By Julian Williams and Terry Wrigley
Preface: we hope that this paper will open up discussion involving all those interested in Green research in education and others engaging with the global challenges of climate, pandemics, and inequalities. It arose from discussions Julian Williams and Terry Wrigley began through reading Andreas Malm’s work in relation to the University of Manchester “Green Research in Education Group”. The reviews of three of Malm’s books ensued, and were refereed by several of the MCA editors, who recommended this format of a single three-part paper to stimulate discussion, reaction, further reviews and so forth.
Andreas Malm’s contributions to the struggle to meet global challenges of climate, pandemic, and inequality
Part One: Anthropocene or Capitalocene: a reflection on Fossil Capital: The rise of steam power and the roots of global warming, by Andreas Malm (Verso, 2016)
Andreas Malm’s book Fossil Capital taught us a lot about Manchester, its history, and capitalism. His scholarly research takes us through the shift from water wheels to coal-powered steam engines as the major power source for Britain’s Industrial Revolution, and links the technological change to the class struggle between factory owners and workers in some surprising ways.
Styal Mill was a place the first author often took his kids, to visit the colossal water wheel and the factory it powered, the school built for the education of children employed in the Mill, and the village provided for the workers persuaded to relocate there. Situated about ten miles south of Manchester, at Quarry Bank, it became the largest factory in Britain and perhaps Europe. This is still great walking countryside (despite the airport nearby and the drone of traffic) and the car park for visitors is huge (no rail or bus link, you see). I suppose I should not forget to mention the church, and the quaint pub (now closed down for the duration) that served us Sunday roasts.
The industrial North of England is spattered with such places: they dominated the growth of capitalism in the early 19th century. Water power back then had no eco connotations: this was just how things made sense to production. Water power was cheap, but to harvest it for large scale production, you had to build your factory near fast-flowing rivers or wharfs. And then you had the problem of finding, attracting and servicing/housing, enough workers.
It is often assumed that steam engines were the most efficient technology; and that was certainly the hope of James Watt and his sponsor Matthew Boulton. Malm exposes this myth, and with it the notion that history is driven in any one-sided way by technological change. He shows that this technological determinism (known in Marxist theory as ‘productive force determinism’) simply doesn’t match the facts. Steam power took over 50 years to really take off, and its final adoption was a product of class struggle between factory owners and workers, not a simple issue of technical efficiency. The factory owners complained that coal was expensive whereas water was free. But they couldn’t collaborate in large-scale projects to optimise water flows and efficiency. Their attempts to import destitute child labour from the big city workhouses and enslave them under laws designed for apprenticeship were exposed and eventually thwarted by new legislation. Finally, it was the growing strength and militancy of trade unionism, including a strategy of sabotaging the steam engines (the Plug Riots, alias 1842 General Strike), which led the factory owners to progressively move production into urban centres, which required a switch to steam.
Malm charts the rise and fall of this technology and its communities in ways that are political through and through. He shows the key role of humans and, specifically, capitalist social structures in complex historic assemblages by which fossil energy became dominant, with climate change the ultimate outcome. Thus, Malm takes a stance which rejects two potential errors: the idea that human beings per se are the danger; and the belief that climate change can be solved simply through gentle persuasion and technical fixes.
Now to the reflection on Anthropocene and Capitalocene. These terms arise by analogy with the geological periods and epochs (hence the “-cene”: we are currently in the Holocene), but are used by ecologists to refer to this period as one where climate and other natural phenomena are now driven by humans (hence the “Anthropos” part). Both Andreas Malm and Jason Moore both insist on the word Capitalocene rather than Anthropocene to locate the true source of danger not in human activity per se, but in the recent period dominated by capitalism. Yet their explanations are quite distinct. Moore demonstrates that environmental damage is intrinsic to capitalism, pointing to the widespread deforestations of the 16th Century and the damage consequent on the conquest of the Americas. Malm argues that it took several centuries for capitalism to mature into a system, and for industrialism to become fully established. Although humans used coal prior to the 1800s, mainly to heat urban homes, the effect on global warming was negligible. Human CO2 production had made almost no difference in global warming – the impact of human beings we have to worry about started only in the 19th Century, when capitalism became addicted to fossil fuels, in its search to defeat labor, replace water power, and maximize profit. Malm proposes therefore to target our efforts not on humanity as a whole, but on capital; the term Capitalocene is the appropriate one that can support our struggle to save humanity, rather than blame it, he says.
