Current Affairs

Oil Age

How one commodity explains the rise of our modern age…and now threatens to destroy it.

You probably know by now that one single commodity has been primarily responsible for your past and present—and will absolutely determine your future. One resource above all built the modern world, sustained it, and now threatens to destroy it.

Even as more people have come to worry about the climate crisis, there’s still undue silence around fossil fuels themselves. We don’t talk enough about their role in society, how they impact our daily lives, and what it might mean to live without them. There’s a tacit assumption that we can throw up some solar panels and nuclear reactors and everything will generally stay the same as our current petro-economy, just with lower carbon emissions. To be fair, other commodities—like corn, cobalt, cotton, water—have also flown under our radars more than they should, whether they’re components of our computer screens or the element composing much of our bodies. And while these other commodities are undoubtedly important, their production and distribution today completely depend on fossil fuels. Everything leads back to that stygian corpse fuel: carbon energy. Because of global ecological collapse, runaway climate change, and the death and destruction that accompany them, it’s critical to understand the role that fossil fuels have played in the physical and political construction of our civilization.

For many in the Global North, buying gasoline is the most we ever directly engage with fossil fuels. Our extensive dependence on them and their central role in society remains hidden below the surface, so to speak, pushed to the fringes where marginalized people and animals suffer their consequences most acutely. But when you dig into their place in modern history, it’s hard to overstate how instrumental fossil fuels have been in shaping, well, everything. How we use them—or don’t—could determine the rest of humanity’s time on earth and will absolutely mould the contours of future civilizations and their economies. As we know, we have to stop using fossil fuels immediately or they will continue to denude the world of what makes it unique among all other known planets in existence: its habitability. But if we’re going to build the movements and win the political fights necessary to get rid of fossil fuels we must understand one question in particular: How did we get here? 

Art by Heather Milligan.

Early 19th Century: Coal and Labor

In the late 18th century, Britain sparked a revolution. The fuel that caught the spark and subsequently burst into flame was coal. This wasn’t the first time or place in which humans had put it to use: Coal, after all, is just a particular kind of dark rock made over millions of years from compressed plant matter. It can be found lying around on the surface of the earth, or stretching out in seams deep underground. People in ancient China used coal almost 6,000 years ago as ornamentation, and to smelt copper. Ancient Greeks also used it to fuel metalworking. Romans used it to heat public baths and the villas of the wealthy. Anglo-Saxons and Aztecs used it for fuel. Ancient Britons used it in funeral pyres. But its use in the modern era has been very different. 

In the 18th century, a mixture of historical factors combined to make the rediscovery of coal exceptional. With unprecedented sophistication in maritime, infrastructure, and warfare technology, combined with burgeoning urbanization, a global trade network, vast natural resources seized at gunpoint from indigenous Americans, plus a large, disposable labor force toiling within a ruthless capitalism embedded in an entrenched caste system, the dynamite of an industrial revolution just needed one final ingredient to explode: the very dense energy contained within fossilized biomass like coal. 

The first half of the 19th century was a bloody drama engineered by the Anglophone world, erecting soot-stained cities larger than any that had come before and finding new ways of deploying those black rocks to extract ever more capital from lands and bodies. Coal fed the engine driving a new mechanized imperialism. When paired with new inventions like electrification, steam engines, and power looms, coal changed everything. It enabled companies to extract and transport resources much faster and more intensely than ever before, and it also allowed managers to regiment labor with a brutal new efficiency. River-powered mills had relied on natural rhythms, the ancient tempos of seasonal swells and darkness more suited to the bodies of workers. Coal empowered managers to circumvent these hindrances to production, enforcing longer, harsher working hours that sought to transform living humans into machines. 

