The perspective of social ecology allows us to see that fossil fuels have long been central to the capitalist mythos of perpetual growth. They have driven ever-increasing concentrations of capital in many economic sectors, and advanced both the regimentation and increasing precarity of human labor worldwide. In Fossil Capital, Andreas Malm explains in detail how early British industrialists opted to switch from abundant water power to coal-fired steam engines to run their mills, despite increased costs and uncertain reliability. The ability to control labor was central to their decision, as the urban poor proved to be vastly more amenable to factory discipline than the more independent-minded rural dwellers who lived along Britain’s rapidly flowing rivers. A century later, massive new oil discoveries in the Middle East and elsewhere would drive previously unfathomable increases in the productivity of human labor and breathe new life into the capitalist myth of unlimited economic expansion.
To address the full magnitude of the climate crisis and maintain a habitable planet for future generations we need to shatter that myth once and for all. Today the political supremacy of fossil fuel interests far transcends the magnitude of their campaign contributions or their short-term profits. It stems from their continuing central role in advancing the very system they helped to create. We need to overturn both fossil fuels and the growth economy, and that will require a fundamental rethinking of many of the core underlying assumptions of contemporary societies. Social ecology provides a framework for this.