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Carbon Capitalism: Energy, Social Reproduction and World Order

Carbon Capitalism: Energy, Social Reproduction and World Order

by Tim Di Muzio Lecturer in the School of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong, Australia


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Modern civilization and the social reproduction of capitalism are bound inextricably with fossil fuel consumption. But as carbon energy resources become scarcer, what implications will this have for energy-intensive modes of life? Can renewable energy sustain high levels of accumulation Or will we witness the end of existing capitalist economies?

This book provides an innovative and timely study that mobilizes a new theory of capitalism to explain the rise and fall of petro-market civilization. Di Muzio investigates how theorists of political economy have largely taken energy for granted and illuminates how the exploitation of fossil fuels increased the universalization and magnitude of capital accumulation. He then examines the likelihood of renewable resources providing a feasible alternative and asks whether they can beat peak oil prices to sustain food production, health care, science and democracy.

Using the capital as power framework, this book considers the unevenly experienced consequences of monetizing fossil fuels for people and the planet.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783480982
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 08/31/2015
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Tim Di Muzio is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. He is the author of The 1% and the Rest of Us and with Richard Robbins, Debt as Power among other works.

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Carbon Capitalism

Energy, Social Reproduction and World Order

By Tim Di Muzio

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2015 Tim Di Muzio
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-098-2


Carbon Capitalism and Petro-Market Civilization

In 2005 and 2007 a war game was played out by former high-ranking government officials in Washington DC. Entitled 'Oil Shockwave', the goal of the simulation was to analyze how policymakers might respond to a sudden oil shock brought on by conflict and political instability in Venezuela, Iran and the Caspian Basin. In the crisis scenario, a small amount of oil — 4 percent — was taken off the world market, leading to a giant spike in oil prices from US$58 dollars a barrel to US$161. War in the Middle East, the return of the draft, petrol rationing at gas stations, extreme price inflation, increasing unemployment levels and the depletion of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) were all countenanced as plausible results of the crisis. Robert M. Gates, the Oil Shockwave national security advisor, noted that 'the real lesson here [is that] it only requires a relatively small amount of oil to be taken out of the system to have huge economic and security implications'. The simulations were sponsored by Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE) and the National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP). They were intended to highlight the United States' dependence on oil for its economic well-being and security, as well as to point out how years of policy inaction on renewable energy and oil dependence could lead to foreseeable, but potentially avoidable, catastrophes at multiple levels of the socioeconomic order of the United States — and by extension, most of the petroleum -soaked world.

What seems so strange about these simulations is that they followed two decades of cheap and abundant fossil fuels, uneven but generally growing economies, a revolution in telecommunications, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the widespread belief in the globalization of capitalist markets and neoliberal development. Of course, actual capitalism has never tended toward any equilibrium — real or imagined — but what was noticed in the simulations went beyond mere commonsense notions that capitalist markets could be unpredictable, unstable or prone to manias, corporate fraud and abuse (Kindleberger and Aliber 2005). The simulated crisis was not about the dangers of globalized markets and greedy irrational actors pursuing their own gain at the expense of society. Nor was it a crisis where the right mix of fiscal or monetary policy could come swiftly to the rescue to restore economic growth and employment. The simulated crisis was far more profound than the collapse of markets or the dangers of debt and financial alchemy; the crisis was so foundational that its scale and scope were civilizational.