Steamships and railroads had an enormous impact on the mechanization of everything, and were also key elements in the oppression of both enslaved Africans and Native peoples. In 1824, an Englishman named Edward Knight Collins joined his father in the shipping business, as they attempted to seize market dominance in the lucrative business of moving cotton from the southern United States across the world. The Collins Line built one of the world’s first fleets of coal-powered steamships and played an important role in moving the commodities produced by slave labor to markets in the Northeast and across the Atlantic. Between the 1820s and 1830s, the rail industry, intimately linked with the burgeoning coal industry, erupted in the United States, as some of the first rail companies—like B&O, Mohawk & Hudson Railroad, and Saratoga & Schenectady Railroad—began to stretch their iron fingers westward, laying the foundation of the transcontinental railroad. These early rail companies moved passengers more quickly and comfortably across large distances, helping to enable settlers’ westward expansion.     

But the introduction of coal—and the machines it could power—had a complex impact. As Columbia University professor Timothy Mitchell has illuminated in his book Carbon Democracy, coal helped fuel more egalitarian politics at the heart of the new carbon-based empire. Even as coal improved the ability of governments to subjugate land and people, and enabled managers to enforce more brutal hours, it also helped empower some workers to fight for better conditions. Coal mines, for example, provided miners the intimacy necessary to build strong relationships on which solidarity movements depend. They also provided privacy from bosses, allowing miners to conspire to coordinate strikes. The worker density of both water- and coal-powered factories further facilitated the kind of density, numbers, and close collaboration that allowed workers to organize against managers. It was miners and factory workers who built some of the first collective action labor movements in the modern world. And since miners in particular were central to the flow of this increasingly important energy source, a miner strike could halt a factory across the country or leave buildings unheated in cold winters, giving workers greater material power to demand better wages and conditions.   

The first major factory strike of the Industrial Revolution (in the United States) took place in 1824, the same year that Edward Knight Collins joined his father’s shipping business. Pawtucket, Rhode Island was home to some of the country’s first textile mills, where factory owners, tired of the unreliability of child labor (dead kids do tend to gum up the works), turned to young women to run their looms, which included the newly invented, mechanized “power-looms.” While many such machines were initially powered by water, they would soon benefit from steam power and electricity, and the distribution of their products depended on coal-powered steamships like the Collins Line moving commodities quickly across many miles. 

Thinking young women workers would be easily cowed, managers announced an expansion of the workday by an hour and a pay cut by a quarter, specifically targeting the power-loom weavers. But the women were not daunted, and 102 workers closed off the entrances to the factories. They had the support of the community, which had been waging a 30-year war against the town’s industrialization. Their collective action terrified the mill owners, who had been conspiring with one another in the opposite direction: to reduce wages in concert. On the last day of the strike, the women (likely) burned down one of the factories. The next day, the owners agreed to negotiate. The success of the strike set off waves of similar actions by workers in other industries. 

But despite the strikes, industrialization—driven by a wealthy owner class and the promise of the new capital that coal and cotton could deliver—continued to spread over the United Kingdom and the northeastern United States, creating packed and filthy cities, mines, and factories. 

Art by Heather Milligan.

Latter 19th Century: Civil War and Robber Barons

New steamship technology was still primitive, and in 1854 Collins lost his wife and two children in the wreck—along with some 300 other passengers—of one of his coal-powered ships. After several other disasters, and due to its dependence on prodigious amounts of coal, the Collins Line struggled to obtain profitability. To survive, the company depended on federal subsidies of $385,000 a year. But even this was insufficient to maintain the business, so Collins demanded a doubling of the annual subsidies. Typical myth-making about the Industrial Revolution casts the captains of industry as pioneering protagonists singlehandedly building whole new industries, taming the wild frontiers or the chaotic seas. But in reality, their carbon-based empires were dependent on a federal government sanctioning slave labor, worker exploitation, and violent seizure of land, not to mention handing out loads of cash. The government was the powerful adhesive holding together a grotesque new fossil fueled-economy of wealth and misery.

Like the steamship companies, the Pawtucket factories and other textile mills in the Northeast also depended on the vast quantities of cotton picked by enslaved African people. Even as, worldwide, old forms of enslavement, serfdom, and indentured servitude were (mostly) coming to an end, and new forms of waged exploitation were taking their place, the atrocious system of chattel slavery remained intact in the United States. It was too lucrative for too many business interests. 