What does this matter? Despite many reasons for thinking that capital has changed its attitude to labour and nature since the 1800s, there still might be good reasons to think that the essential dialectics Marx identified are key to understanding our current crisis (i.e., the struggle between labor and capital). We do at last see some splits between sections of capital, with some wanting to develop a green new capitalist economy (e.g., going back to wind-water-solar power) – but the profitability of this new industry compared to oil and gas is in doubt. In chapter 15 of his book, Malm points to a reduction of investment in renewable energy and decisions by companies such as BP and Shell that indicated fossil fuels were still much more profitable. It is not enough to demonstrate that renewables are cheaper; the key issue for capitalism is profit rather than efficiency or cost, and certainly not the ‘public good’. It becomes clear from the later chapters of Fossil Capital that a moral appeal to big capital will not prevent global warming. The lesson from Malm’s historical study might be that the social and political struggle between capital and labor will be decisive.
These arguments are taken up in Malm’s succeeding books which will be the subject of our further reviews in part 2 and 3. In Fossil Capital, he lays the foundation through a detailed and thoughtful history.
Our aim is to provoke thinking about Malm’s works in the context of critical pedagogy for the “eco-crisis.” Two more such reviews now follow
Part two: The Progress of this storm by Andreas Malm (Verso, 2018)
Andreas Malm is credited with coining the word Capitalocene to replace Anthropocene. This is a crucial distinction: in any struggle, he argues, it’s important to identify the enemy, and the biggest block to keeping Earth habitable is not species humanity, but the carbon fuel multinationals, indiscriminately funded by finance capital, and their class allies who support them in the political struggle for power.
Malm’s 2016 book Fossil Capital is a huge and scholarly history of “the rise of steam power and the roots of global warming.” The Progress of this storm is quite a different book – a philosophic challenge to the fashionable theories which confuse our efforts to respond to the crisis. The Progress of this storm delves into the ontological and ethical confusions within social theory. Malm launches a fierce critique of the newly fashionable “posthumanism,” including various brands of “new materialism.” This begins with criticism of social constructionist views of nature, involving a denial of anything beyond our vision.
Malm cites Kate Soper: “It is not language that has a hole in its ozone layer,” and critiques the idea that human impacts on nature have effectively abolished it, so that we should no longer make analytic distinctions between society and nature. Recognizing that nature is not separate from human society does not mean it has been submerged out of existence. He uses the example of the oceans damaged by plastic waste: “The oceans are in a different state, but they are with us as much as ever.”
The prime target of the early chapters, however, is Bruno Latour and his followers for their reconceptualization of agency.
Malm argues that a useful starting point is to ask who is responsible for the global catastrophe, what are its causes, how will it be fixed, and by whom. This is what is at stake here – a matter of social analysis and ethics, but most importantly practical action, or praxis. What we are dealing with is how to understand and engage with the global crises that are destroying us.
Latour has produced many stimulating ideas over the years, including the hybrid, a concept at the core of this debate: Latour’s notion of how humans interact with the rest of nature, including inanimate objects, is a “hybrid,” which – as an “actant” – produces an effect. The notion variously expressed as hybrid, assemblage, constellation, etc. can produce valuable insights, but the problem is its flattening of the relationship, so that we cannot distinguish the way different components contribute. With Latour and his followers, actants easily become “agents” and all distinct powers of material forces and human agency are flattened. Latour provocatively argued that “objects have as much agency as persons do – for do not hammers hit nails?” As Malm explains, this reduces the meaning of agency to merely “making some difference to a state of affairs.” In other words, agency becomes nothing more than causal effect.
Malm directly challenges various “new materialist” thinkers for “liquefying the wall between the human and the nonhuman”:
i) Tim Morton, who “likes to compose sentences such as ‘the car winks at me knowingly’” and who believes that oil has “dark designs of its own”;
ii) Jane Bennett, for refusing to discuss blame or responsibility when power grids break down;
iii) Karen Barad who insists that “agency is not aligned with human intentionality or subjectivity,” and berates Arendt for insisting that humans “are bearers of an exceptional kind of power”;
iv) Val Plumwood who claims that rivers, volcanoes, mountains and trees have “goals” or “intentions”
v) the confusion behind Rosa Braidotti’s claim that “the earth is a political agent.”
