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Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming

4.39  ·  Rating details ·  219 ratings  ·  39 reviews

How capitalism first promoted fossil fuels with the rise of steam power.

The more we know about the catastrophic implications of climate change, the more fossil fuels we burn. How did we end up in this mess?

In this masterful new history, Andreas Malm claims it all began in Britain with the rise of steam power. But why did manufacturers turn from traditional sources of p

Paperback, 496 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Verso (first published October 20th 2015)
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Average rating 4.39  · 
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I am entirely satisfied with having spent my birthday book token on ‘Fossil Capital’. It’ll most likely be one of the top five books I read in 2016. I have taken my time over it, both because I found it so thought-provoking and also because, in a spirit of laziness, I knew it would require a long and thorough review.

Malm’s main thesis is that to understand climate change we must go back to its roots. Specifically, the adoption of steam power during the British industrial revolution. Having not
Dec 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: energy
Caution: fossil history trap

[Through my ratings, reviews and edits I'm providing intellectual property and labor to Inc., listed on Nasdaq, which fully owns and in 2014 posted revenues for $90 billion and a $271 million loss. Intellectual property and labor require compensation. Inc. is also requested to provide assurance that its employees and contractors' work conditions meet the highest health and safety standards at all the company's sites].

The best par
Justin Evans
Oct 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-etc
I put off writing my review for too long, because this book was too good and I wanted to say too much. The chapter 'Fossil Capital' is the most gloriously ingenious thing I've read in years, utterly convincing, and horrifying. The climate crisis is undeniably caused by the economic system in which those writing and reading this review have thrived. There is no way for that economic system to solve the crisis without transforming itself at the same time.
Jan 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The core of this book is a detailed focus on the economics of the shift from water to steam, which is surprisingly interesting. There is some decent analysis of a few modern situations. Most of the rest was aggressively ideological in a way that struck me as so divorced from reality that I'm not quite sure how to react.
J.R. White
Aug 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a quite extensive, specific treatise, mostly on history regarding the transition from water to steam, and in parts how this can apply to the renewable energy conversation.

It describes matters such as: The relationship of labor to law; The constraints of locality on non steam power; The value of an industrious and disposable worker; Certain idiosyncrasies such as that of a drought.

I'm rating the first half of this book, which is excellent; around the middle, it transitions from a specific
Jul 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: school-reads
I had to read a large portion of this book for a college writing class that focused on Climate Change as its main concentration and not gonna lie, this book was both fantastic and confusing. It's definitely one of the denser and more technical books I have read in this course, but well worth the struggle. Malm provides substantial analysis on climate change and how humans aren't really the source of it, but the capitalistic society (and fossil fuel economy) that our global economy appears to dep ...more
Jul 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Really stellar analysis. I think the structure is initially off-putting because Malm goes so hard on the history of the adoption of steam (compared to alternatives) in the first half of the book, but it lays the groundwork for his analysis of contemporary problems with capital and climate change. I particularly like how he challenges assumptions on the types of emissions American industry is responsible for (forcing other countries to produce goods and emissions for our consumption) and how a va ...more
Jul 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It is difficult to appreciate the workings of something while you are a small cog in the works, especially if you are not allowed to stop and reflect as by doing so you threaten to cause the machine, of which you are a part (even if unconsciously) to fail and grind to a halt. In his book Andreas Malm lifts the reader out of the box placing them outside it from where they can see the whole as he deconstructs it before their eyes and explains how and why the machine works as it does. Fossil Capita ...more
Tony Parsons
Feb 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A fabulous look at the capitalist approach to fossil fuel, steam/wind & other alternatives fuels.
The frightening concept of what it is doing to the atmosphere, plants, animals & humans.
Lots of facts, charts, references.

Inventions my forte. History, PS, were many of my undergrad studies, economics was not exactly my cup of tea, but now I understand it a whole lot better.

I did not receive any type of compensation for reading & reviewing this book. While I receive free books from publishers & au
Sean Estelle
Sep 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This should be a crucial read for every climate organizer. It's dense political economy/history at times, but still manages to tell a compelling story about the transition from water-power to steam-power and how it laid the foundation for the current economic and political system we live under. Also makes one of the most compelling arguments I've read for centralized grid infrastructure and a global minimum wage as key demands for climate action.
Feb 26, 2017 marked it as to-read
Shelves: history, economics
Reviewed by LRB ...more
Mar 20, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: junk
A governmental bureaucrat acting as a medieval mercenary : he props the state for more power, and he gets a better pension plan for each land conquered and he can keep whatever he can plunder.
Will A
Jun 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book is half essential revisionist history, half worthless Marxian economics.