Our leaders could be forgiven for their inaction and short -sightedness if this were the first time oil was recognized as essential to the social reproduction of a more globalized and capitalized world order. But they cannot. The fact that fossil fuels are nonrenewable sources of energy and that their production will eventually decline and become more expensive has long been discussed even before Hubbert's graphs on peak oil production in the United States were drafted. Though there was prior recognition — particularly among the US and UK armed forces and some geologists — the oil price spikes of the 1970s were watershed moments in alerting entire populations to the extent their lifestyles had become reliant on stored sunshine (Crosby 2006, 62). From 1972 to the early 1980s, when oil prices finally started to slowly decline, the price of oil — never its full ecological costs — had increased by an overall figure of 504 percent. The price shocks helped generate double-digit inflation and skyrocketing unemployment in advanced economies and ballooned balance-of-payments deficits for most oil -importing countries, triggering an international debt crisis in the 1980s and the tombstone of the New International Economic Order (George 1988; Murphy 1984). The oil shocks also motivated the creation of the International Energy Agency (IEA) as a counter to the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The latter was created in 1960 as an intergovernmental organization to coordinate the output and pricing of oil among major producers/exporters. The IEA, housed in Paris, was mandated to gather statistics, monitor the world energy situation and provide advice to its members on energy policy. Members of the organization — mostly net importers of oil — were also required to store a reserve of oil equivalent to ninety days of the previous year's imports. The crisis even seeped into Anglophone popular culture in films like Three Days of the Condor (1974) and the Mad Max trilogy (1979–1985). The former, starring Robert Redford and directed by Sydney Pollack, was a fictional portrayal of how far clandestine security forces were willing to go to keep Middle Eastern oil flowing to the United States and its allies. The latter, starring Mel Gibson and directed by George Miller, fictionalized the breakdown of law and order in the Australian outback due to the scarcity of oil.

At the same time, scholars of international relations were finding it difficult to ignore the importance of oil to international 'stability' and the global economy. Out of this concern and others emerged a new field of scholarly inquiry called international political economy (IPE). In the annals of the social sciences, IPE is a bit of a strange child. The subdiscipline is not the direct offspring of political economy (as one might suspect), but the outcome of considerable frustration with mainstream international relations (IR) theory (Di Muzio 2014, 161–62).

As many scholars have noticed, the field institutionalized and professionalized amidst the wrenching changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Neocolonialism, the abandonment of the gold standard, floating exchange rates, rising oil prices, the limits to growth thesis, the environmental movement in the capitalist core, the debt crisis of the 'Third World' and the riddle of stagflation (among other events) all seemed to demonstrate that there were considerable flaws and omissions in mainstream accounts of international politics and power. Chief among them, of course, was the divorce of economics from politics (Dickins 2006; Hancock and Vivoda 2014; Philips 2005; Strange 1970; Underhill 2000). An additional concern, though not always taken up by self -professed international political economists, was the centrality of oil to the security and economic well-being of Western civilization. In the 1970s this could hardly be denied, and worries mounted whether the world energy crisis would precipitate the decline of American power and 'Western civilization' (Levy 1979; Lieber 1979). Some scholars in IR/IPE started to take energy seriously — particularly oil — but the vast majority tried to fit the importance of carbon energy into preexisting theoretical frameworks; used oil to 'test' their theories about international power, interdependence or both; or simply fretted about the power of OPEC and the short-term economic consequences of the price shock (Barnes 1972; Campbell 1977; Chubin 1976; Cleveland and Brittain 1975; Hallwood and Sinclair 1982; Hartshorn 1977; Healey 1979; Jabber 1978; Lewis 1974; Mikadashi 1980, 1981; Penrose 1979; Pollack 1974; Shackleton 1978; Smart 1977; Strange 1988; Turner 1976; Turner and Bedore 1978; Veit 1977; Willrich 1976). In this way, energy was made a fact of international relations and the global economy, but it never became a part of the conceptual foundations for understanding and explaining social relations, historical change and the constitution and reconstitution of world order over what Braudel (1983) called the longue durée.