Crucially, for Malm, the concept of agency requires human intention, or at least the possibility of forming plans, creating obstacles, transcending habits, or saying “no”. To deny this on the grounds of continuity between ourselves and the rest of nature – that we are all matter – indicates a failure to appreciate the emergence of new properties from a structure, and in particular the emergence of the human mind from animals with only rudimentary forms of toolmaking and communication. Though some animals “approximate certain features of language… only humans could create capitalism.” The missing concepts are emergence and qualitative change.
To be muddled about agency is to deny responsibility and the capacity for political action. And, as Malm insists, there could not be a worse possible time for would-be philosophers to disengage from human responsibility:
It is a bad day to call it a day for radical politics.
The environmental crisis is at the heart of this book, and a constant referent as Malm argues his philosophic case:
If society has no properties that mark it off from the rest of the world – what we insist on calling nature – how can there possibly be such an awful amount of environmental destruction going on? (p. 59)
Malm recognizes that human actions in the past have enduring effects, and do not require an immediate act of will.
There is nothing posthuman about the warming condition. It is characterised by the repercussions of human history befalling every ecosystem on this planet. (p. 115)
He recognizes that human beings do not always act intentionally, and that social configurations such as businesses appear to destroy the environment without explicit intention to do so. There is always the excuse that ‘they are only trying to make money’ and they argue that it is the responsibility of the State to regulate level playing fields so that they can do so without destroying the environment.
But, Malm reminds us, when we try to stop global warming, we meet conscious resistance. Writing in 2018, he described Trump’s presidency as the symbol that “a particular fraction of the capitalist class – call it primitive fossil capital – has gained direct control of the most powerful state in world history.” (p. 105)
To deny the human capacity for agency at this present time is inexcusable. Malm’s book eloquently and persuasively demands that we humans must shoulder the responsibility preventing the damage that a section of our species has caused. “The rodents, bears, birds and butterflies of this planet” will be major beneficiaries of a cooler earth, but (despite the political illusions of some “posthumanists”) these species “have no capacity to make it happen.”
Part 3: Corona, climate, chronic emergency, by Andreas Malm (Verso, 2020)
Following Fossil capital (in which he minutely details the beginning of climate change with industrial capital’s addiction to fossil fuels in the early 19th Century transfer from water to steam power) and The Progress of this storm (in which he clears the theoretical ground of post-structuralist theory in favor of a Marxist analysis fit for the eco-movements), Malm’s concern here in “Corona, climate, chronic emergency” is to situate the pandemic alongside climate heating and ecocide as a crisis of capitalism as well as humanity and its relationship with the globe and itself.
The book’s approach lies somewhere between those of the first two. The early chapters do a lot of work on the similarities and differences between the pandemic crisis and global heating. Initially the book contrasts State responses to these crises. (There is forensic detail reminiscent of Fossil capital.) Malm looks at various plausible reasons such as the suddenness of the outbreak – which he discards, since there have been ample scientific warnings about potential pandemics. The most convincing reason is that Covid-19 did not just circulate around the global South but hit at highly developed economies in capitalism’s heartlands.
Malm does the research, revealing the evidence from the scientists, and reprising their warnings and predictions about the growing crisis of zoonotic infections over the last 20 years, placing this alongside the evidence about accelerating abuses of the environment and biodiversity. He builds a powerful narrative linking capitalism to deforestation to disease – a direct parallel to the narrative of global warming. The world’s dwindling forests are now very close to human habitation and transportation and deforestation brings about a number of ecological evils: soil erosion, monocultural agriculture, pressure on ecosystems. The destruction of animal forest habitats puts pressure on animal populations while bringing them into closer contact with human settlements, encouraging viruses to jump between species.
He explains how Ebola had broken out repeatedly but on a small scale in West Africa until, at the instigation of the World Bank, the government of Guinea opened the country to international agribusinesses which destroyed the forests to plant trees for palm oil. This almost turned Ebola into a pandemic. The dramatic speed of forest clearance in Malaysia and Indonesia are major concerns (these two countries amount to 90 percent of the world’s palm oil, involving extreme exploitation of workers crowded into camps, sometimes in debt bondage).
