Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power in the British Cotton Industry, c. 1825-1848, and the Roots of Global Warming

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)


The more we know about the catastrophic implications of climate change, the more fossil fuels are burnt in the world. How did we get caught up in this mess? This thesis returns to a crucial moment in the emergence of the fossil economy: the rise of steam-power. With the adoption of the steam-engine, fossil energy was first coupled to a process of self-sustaining growth, the new prime mover using coal to impel machines for commodity production. It happened in Britain; the cotton industry led the way. Before steam, up to the second quarter of the nineteenth century, British cotton manufacturers used water as their source of mechanical energy – so why did they shift from the one to the other? By examining the causes of the original transition from water to steam, we might come closer to an understanding of the mechanisms igniting – and perhaps still fuelling – the process now known as ‘business-as-usual’.

In line with Ricardian and Malthusian thought, is often argued that the turn to coal in the Industrial Revolution was motivated by a scarcity of energy. But a wide range of primary sources from the time suggest that the critical step from water to steam occurred in spite of water being an abundant and consistently cheaper alternative. Massive water reservoir schemes, by which the resources of Britain’s rivers would be more fully and efficiently exploited, were floated in the years of the transition, but the cotton manufacturers failed to unite behind their architects: they could not stand the co-operation and collective planning required to benefit from the flow.

Steam-power, on the other hand, offered a unique freedom to locate factories where production would be most profitable – above all, among dense supplies of labour-power. The flow of water was integrated in the landscape and could only be used on the spot, but the stock of coal was brought up from the underground and then circulated on the market, allowing manufacturers to congregate in the growing towns. Currents of water were subject to fluctuations in the weather. Up to the 1830s, proprietors of water-mills possessed a simple method for evening out such irregularities: when the current returned in full force, the operatives would work overtime until losses were regained. Restrictions on working-hours put an end to such practices. Meanwhile, steam-engines stood ready to revolve at any time of the day and could be speeded up at will: advantages highly cherished by manufacturers when the labour movement cut the working-day to ten hours.

The steam-engine is the emblematic productive force of industrial capitalism, perceived by one brand of classical Marxism as the progenitor of capital. Others claim that it sprang from the ancient human ability to manipulate fire, triggering the geological epoch of our species, called ‘the Anthropocene’. Against such theories, this thesis argues that certain relations of power and property called forth steam-power and gave birth to the fossil economy. Accumulation of capital through anarchic competition, in abstract space and abstract time, could not proceed on the basis of a flow of energy beyond the years 1825-1848, when British capitalism suffered its first structural crisis. Only a stock of fossil fuels could sustain the spiral, because it was buried at a remove from the landscape and the weather, amenable to concentration and acceleration, disembedded and divisible. Steam was thus a source of power in the dual sense of the term, advanced as such by its proprietors and fiercely resisted by the British working-class for over half a century. Are there any lessons to draw from that history? The thesis ends with some reflections on the obstacles for breaking out of the fossil economy today.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Human Ecology
  • Hornborg, Alf, Supervisor
Award date2014 Feb 15
ISBN (Print)978-91-7473-827-8
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Bibliographical note

Defence details
Date: 2014-02-15
Time: 13:00
Place: Geocentrum 1, Sölvegatan 12, Lund
External reviewer(s)
Name: Mitchell, Timothy
Title: Professor
Affiliation: Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University, USA

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Social and Economic Geography

Free keywords

  • Fossil economy
  • steam-power
  • water-power
  • cotton industry
  • Britain
  • capital accumulation
  • global warming


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