There is only one book from that era that offered a foundational theorization of energy and human development reliant on critical political economy. A masterful work, now somewhat dated, Debeir, Deléage and Hémery's In the Servitude of Power, argued that the intimate link between capitalism and energy was vastly undertheorized in most critical analyses of human 'progress' and socionatural transformations (1986, xiii). Regrettably, the book had the misfortune of arriving at a time when oil prices had dropped by 71 percent from their peak in 1980. As a consequence, the book was virtually ignored by the literature in IR/IPE, not to mention elsewhere. Only recently has their work been rediscovered by a small coterie of scholars concerned with the role of energy in the history and social reproduction of capitalism and the future prospects of world order (e.g., Barca 2011; Huber 2008, 2013; Noreng 2007; Podobnik 2006; Spier 2011). Moreover, it is only within the last decade of increasing oil prices and the so-called 'War on Terror' that a litany of popular and scholarly studies on fossil fuels and the prospects of economic growth and renewable energy have appeared in droves. This is perhaps not surprising given the massive 319 percent increase in the price of oil from 1999 to 2008, ruminations that the conventional supply of oil has already peaked, ongoing war, militarization and instability in the Middle East and arguments that our current patterns of fossil -fuelled–led development are ruining the planet's life -support systems for future generations and biodiversity (Friedrichs 2013; Hamilton 2004; Jackson 2009; Kempf 2008; Speth 2009).

This situation is largely attributable to the destruction and pollution of habitats and ecosystems, overconsumption by the 1 percent and the commercially affluent and the use of the atmosphere as a boundless sink for heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. However, with some exceptions, most of this recognition is happening outside of IPE and, as yet, seems to have had only a minor impact on the security studies literature (e.g., Colgan 2013a, 2013b; Elhefnawy 2008; Klare 2002, 2004, 2009). One telling illustration is the major textbooks or primers used to introduce undergraduate and graduate students to the study of IPE. Of the most renowned introductory texts in the discipline, one would be hard pressed to find any discussion of the importance of energy to the shaping and reshaping of world order and the global political economy, let alone the rise of 'hegemons' or 'great powers'. Where energy is mentioned at all in these texts, it plays a minor, rather than foundational, role in explaining historical change, the constitution of a more liberal world order and the transnationalization of production and exchange (Blyth 2009; Cohn 2011; Frieden and Lake 2003; Gilpin 2001; Hülsemeyer 2010; Miller 2008; Oatley 2011; O'Brien and Williams 2010; Palan 2000; Ravenhill 2008; Thompson 2000). So while these volumes are commendable in their own way, they are far from offering deep-seated theorizations on the importance of energy to social life and global order.

To my knowledge, there are only two main introductory texts on the global political economy that include a full chapter discussion on energy and international oil (Balaam and Dillman 2013; Gill and Law 1988). What this suggests is that the study of the global political economy is largely disconnected from any material energy base and that IR/IPE students are likely to have a limited understanding of the importance of energy to human development and the formation and reformation of the global political economy, not to mention the political and livelihood consequences of high-energy modes of living.


Given the lack of critical attention paid by the field of political economy to the question of energy and its role in the constitution and reconstitution of world order in the IPE literature, this study purports to offer a historically informed, critical political look at what I will call carbon capitalism and a global rise and fall of the petro-market civilization. By 'critical', I mean at least three things: (1) an intellectual and moral stance whereby historical structures are not taken as self-evident but as institutions that have to be explained historically; (2) that we should question power relations as a matter of course and subject them to tests of legitimacy. If these chains of command and authority do not serve a legitimate democratic or socially desirable purpose, then they should be opposed, transformed and/or abolished; and (3) that where possible we should seek opportunities for greater freedom, emancipation and democratic practice in all forms of social organization (Bruff and Tepe 2011; Gill 2008).

Although it is true that IR/IPE is not fully blind to questions related to energy, as mentioned earlier, the literature largely focuses on the question of geopolitics, energy security and resource conflicts/wars, particularly as they relate to oil (Bromley 1991, 2005; Bunker and Ciccantell 2005; Colgan 2013a, 2013b; Elhefnawy 2008; Hiro 2006; Klare 2009; Labban 2008; Stokes 2007; Stokes and Raphael 2010). This research is incredibly important, but it has a tendency to be one dimensional and fails to conceive of the relationship between energy, the social reproduction of capitalism and world order on a civilizational scale from a critical political economy perspective. In this study, I characterize world order as a hierarchical petro-market civilization because of the radically unequal access to fossil fuel energy and centuries of Western domination, both violent and institutionally organized.