Chapters 2-10 make a fascinating critique of the standard economic history of the adoption of steam power. The orthodoxy says that steam power from burning coal was adopted because wages were high and coal was cheap. Malm blows this theory out of the water by showing, first, that the greatest expansion of steam power happened at a time of low wages and unemployment (but also strikes) during the 1820s and 30s, and,
Charles Heath
May 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a great work of history, one of the best that I have ever read. The work recounts the history of the era of British steam, and the transition from "the flow" (water as the prime mover) to "the stock" (fossil fuel, in this case, coal). For Malm, this switch from the flow to the stock helps to explain global warming and the socio-economic processes that give rise to distinctive choices of fuels.

Malm is an excellent writer, even for a Marxist! ; ) His primary source material provide fascina
Michael Clevenger
Aug 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
It takes work to make your way through this text, but the rewards are incredible.

Malm traces the history of the transition from the organic economy (E.A. Wrigley) rooted in the land and utilizing animal (including human) bodies to ultimately the transition to a fossil economy which operates outside the temporospatial in an inversion of the real (Jensen and McBay). He traces from late to early 19th century Britain to the development of the water wheel and its transition to the steam engine, how s
Apr 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
A book well worth reading although he may try and do too much with it, combining the very focussed and specific historical research of a PhD with an attempt to theorise as well as provide a contemporary economic and political analysis. It does make the book quite long and uneven and the theoretical section, in particular, gets shortchanged. I learned a lot from this book, in particular that technological choices are NOT made on the grounds of technical and economic efficiency, but on the grounds ...more
Dec 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Read this book in 2016 and it's absolutely brilliant. Answering how we ended up in this mess is crucial for developing developing steps to get out of it. Many of us intuitively understand that capitalism is the blame, but quite often we are bad at formulating arguments that go beyond the simple "you can't have infinite growth on a finite planet". Malm lies down a theory of fossil capital and clearly argues we have to look at production rather than consumers. Renewable energy isn't going to autom ...more
Blair Emsick
Feb 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a good book. Lately I find myself experiencing as much anxiety about climate change as I do fascination for it. And if you’re like me you find an odd comfort in books like these that have a 20 page doomsday introduction briefly elucidating Just How Fucked We Are but then spend 400 pages talking about water mills and labor relations in the 17th century and Jevons paradox and Kuznets curve, etc. etc. If you’re bored of anti-consumerist narratives this is a good book that gives you a taste ...more
Aug 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
I almost didn't finish, but I'm glad I did. The first half is a slog as Malm reviews the history of the rise of steam power in England during the first Industrial Revolution in tedious, painful detail. However, halfway through, he shifts to provide the most understandable explanation of capitalism I've ever encountered. He manages to convey the fundamental theoretical framework in a way that certainly doesn't dumb it down but is devoid of jargon and exactingly clear. He goes on to convincingly d ...more
Jan 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: verso
This is brilliant and necessary. Kind of a masterpiece.

Malm analyzes a wealth of facts and details in the historical record, reexamines economic theory in that light, and demonstrates persuasively that ever-increasing use of fossil fuels is a necessary consequence of capitalism (itself not an inherently inevitable and natural economic system but a historically contingent one).

Everyone should want to properly understand why our industrial society has necessarily spewed so much planet-warming ca
Connor Stack
Jul 14, 2017 rated it liked it
It seemed like two books. The first was a really detailed breakdown of when, why and how the steam engine overtook the water wheel. The second book was about global warming and capitalism in the modern era. There are lots of interesting ideas and facts, but he just goes into way too much detail for this to be interesting. I had to skim a lot of it to make it to the end.
Tiffany Katz
Jun 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Equal parts dense history lesson and rather amorphous political analysis, but inarguably crucial to climate justice organizing. Admittedly I could go 10 years without reading the word "steam" again. My brain aches.
Aug 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Stellar if overly long, but the redundant characters are made up for by Malm's talent for enchanting the reader. The fact that I can't recall whether or not I already knew the book's main theoretical points speaks to its fundamental soundness. Full review pending.
Is goes deep like a mine shaft.
Jul 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
A bit tough going at times for a general reader like myself, but an incredibly important book.
Aug 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I´ve probably ever read!
Zack M
Oct 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent. Review coming up.
Jan 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
History of the finest order, with superb lessons on technology, Marxist theory, and the environment.
Abhishek Basak
Aug 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
1st half very good, 2nd half quite terrible.
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Andreas Malm teaches Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden. He is the author, with Shora Esmailian, of Iran on the Brink: Rising Workers and Threats of War and of Fossil Capital, which won the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize.

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