Fossil fuels – a journey in time
For many millennia humanity’s energy came ultimately from the sun.
From the photosynthesis of plants, that provided fuel for human and animal labour, to the wood or dung burnt for cooking or warmth.
Even wind and water power – used for grinding corn and sailing ships – came ultimately from the steady beating down of the sun’s rays mobilizing our atmosphere and climate. They rooted the energy available to us in space and time.
The expansion of coal – powering and powered by the steam engine – offered an escape, a cheat. Later it was joined by oil and gas. Those fuels, buried in the ground, provided access to a store of transportable fossilized photosynthesis – millions of years of the sun’s rays, trapped in the bodies of countless organisms and turned into hydrocarbons.
This historical sunshine powered the birth of a new fossil economy, enabling the seemingly unstoppable growth of capitalism, creating the illusion that this could be endless.
Fossil fuels also assisted capitalists in their struggles with organized workers – by firing up the machinery that could directly displace human labour, or by allowing them to move production where it suited them, as steam power was more nimble than water power.
Fossil fuels were crucial in the capitalist colonial project – coal-powered ships and railroads allowed European colonialists to seize new territories across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, in a rush to extract resources.
In the 20th century petrol and petrochemicals sparked a consumer boom and the rise of the automobile. Cars took over, despite the technology for electric transport (which could have used power generated from water and wind) existing almost from the start. Plastics, produced from oil and gas, became ubiquitous within a century following the invention of Bakelite in 1907, penetrating even to the bottom of the oceans. Greenhouse gases filled the atmosphere. The fossil economy did have limits after all, even if Big Oil tried to keep them out of sight.
1712 First commercially successful steam engine – the Newcomen – invented. The coal-powered machines were mostly used for pumping water from coalmines. In the early 1800s they began to be adapted to locomotives.
1825 ‘First truly automatic machine in the world’ – the self-acting mule or ‘Iron Man’ – invented for steam-powered cotton spinning, using coal. It helped break worker strikes in Preston and Glasgow, UK, in the 1830s. Britain accounted for 80 per cent of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion up to this date.
1886 World’s first car built by Karl Benz.
1887 First electricity-generating wind turbines built. In Denmark particularly these caught on, making a small but significant contribution to electricity generation in the early 1900s. Hydroelectric power had already been around for a decade.
1914 The British Navy decisively switches from coal to oil, signing a 20-year supply deal with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP).
1916 First of three federal road acts in the US begins a decade of subsidized road building, boosting the car industry and putting railways in decline.
1936 A holding company set up by General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire and Mack Truck begins buying up electric streetcar systems in 45 US cities – shutting down 100 over the next decade. In 1949 a federal jury convicts General Motors and allies of conspiring to dismantle the systems.
1939 World War Two begins, signalling a massive expansion of oil infrastructure including refineries and pipelines to supply militaries.
1945 The war ends. Oil companies begin a drive to create new demand as a downscaling of military action leaves refineries facing overproduction.
1950 North America now accounts for just over half of global fossil fuel consumption.
1952 Solar photovoltaic panels invented.
1953 CIA-sponsored coup deposes democratically elected Iranian President Mohammad Mossadeq over his attempts to nationalize the country’s oil fields.
1958 A British Overseas Airways Corporation plane makes first transatlantic passenger jet flight.
1965 Scientists warn US President Lyndon B Johnson that atmospheric CO2 may cause climate change. Their report is mentioned at the annual meeting of the American Petroleum Institute.
1973 Arab countries cut production and begin an oil embargo against the US and other countries who supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. This leads to oil conservation efforts, contributing to support for renewables through the 1970s, with a ‘mini-boom’ in solar in the US and energy efficiency technologies. Following Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, support is slashed.
1979 Iranian revolution takes significant amounts of oil production out of world markets, leading to a price spike.
In the UK, Margaret Thatcher begins the privatization of the majority state-owned BP.
1992 Rio Earth Summit takes place, with 154 states signing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
1997 The Kyoto Protocol is adopted, committing industrialized countries to binding greenhouse gas reduction targets.
2009 Shell announces it will not be investing further in wind or solar power, claiming they are not competitive.
2011 BP complains it can’t ‘make any money on the sun’ as it closes down its solar panel factories.
2015 The Paris Agreement introduces a new goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C but replaces the Kyoto principle of binding emissions reductions with voluntary ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’.
2018 Greta Thunberg sparks a wave of school climate strikes around the world.
In the UK Extinction Rebellion launches, with public pressure forcing a range of democratic bodies to declare climate emergencies.
Sources: Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, Verso, London and Brooklyn, 2016. Simon Pirani, Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption, Pluto Press, London, 2018. James Marriott and Terry Macalister, Crude Britannia, Pluto Press, London, 2021. Christophe Bonneuil et al, ‘Early warnings and emerging accountability: Total’s responses to global warming, 1971–2021’, Global Environmental Change, Volume 71, November 2021.