What I mean by the term petro-market civilization is an historical and contradictory pattern of civilizational order whose social reproduction is founded upon nonrenewable fossil fuels, mediated by the price mechanism of the market and dominated by the logic of differential accumulation (Di Muzio 2011, 2012; Gill 1995; Nitzan and Bichler 2009). Capital is the central institution of petro-market civilization and, as I will argue, its accumulation on a vast scale has been made possible by surplus fossil fuel energy while altering previous patterns of social reproduction tied more directly to photosynthesis and low -carbon energy growth (Goldstone 2002; Wrigley 2010). This is why I refer to carbon capitalism: the notion that the magnitude and universalization of capital accumulation, along with high energy–intensive forms of social reproduction, would have been impossible without abundant, affordable and accessible fossil fuels.

This does not mean that other factors are unimportant; it is only to suggest the centrality of fossil fuels for understanding the present as history. The logic is relatively straightforward but nowhere articulated in the IPE literature in general and the literature on capital as power more specifically (Baines 2014; Brennan 2012; Di Muzio 2007, 2012; Hager 2013a, 2013b; McMahon 2013; Nitzan and Bichler 2009). The general argument can be stated in the following propositions:

• Energy can be defined as the capacity to do work; but what work will be done is a matter of differential social power enacted in physically violent ways, as well as through institutional forms of discipline and punishment.

• The uneven exploitation of coal, oil and natural gas at first provided small portions of humanity with surplus energy, mostly in England, Western Europe and the United States.

• Since energy is the capacity to do work, surplus energy means there is a greater capacity to produce, consume and exchange — albeit always conditioned by social property relations, the logic of differential accumulation and forms of political rule.

• Carbon capitalism can be conceived of as a conflictual mode of power where dominant owners control and capitalize the majority of this capacity to produce, consume and exchange for private benefit.

• This intraclass battle among investors/capitalists is recorded as differential capitalization measured in money. Here, capitalization means the present money value of owned income-generating assets.

• It is also an interclass mode of power whereby the 1 percent, or high-net-worth individuals, consume the majority of the planet's energy, accumulate it in monetary form and by their ownership of income-generating assets and their voracious consumption, have the largest ecological footprint (Di Muzio 2015a, 2015b; Kempf 2008).

However, these propositions cannot be understood in isolation or abstraction from social property relations, geopolitical competition for money and resources, a long history of Western colonialism, transatlantic slavery and violence, the constitution and reconstitution of gender orders and racialized labor hierarchies.

In sum, this book offers a new theorization of the global political economy that takes the energy basis of civilization, not as something we can tack on as auxiliary to political economy analysis, but as integral and inseparable for understanding and explaining its development, transformation and trajectories. This does not mean — and I stress here — that this book is about energy or resource determinism: the notion that energy source, supply, distribution, ownership, cost and use predetermine

In sum, this book offers a new theorization of the global political economy that takes the energy basis of civilization, not as something we can tack on as auxiliary to political economy analysis, but as integral and inseparable for understanding and explaining its development, transformation and trajectories. This does not mean — and I stress here — that this book is about energy or resource determinism: the notion that energy source, supply, distribution, ownership, cost and use predetermine social formations and the precise fate of humanity. Rather, this study considers energy only within the context of human social property relations and the relation of force and struggle between rulers and ruled in the constitution and reconstitution of a world order I characterize as a hierarchical petro-market civilization. I will argue that the most important social relation of petro-market civilization is not between workers and capitalists per se, but between owners of income-generating assets and nonowners.


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Table of Contents

Preface / Chapter 1. Carbon Capitalism and Petro-Market Civilization / Chapter 2. The Political Economy of Petro-Market Civilization / Chapter 3. The Birth of Petro-Market Civilization in Britain / Chapter 4. The Expansion of Petro-Market Civilization in the United States / Chapter 5. Global Carbon Capitalism / Conclusion. The Post-Carbon Era and the General Crisis of Social Reproduction / Bibliography / Index

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