On Coal and Capitalism


Time flows. The only time in which time doesn’t flow is when you look on your watch. Whether digital or analogue, when you look on a clock, time will be cut up in different units. These units are known as: seconds, minutes and hours. The need to cut natural flows into measurable units which can be counted and controlled by humans is one of the most important characteristics of capitalism. We can see this process clearly when we’re talking about the division of labour. Before the industrial revolution, a shoemaker needed to know the area where he or she was living in to find the best wood and to know the shopkeepers around. When labour starts to become a commodity which can be bought and sold by the hour, this interrelationship with the environment starts to become obsolete. In a factory, workers don’t need to have any knowledge about their surroundings. It doesn’t even matter if they come from a different city or a different country. Although this logic opens up the possibility for the entire world to become one interconnected village, this interconnectedness doesn’t need people to take care of their environment anymore.

The opposition between flow and unit is an important theme in a recent publication of radical ecologist Andreas Malm. In his book ‘Fossil Capital’, Malm analyses the rise of coal-based steam power in Great-Britain during the industrial revolution. Before engines ran on coal, waterwheels based on waterpower were the main energy supplier for the industry. It’s a common misconception that during the industrial revolution coal won the battle against water to become the main source of energy because coal is better and cheaper, this was actually not the case. Instead, one of the main reasons why coal became more popular then water was because coal comes in production-units and water in a production-flow. It takes a form of collective action to maintain a production process based on a water flow: Dams have to be maintained and fair water schemes are needed to be drawn. For a capitalist who competes with other capitalists, this kind of cooperation can easily be seen as a time consuming distraction. Moreover, it’s difficult to run a natural production process based on a labour contract with steady hours. Luckily, even then it was impossible to sign contracts which stated that people could only work and get paid when the river was running forcibly enough.

Although not the only reason why our addiction to fossil fuels started during this period, the human need to cut up nature in countable and controllable parts has been one of the fundaments of climate change. If we want to understand the system which is destroying our communities and their environment, we need to recognize the way it expresses itself in our landscape.


Photograph by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo

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