The destruction of bat habitats is another particular concern (especially for Covid). Malm explains that bats (Chiroptera) fly frenetically, with body temperature rising to 40°C (104°F), then crowd tightly together. They become infected with viruses without suffering themselves, but when distressed, they shed their viral loads to factory farmed animals, or directly to humans. They are particularly good carriers of Corona viruses – the source of SARS and MERS, as well as Covid.
The medical and environmental story is intimately tied to recent developments of global capitalism, and Malm points to ways in which the 1% are generating much of the problem. This is not only about zoonotic transfer. The book raises concerns about the popularity of primate meat as a luxury food of the rich. Bushmeat such as pangolin (then said to be priced at 100s of dollars a kilo) has become a luxury food of the superrich. Indeed, the luxury taste for rare meat, like the hunger for ivory, is a driver of species extinction, because the price of goods go up with rarity, which makes the delicacy even more attractive for the rich. Malm refers us to studies showing this link with extinctions.
But the chief culprit is the “no holds barred” predatory capitalism of the multinationals, because they tend to operate outside of regulation or law (the escape from taxation being one obvious sign, but its mal effects are much wider). China is an important focus, because global capitalist tendencies are manifest in concentrated forms there including the fastest urbanization the world has ever known, with devastating environmental consequences, and wet markets as linked to the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. China has also become a major hub of global air travel.
This is a powder keg in human-environment relations, but also capital-labor relations: an interwoven double crisis which Malm models by mapping onto these two dimensions of the climate crisis (see Figure 1). It seems likely then, that quite independent of other climate crises, we might be fighting pandemics on a more or less permanent basis. The future may not be “getting back to business as usual” but that “this is the new business as usual.”
A map from Malm (2020) p102 under the caption “A dialectical model of climatic disaster” suggests capitalist development engages root causes of climate risks (fossil fuel lock-in, growth, dforeststation) with colonialism, neoliberalism, and uneven/combined development to produce a disastrous confluence of impacts an unsafe conditions.
The book returns to the theme of differences in the ways that States have responded to both climate change and the pandemic. Remember the days when US and UK electorates were persuaded “we” couldn’t afford a Green New Deal, or free WIFI for all, or…? Remember the claim that there is no “magic money tree”? This despite the bail out for business and capital in 2008-9 that we were led to believe “we” all had to pay for with austerity?
And the sums being magically invested in propping up businesses-as-usual are 1000s of times greater than penny pinching plans to deal with climate change (and still are of course). In the pandemic the State has suddenly been able to see a role for almost all the measures deemed impossible for the eco-crisis before 2020 (nationalization of rail, investment in health, free technology, payments to stay home, accommodating homeless people … even funded health measures for anonymous, illegal immigrants). Of course, the attitude of valuing business above human wellbeing has continued, noticeably under governments such as the UK, USA, and Brazil. To give just one example, the funding during lockdown in the UK was channelled through businesses that were supported to furlough workers. But there was almost no funding for workers who were quarantined to allow them to stay at home, so the poor had to starve and quarantine, or go to work while they should be in quarantine. (And this led to many workers switching off their quarantine ‘app’.)
One big issue Malm attends to is the need for investment from the North to transfer South – to protect the forests, biodiversity, crop production, environments, and, now, let’s add vaccination of the global population. Both pandemic and climate crises are clearly global concerns (in cause and effect) and demand coordinated, global actions and institutions.
Another issue is getting a grip on the freedom of global capital and markets to do as they please (i.e., anything to accumulate capital), so there is a pressing need for global regulation of markets and production by States and by international collaboration between States.
In the final chapter, Malm’s narrative changes gear to the measures populations and States will need to take to regulate and redirect capitalism. Quite unexpectedly – and the argument is still only embryonic – he insists on comprehensive and rigorous State control, a move which will surprise many involved in progressive social movements.
He argues that the State may have to dictate the closure of fossil-capital and the redirection of enterprises into carbon capture and negative carbonization technologies, probably involving some kinds of nationalization (nationalizing multinational corporations internationally?) as well as factoring in the costs of pollution and so forth, into all production. The argument here is vague though indicative.
This begs a crucial question, however: what kinds of popular pressure and movements will be needed to get the State to enforce such measures, rather than continuing its customary path of supporting big business and protecting fossil capital?
