can make a difference.
Three forms of such destruction are proposed in the form of expropriation: freeing fossil capital from the social relations it has imposed; the physical destruction of pipelines or other fossil infrastructure, as Andreas Malm has written about and activists have long done; or divestment from the fossil industry. While all forms of destruction of fossil capital are advocated by only a minority of activist civil society, it is the last form that has suffered from declining popularity, while remaining a useful demand and action. While socio-environmental movements should act on all three forms of capital destruction, they should not lose sight of pressuring investment funds, (re)insurance companies, banks and universities alike to disinvest from the fossil fuel industry. Instead, funds should be channeled into the few but existing renewable energy companies that not only aim to achieve a net zero economy, but also to change the very socio-environmental structure that such an economy reinforces.
Horizons of abolition
In order to build sufficient social pressure for such a destruction of fossil capital and to promote the creation of democratically run renewable energy cooperatives, workers need to be convinced of the social and individual immaterial benefits to be gained from such a transformation of the workplace: democratic agency, co-ownership, improved working conditions and reduced working hours are just some of the many benefits that would result from an unraveling of capitalist class society, about which leftist thinkers have written extensively. Ultimately, however, discursive and experiential strategies to persuade workers to use their powerful position at the center of capital accumulation processes to act collectively to bring about change must go hand in hand with the assertion that the overall consumption of energy and resources, at least that of the Global North, must be reduced in order to achieve the good life for all within planetary boundaries.
It should be obvious by now that even if fossil capital were to switch completely to investing in and operating on renewable energy to reassert its dominance in a greener world, the end of history would not have been written. Fossil capitalism will be confronted by other crises that are already unfolding: the cost of living crisis, mass displacement in the Global South, and the sixth mass extinction are just three examples. These dynamics and turbulences open up spaces for action that could enable us to overthrow fossil capital, so that a much more internationalist, democratic and ecologically stable future can flourish on its ruins.
Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here: https://allied-grounds.berlinergazette.de