Though the North benefited from Southern slavery, the new form of mass politics that arose partly from processes unleashed or enabled by industrialization continued to create openings for more egalitarian values to gain power, and helped push the government in a more moral direction. Different forms of slavery have existed for millennia, ranging from war captives to land-bound serfdom to chattel slavery. And though some form of abolitionist values have coalesced at the fringes of many different civilizations, they rarely gained power sufficient to abolish forced labor for extended periods. The caloric limits of complex agriculture—the resources it can yield per person—simply advantage stratified, unwaged labor and broad poverty. Before petroleum-synthesized and mechanized production, agricultural yields were more fixed. Ancient agrarian empires typically stratified into sharp hierarchies with small ruling classes hoarding the harvests; they could justify and reproduce this stratification by organizing major public works projects and building more coordinated, effective militaries to spread their dominion.

While adhering to some of the old imperial laws and stratified classes, the new industrial mode of production also helped crack open this ancient lineage of subjugation. It was hardly the only factor in ending slavery: The work of abolitionists, particularly Black abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and William Still, was obviously more critical to the cause. But the new mass politics coming out of factories and coal mines, combined with the flood of resources now more broadly available to larger, denser populations, and the shifting power relations between new wealth, old wealth, and popular movements played an important role in bringing down slavery. It was not moral force alone that won the North its victory. It was also industrial force. 

The Civil War was, in economic terms, a battle between an agrarian mode of production and an industrial one. Slavery ended primarily because of the hard work and sacrifice of abolitionists, but also because the burgeoning fossil fuel industrial economy could get by efficiently on waged labor, accommodate more dense populations, and produce better weapons carried by more soldiers than an agrarian one. At its peak, the Union army was double the size of the Confederate army. The Union was also over three times richer than the Confederacy, more than twice as populous, enjoyed an agricultural advantage (while Confederate states led the nation in tobacco and rice yields, the Union produced more calorie-dense, strategically valuable commodities like wheat, corn, livestock, and horses), and had 10 times as many factory workers in five times as many factories. Abolitionist Theodore Parker would write a phrase that has echoed from the pulpits and podiums of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr and Barack Obama: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one […] And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” In the case of the Civil War, the arc of the moral universe did not bend by itself: It was bent by the sacrifice of black abolitionists and organized labor, and was certainly helped in its bending by coal, artillery, and industry.  

Victories for liberty were short-lived. The latter half of the 19th century was characterized by consolidation of the continent’s stolen resources, thanks to the rise of a metastasizing industrial oligarchy and the violent conquest of the west. Industrialists like John D. Rockefeller (oil), Andrew Carnegie (steel), Cornelius Vanderbilt (rail), and J.P. Morgan (finance) swallowed up huge fortunes—all dependent on fossil fuels and valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars (in 2019 terms). Rockefeller and the others used their money to bribe government officials and to build price-fixing monopolies and trusts. They came to rule the government and economy of the Gilded Age. As a result, wealth inequality skyrocketed. As Colin Woodard writes in American Character, by 1890 “the richest 1 percent of Americans had the same combined income as the bottom 50 percent and owned more property than the other 99 percent.” In 1905, “two-thirds of the Senate was under railroad control” as rail corporations funneled wealth to influence policy.

This growing inequality was partly thanks to fossil fuels, which could be easily concentrated, controlled, and transformed into liquid capital by a small management class. But, again, industrialists did not single-handedly build a social Darwinian nightmare. The federal government played its own role in suppressing workers and activists. While corporations hired violent strikebreakers, the government provided a repressive police and military presence to stem the rising swell of populist, egalitarian values. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, for example, saw federal troops and militias murder dozens of striking workers. Fossil fuels, guns, and industry may have provided the material forces that defeated the Confederacy, but they also built the Gilded Age. 