The discussion we had around activist tactics was very much about legality/illegality, and ‘Just stop oil”, and so proportionality and present moment tactics (predominating in the UK). Our MainStreamMedia (MSM) is Murdoch, so does not even engage (they want to replace the BBC with Fox, so…) but many people on the street get it (along with a lot else). We are surely heading into a winter of discontent, economically, and it is beginning to look highly politicised, too.
Interestingly, perhaps, Malm’s ‘How to blow up a pipeline’ has been selected as preliminary reading for a discussion in an Environmental Network I belong to: the meeting is to discuss what kind of actions by environmental activists should we encourage/support. Implicitly, given the “Just stop oil” protests in London (and maybe Palestinians action on Elbit armaments production), concepts of peaceful, legal, and illegal or even violent protest are up for discussion. Our review didn’t cover Malm’s case studies of Gandhi/nationalism, Mandela/Apartheid, and MLK/black panthers. He argues the pacifist wing was really only effective when complemented by the illegal threat of violence; when this became a real possibility – he suggests – our rulers became amenable to negotiation to protect the ultimate interests of capital. From what I saw this contrasts with the whole approach in “The ministry for freedom” (caveat: which I have not yet read).
Thanks for the additional comment plus your clear summary of Malm’s work. When I raised this topic with a colleague last evening, she suggested a novel titled “ministry of the future.” I check out reviews and it occurs to me that this scifi fiction, crammed with actual empirical material, could make a useful curriculum item, at least in higher ed. I attach one of several reviews. Seems like a thoughtful book. (oops, the link button is not functioning for me. Just google the Ministry of the Future + review
Mike: you go straight to the politics, where all possible solutions have to be found. Let me mention that Malm, in the ‘How to blow up a pipeline’, takes up this question: he refers to the USSR’s adoption of “war communism” in an effort to cope with post revolutionary crises of invasion, collapse, starvation etc. He (Malm) suggests something similar may be needed/inevitable by/for States (of left or right) in the face of the escalating eco-crises. My coauthor and I played this down in the review, thinking it might be difficult territory for those who haven’t read Malm.
The world institutions are appallingly weak, of course (the budget of WHO approximates to a low level NHS regional trust in the UK, I read, with less institutional power, perhaps). This leaves the world in thrall to corporations (see ‘Ecocide’ by David Whyte, 2020) who demand all the rights of a person (they have it under US law- they have constitutional rights of a ‘person’ but without any responsibilities: they evade these by liquifying assets off-shore, disappearing, socialising their debts, and reappearing as new persons – i’m wondering how to do the same 🙂 . My brother said if the corporation were a real person, they would be declared criminally insane.
But there are limits to corporate power – there is hope in the opposition of some states to their freedoms (e.g. states confronting them, international agreements on tax, state loss of subsidies for fossil fuels, and maybe like China the state take-over of finance).
There is so much to be discussed in all this. The important messages in Malm’s work was the historic loss of renewable to fossil driven by class war and profit, the bankrupcy of post-modern thinking, and … maybe how pandemic prepares us for a new phase of politics.
To me a major question is “Which State?” or “What State?” It is entirely unclear to me what sort of world system, even one as controlling as the Chinese State, could organize the needed changes.
How are you thinking about this issue?
Helena, hi. we noticed some major style/genre differences in the three books we reviewed. But Im not sure what Andreas Malm’s “strategy” is, or if he had one. Also I haven’t read White skin, black oil (sounds resonant with Franz Fanon?) I did contact him but he was on leave – I will maybe try to reach him again for comment on all this thread including maybe asking him what he is trying to do. Meantime, Im curious if you would like to review the ‘White skin ..’ book with me? I gotta say I get really annoyed when people label me ‘white’ … some of our team are working on this and similar questions right now.
Thanks for this extensive review bringing Andreas Malm’s work to our attention. I was wondering who he is and looked him up; he’s written some things that go a bit beyond “a pressing need for global regulation of markets and production by States and by international collaboration between States, for example How To Blow Up a Pipeline, from Verso and then in 2021 White Skin, Black Oil from Haymarket. It sounds as if he is reaching continually for a more mainstream/English language readership, which makes strategic sense. Is this your sense of what he’s trying to do?
Very interesting piece. A great introduction to Malm’s work. I like the discussion of agency; Latour et al. delete a key tool for responding to problems in hiding their provenance by conflating things and people. We need to identify responsible persons and hold them accountable. It’s funny (in the bad way) how reactionary impulses seem to reliably surface even among those who would consider themselves progressive.