Other writers have told modern history through the life of a particular commodity whether it be sugar, coffee or, more immediately relevant for our purposes, coal and oil.1 By the same token, the rise of
1 S. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (London: Penguin, 1986); A. Wild, Black Gold: A Dark History of Coffee (London: Harper Perennial, 2005); B. Freese, Coal: A Human History (London: Arrow Books, 2003).
contemporary forms of capitalism is closely connected to the large-scale exploitation and use of fossil fuels. Oil, coal and, more recently, natural gas have provided the basic input to all of the production upon which our societies have been based.
Lewis Mumford wrote in the 1930s that the contemporary world should be understood as embodying a form of 'carboniferous capitalism'. By this he meant that it was based on the extraction and use of dead plants laid down in the carboniferous period, transformed through long geological processes into coal. In other words, the carbon those plants had extracted from what might be called 'ancient sunlight' was turned into a source of easily obtainable and highly intensive energy.2
War, social struggle, modern industry and mass transportation are intimately related to the access, use and distribution of fossil fuels. Think of resource conflicts in the Middle East, including wars in Iraq in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century; the rise of car culture from the 1920s; and, way before that, struggles to improve the social condition of people blighted by the industrial revolution, described so vividly by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England.3 These are just a few illustrations of how fossil fuels have come to define who we are, where we have come from and how we live.
But let's go back further in time. In 1769 James Watt made decisive improvements on Newcomen's original steam engine design. During the nineteenth century, this technology was used to industrialise large parts of the world, heat homes and offices, and move more and more people round faster by train. Oil has assumed an equally central role in transforming society. Historian Eric Hobsbawm argues:4
New raw materials, often only to be found outside Europe, therefore acquired a significance which was only to become evident in the later period of imperialism. Thus oil already attracted the attention of indigenous Yankees as a convenient fuel for lamps, but rapidly acquired new uses with chemical processing. In 1859 a mere two thousand barrels had been produced, but by 1874 almost 11 million barrels (mostly from Pennsylvania and New York) were already enabling John D. Rockefeller to establish a stranglehold over the new industry by the control of its transport through his Standard Oil Company.
2 L. Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, 1934).
3 F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (London: Penguin, 1987).
4 E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital (London: Abacus), p. 59.
Energy use and economic growth
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