Meanwhile, with abundant natural resources in North America opened by vicious conquest, tens of thousands of workers toiled in harsh conditions to build a new transcontinental network of railroads. Hundreds of Chinese immigrants perished in the effort. Coal-powered trains and industrially mass-produced weapons like the Colt revolver further allowed white settlers to expand their numbers and decimate the Native populations and wildlife in their path. Western nations like the Sioux and Comanche depended on huge migratory herds of bison for food, shelter, and tools—that is, for their material survival. While the United States has implemented many policies over the course of its history in the quest to remove Natives from their own lands, the slaughter of tens of millions of bison was one of the bloodiest and cruelest. “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” as one colonel said. Here again, one form of production—in this case a foraging, semi-agrarian one—clashed violently with industrial production driven westward on the fires of coal and oil. And again, because of their inherent strategic advantages, fossil fuels triumphed.

Art by Heather Milligan.

Early 20th Century: Progressive Era and World Wars

In 1902, the United Mine Workers of America threatened to shut down much of the country’s winter fuel source in an effort to get an eight-hour workday (it was 10 at the time) and a wage increase. Coal miners in general played a vital role in wresting power from owners to workers; as Mitchell writes in Carbon Democracy, “Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry…” 

This anthracite coal strike was the first to bring in the federal government as an arbitrator. President Theodore Roosevelt intervened to settle the strike, which played an important role in his “Square Deal” policy—an early inspiration for his cousin’s New Deal legislation 30 years later—and was a vital point in the burgeoning Progressive Era. At this time, the labor movement and other left-wing movements began to gain power and force more egalitarian values into the fossil fuel industrial economy. Successful women’s suffrage movements and new labor protections showed the promise of the mass politics that had emerged in the previous century, though many such movements remained segregated along racial lines. Segregationist policies and mass disenfranchisement were legally codified in Southern states, but the North also carried its own racist demons into the Progressive Era. The concentration of higher densities of people in cities, factories, and mines produced the kind of close relationship-building with one’s fellow class members necessary for democratic solidarity movements to succeed, while at the same time, persistent lines of ethnic division between whites, former slaves and their descendants, and new immigrants—variously stoked or manufactured by the wealthy—remained obstacles to broader solidarity.

In 1901, a year before the anthracite strike, the fossilized remains of living creatures who last walked the surface of the earth during the Jurassic suddenly burst forth in Texas. This rapidly became the largest oilfield in the world at the time. Though oil had become increasingly important in the latter half of the 19th century, the discovery in Texas portended an acceleration of the fossil fuel economy. As Henry Ford ramped up automobile manufacturing, and internal combustion engines became increasingly sophisticated, oil promised to unleash a deadly new era.

Art by Heather Milligan.

In fact, oil was in some ways responsible for the violent upheavals of the first half of the 20th century. In the United Kingdom, coal miners played an important role in forcing concessions from the British ruling class and implementing more common-good policies like healthcare programs and pensions. The British government, with imperialist aristocrat Winston Churchill leading the charge, turned to foreign oil as a means of undercutting the power of coal miners and other trade unions. With the Navy’s annual budget taking a cut to pay for some of the new welfare programs, Churchill sought to shift the Royal Navy to steam engines powered solely by oil: a costly transformation. While the United States enjoyed many domestic oil sources, European powers depended more on the pipeline and maritime routes that could move oil from Mesopotamia and Persia. This, along with other competing colonialist projects, was one of the points of tension between the European powers that flared up into World War I. As Abel G. Sterling writes for Current Affairs, “The First World War was an imperial war waged by empires for empire.”

To that end, World War I was also, arguably, the first large-scale war for oil. Besides the struggle for access to resources, it was notably the first theater of mechanized combat. Mounted cavalry units were still deployed on the battlefield, but an increasing number of tanks and airforces fought alongside and above them. Petroleum gave unprecedented strategic advantages to the countries that could control it, enabling them to manufacture weapons and vehicles at a large scale very quickly, and then to move those heavily-armored ships and tanks rapidly across long distances. But just as oil facilitated the scale of World War I, and drove some of the reasoning behind it, the war also bolstered the supremacy of oil, helping to cement it as one of the most important resources underpinning industrial militaries and economies.

In the aftermath of the war, revolutions and genocides uprooted the old world. In its place, a new system of governance over the world’s petroleum resources began to coalesce. From World War I, Mitchell writes, “emerged […] a new machinery to control the oil regions of the Middle East—the system of League of Nations Mandates,” which partitioned petroleum-rich countries, transferring control to the victors of the war. The frenzy of extraction and consumption accelerated as fossil fuels supercharged the Roaring ’20s. The mechanization and industrialization of everything—of agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, construction, and the spread of electrification—built modernity. But the uneasy peace forged by the close of World War I could not contain the unrest caused by growing inequality, or the ambitions of industrialized states that sought to expand their reach, both in Europe and in far-flung colonial possessions. Soon the extreme voracity of the fossil-fueled economy would drive toward self-destruction. The market crash of 1929 ushered in the modern world’s greatest economic depression, leaving devastating inequality and desperation in its wake. The crash would be the cataclysm that broke apart the post-World War I order and initiated another descent into world war.    

Many of the battles of World War II would, again, have a great deal to do with access to petroleum resources. The attack on Pearl Harbor is perhaps the most famous American example of this. At the time, Japan was heavily dependent on U.S. trade, and particularly on its oil exports. In an attempt to influence Japan, the United States cut off 90 percent of Japan’s oil in 1941. As historian Daniel Yergin has pointed out, Emperor Hirohito believed “Japan went to war with the United States because of oil—and lost the war because of oil.” So World War II was also arguably an oil war, and, like World War I, for reasons that went beyond the scramble for resources. World War II’s monumental brutality—the sheer scale of annihilation—was facilitated not just by fascist ideology but also by fossil fuels. Machine guns literally mechanized murder, the Holocaust was genocide conducted at an industrial scale with industrial tools, increasingly advanced airpower dropped firebombs, artillery launched rockets, vast fleets of tanks and warships pocked or razed 1,000-year-old cities, and devastation was wrought at the very foundations of matter as the atom bombs were dropped on Japan. Undergirding all these technologies, fossil fuels helped deliver a new age of terror. 

The war would claim some 80 million lives, and, though its political causes went far beyond any single resource, fossil fuel industrialization destroyed many lives well beyond the battlefield and the concentration camps. The mechanization of agriculture, urbanization, and transition to industrial manufacturing that was enforced by massive imperialist governments like Mao’s and Stalin’s contributed their own unimaginable numbers to industrialization’s death toll—not considered a tragedy, just a statistic, to paraphrase the idiom (probably erroneously) attributed to Stalin. Though communist ideology is often colloquially blamed for these deaths, all industrialization has led to mass murder, including the version administered by western capitalism. It’s just that the capitalist version occurred over a longer period of time, and affected a more dispersed and diverse population. Whether American capitalist robber barons, European monarchs and aristocrats, Russian tsars or Soviet General Secretaries, every ruling class that has spread fossil fuel industrialization has done so viciously, violently, and without regard for anyone except those groups who could successfully organize and fight for their lives.

Art by Heather Milligan.

Latter 20th Century: New Dealers and Neoliberals

After many decades, strenuous organizing, and dozens of strikes, labor movements in the United States finally forced concessions that led to increasingly improved conditions. Inspired by some waves of sit-down strikes started by autoworkers in Michigan, a million workers went on strike in 1934. Their agitating for a more egalitarian economy and humane working conditions descended from the movements stretching back to the Pawtucket mill workers and coal miners at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. 

Responding to the growing labor movement (and Socialist and Communist Parties) as the Great Depression wore on into the late 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to pass the sweeping legislation he called the New Deal. These policies helped stabilize the economy and build up employment rates. Coupled with war mobilization, they also continued to mechanize agriculture, expand manufacturing, lay the foundations for a car-dependent infrastructure, and supercharge fossil-fueled production. The result was a postwar period characterized by accelerated industrial manufacturing and abundant access to airplanes, automobiles, chemicals, and consumer products, plus a brief dip in inequality. New Deal policies—and Keynesian, social democratic economic philosophy more broadly—did much to reduce the rampant inequality of pre-war America. Its benefits did not extend equally to Black communities, however, instead building a mostly white middle class. This racially segregated prosperity would help placate white segments of the labor movement while managers and large, consolidated corporations continued to dominate the fossil fuel industrial economy and, slowly, began to restore their pre-war dominance. 

The wealthiest Americans quickly grew tired of even the modest concessions they had made to working Americans. Though the beginnings of elite alliances were forged mid-century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that wealthy interests saw an opening to reassert their power. The 1973 oil crisis quadrupled oil prices and, in the U.S.’s heavily oil-dependent economy, compounded the 1973-74 stock market crash. This crack in the social democratic, Keynesian economy built by the New Deal created an opening for a competing economic philosophy, and for elites to reassert the complete power over the government and economy they had enjoyed before World War II. 

Art by Heather Milligan.

Corporate managers—and old-money aristocrats like Friedrich von Hayek—worked together to found and fund a network of think tanks, research foundations, media institutions, and trade groups. The Mont Pelerin Society—named after the swanky Swiss resort where Hayek launched the movement—sat at the heart of this network. Its affiliates would spawn offshoots like the Adam Smith Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Institute for Economic Affairs, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute. This transatlantic network had one primary purpose: to dismantle Keynesian egalitarianism. Hayek, who had been a university buddy of Keynes’, argued that the social democratic macroeconomic theory practiced in the welfare states of the United States and the United Kingdom was a stepping stone to authoritarianism. In its place, Hayek and his acolytes (such as economist Milton Friedman) sought to restore extreme pre-war inequality using an updated version of laissez-faire economics, which they vaingloriously imagined as a new kind of liberalism, appropriately named neoliberalism. Friedman noted that they had been waiting for a fissure in the New Deal consensus, realizing it was important that “there was an alternative ready there to be picked up.” Their project was wildly successful. After relentless media campaigns, dubious scholarly research, political moves to undermine unions, and legislative triangulating, these think tanks managed to dominate a whole generation of political discourse. Since the 1970s, inequality has grown rapidly, reaching levels not seen since just before the Great Depression. 

What many economists refer to as market liberalization—the opening of nations and markets that had been “closed” during the Cold War—is more or less ideological neoliberalization. Stratified nations like the former Soviet states and China, which had once nurtured pretenses to egalitarianism, found that the neoliberalization invented by their Western counterparts could concentrate wealth more efficiently within their ruling classes than state communism could by itself. China is now second only to the United States in terms of its number of billionaires, and seems to be creating new ones much more rapidly. 

Along with the thuggish, kleptocratic turn in governments more interested in protecting the interests of consolidated wealth than their citizens, there has also been an acceleration of fossil fuel production and extraction. Neoliberalization has exposed vast tropical forests (and their native inhabitants) to profit-glutted international corporations and revenue-hungry governments who use carbon energy to extract ever greater quantities of resources. It has also helped deploy and displace huge populations of workers to serve global capital, often in horrendous conditions. And since 1970, vertebrate wildlife populations have declined 60 percent on average, triggering a mass extinction event on par with the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction from the meteorite that hit Earth 66 million years ago and wiped out the last of the dinosaurs. More than half of all greenhouse gas emissions from industrialization have been emitted since Rick Astley topped the charts (1988). From this frenetic burning of fossil fuels, whole new economic sectors have arisen. The digital revolution, for all its vaunted innovation, is the entropic last gasp of the Industrial Revolution. Virtual space is little more than a two-dimensional projection of the space occupied by data centers burning oceans of gas and mountains of coal. Electronics are assembled from rocks hauled on the backs of workers digging rare-earth metals from increasingly toxic and depleted mines and transported in oil-fueled cargo ships. 

Meanwhile, access to petroleum has continued to dominate geopolitical strategy and alliances. Because of its immense oil reserves, the Middle East has remained an important strategic center, the reverberations of which persist in foreign policy and military conflicts even a century after the League of Nations Mandates. To this day, fossil fuel-rich imperial states, like the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and Russia have continued to launch military invasions in the region. The oil curse—the phenomenon in which oil-rich countries tend to be less democratic, more repressive, and belligerent—has not only heavily impacted the monarchic, autocratic states within this region, but also the U.N. Security Council states that have continually found it in their interests to build military bases and puppet regimes there. Contemporary imperialism and colonialism center on access to strategic oil and gas shales, as well as pipeline routes. The military advantage that petroleum provides—and almost certainly will continue to provide indefinitely—likely represents one of the most difficult obstacles to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. Oil wars like the U.S. invasion of Iraq will continue to be waged for as long as we live in a fossil fuel economy. And all such wars will conspire to maintain carbon supremacy. 

Graph reproduced from Our World In Data.
Graph reproduced from Our World In Data.
Graph reproduced from the British Geological Survey.
Graph reproduced from Maclean’s.

Fossil fuel industrialization since 1800 has enabled (certain) human populations to skyrocket exponentially and doomed wildlife populations to plummet. Urbanization has exploded while old growth forests have fallen precipitously. With rapid urbanization, tens of thousands of cities have paved over hundreds of thousands—possibly millions—of square miles. New methods of mass murder, surveillance, and worker exploitation have arisen. Simultaneously, fossil fuel-enabled technology has produced synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that have dramatically increased agricultural yields, helping to reduce extreme poverty. Industrialization has facilitated technology that has synthesized medicines capable of curing infectious diseases cheaply, reducing infant mortality, and healing previously catastrophic wounds, all of which have raised life expectancy globally. The mass politics of abolitionism, the Pawtucket mills, the coal mines, and economic sectors that have only existed in the fossil fuel era have spread broader access to material affluence and political autonomy. 

The annual economic growth mandate that modern economists have come to expect is not merely a feature of capitalism or modernity; it is also a feature of fossilized energy stripped out of time and burned to add a surplus of caloric energy—and thus, capital—to a world that cannot physically absorb it without severe, destabilizing consequences. The shift toward a degrowth economy that many on the left now advocate for, one that reduces extractive intensity, imperial aspirations, and rescinds the growth mandate, will happen inevitably as fossil fuels cease to be used, whether by choice or from scarcity. As economies continue to rip this surplus energy from the ground to perpetuate their survival or gluttony, the unstoppable, nonlinear forces of climate change threaten to proceed without interruption into fatal and innumerable calamities. 

Despite the real material benefits they have given some of us, fossil fuels have facilitated and accelerated humanity’s abusive relationship to the rest of life on earth, and, in some ways, rulers’ abusive relationships to the rest of humanity. Oil, coal, and gas serve to power the machines that people have used to over-exploit every single ecological system, pushing thousands of species to extinction. Fossil-fueled machines rip more nutrients from topsoil than can readily be replenished, strip trees from the ground faster than hand saws and axes ever could, scrape marine life indiscriminately from the oceans faster than it can rebound, flatten mountains, level cities, launch drones, surveil nations, and pump out billions of tons of plastic that are now raining from the skies. Without fossil fuels, these machines simply could not exist. Right now, there’s no alternative technology that can deliver the same density and flexibility of fuel capable of powering such techniques of devastation. The wealth that comes from selling carved-up natural resources flows to a tiny group of very wealthy people and highly militarized states. The nature of fossil fuels means they deliver almost unimaginable abundance to a few and increased abundance to some—but for only a short time, before they fatally deny the future.  Fossil fuels have kindled the growth and violence of the past two centuries; but in their grand, brief conflagration, they threaten to condemn our whole future to permanent darkness. 

Art by Heather Milligan.

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