Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption

Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption

by Simon Pirani


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Coal, gas and oil have been capitalism's main fuels since the industrial revolution. And yet, of all the fossil fuels ever consumed, more than half were burned in the last 50 years. Most alarming of all, fossil fuel consumption has grown fastest in the last three decades, since scientists confirmed that it is the main cause of potentially devastating global warming.

In Burning Up, Simon Pirani recounts the history of fossil fuels' relentless rise since the mid twentieth century. Dispelling explanations foregrounding Western consumerism, and arguments that population growth is the main problem, Pirani shows how fossil fuels are consumed through technological, social and economic systems, and that these systems must change.

This is a major contribution to understanding the greatest crisis of our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745335612
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 08/15/2018
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Simon Pirani is Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, and has written widely on Soviet history and energy issues. His books include Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto, 2018), The Russian Revolution in Retreat (Routledge, 2008) and Change in Putin's Russia (Pluto, 2009).

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Fossil fuels before 1950

The history of human consumption of fossil fuels can be divided into four time periods:

1. Human history before the European Industrial Revolution, when, apart from some local, temporary episodes, fossil fuels played no significant part in economic activity.

2. From the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century up to about 1870, when coal mining, coal-fired steam power and coke-fuelled iron making took centre stage.

3. From 1870 to the mid-twentieth century, when the second Industrial Revolution, fuelled by coal and to a lesser extent oil and gas, produced electricity networks, automated manufacturing, the internal combustion engine and petrochemicals. Such fossil-fuel-dependent systems became central to rich countries' economies.

4. From the mid-twentieth century to the present, when fossil fuel consumption expanded to many times its previous levels, fossil-fuel-dependent systems expanded outside the rich world, and oil surpassed coal as the most widely used fuel.

This chapter covers time periods 1–3. The fourth period is the subject of the book as a whole. Figure 1 shows how the use of fossil fuels has grown dramatically in periods 3 and 4.

In periods 2, 3 and 4, or since the mid-eighteenth century, a new relationship between human society and its natural surroundings has taken shape. The impacts of human activity on the earth and its natural systems have begun to operate on the same, or greater, scale as those systems themselves. These impacts include: destruction by agriculture and industry of biodiversity (the extinction of species at an unprecedented rate); disruption of the nitrogen cycle (the circulation of nitrogen through air, soil and water); and the acidification of oceans. But the most significant impact is the change to the atmosphere's chemical composition through the release of greenhouse gases – and the main cause of this is the burning of fossil fuels, which emits carbon dioxide (CO2). (See pp. 56–8.)

A consensus has formed between researchers, and many other people, that we therefore now live in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene – as distinct from the Holocene that began at the end of the last Ice Age. The exact dating of the Anthropocene epoch, and other aspects of the concept, are subjects of controversy. But the natural scientists are clear, collectively, that there was a sharp upturn in the whole range of human impacts on natural systems from the mid-twentieth century – period 4 referred to above.

From the beginnings to the Industrial Revolution (before 1870)

For thousands of years, until the eighteenth century, human and animal labour power were the main sources of energy for economic activity. Water wheels and windmills were used as prime movers (converters of source energy into mechanical energy), but much more energy was expended by domesticated animals, such as horses, oxen or donkeys, and humans themselves. Fields were ploughed, barges and carts pulled, treadmills worked and bellows operated by horses, slaves, serfs or free people.

During those thousands of years, people burned coal to produce heat and light, but surface outcroppings were rare, and coal churned out smoke. Plentiful wood was the main fuel. In some places, people used oil from the ground as a medicine or lubricant, but vegetable oils and animal fats were preferred. The first use of coal on an industrial scale was in China: in the eleventh century, shafts were sunk to mine it, and it was used extensively for metallurgy. The reasons why the Industrial Revolution did not happen in China have long been debated among historians; certainly the absence of a coal-fired prime mover were among the constraints, and the distances between coal deposits and urban settlements. From the eleventh century onwards, surface deposits of coal were mined in Scotland, England, Belgium and France, and used for forging iron, lime manufacture and evaporating seawater to prepare salt. But wood was the dominant fuel. Historians of London, for example, have shown that, even in the sixteenth century, when wood supplies were squeezed and prices rose, the additional cost of transporting coal to the city made it uncompetitive. The first European country in which a fossil fuel became dominant was the Netherlands, where peat largely replaced wood in the seventeenth century.

It took the Industrial Revolution – the triumph of mechanised factories over workshops, of iron over other materials, and the rise of steam power – to give coal a central position in the economy. Coal's main function, in economic terms, was to substitute for animate – human and animal – labour power, vastly increasing industrial productivity. This transformation, which began in Britain in 1750–1830, was not only technological, but social. Capitalist wage-labour, which had roots going back centuries in English agriculture, took on a central role. Money made from the transatlantic trade, and slavery in America, helped Britain to finance the Industrial Revolution; that revolution, in turn, reinforced British supremacy over world trade and colonialism.

Technologically, the Industrial Revolution started not with coal and steam but with the mechanisation of cotton manufacture. In the second half of the eighteenth century, mechanical spinning jennies, water frames and power looms were introduced and factory-based cotton manufacture soared, leaving behind the workshop-centred wool industry. The two crucial techniques that boosted coal demand – coke for iron making, and the steam engine – had both been used since the beginning of the eighteenth century, but were widely diffused only towards its end. Coke, made from coal – which in Britain was abundant and cheap – was burned in blast furnaces instead of charcoal. This cut the cost of making iron, which served as raw material for machines, farm tools, water and gas pipes, and weapons of war. In the 1780s Britain made less iron than France; by the mid-nineteenth century it was making more than the rest of the world put together. The steam engine was the first machine that converted fossil energy resources into mechanical work, and not just heat. Concentrated volumes of mechanical power, previously available only from strong natural water flows, could be unleashed almost anywhere. The engine invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1705 was already used widely to pump water from mines by the mid- eighteenth century; it was James Watt's crucial improvement, the addition of a separate condenser, first applied commercially in 1776, that brought steam engines into general use. They became more fuel efficient and more adaptable, for use in factories, trains and ships.

Steam and iron drove coal's dizzying expansion in Britain in the nineteenth century – but coal had begun to compete with wood long before that. Already in 1700, coal had overtaken wood as a source of thermal energy in Britain. The reasons that coal won out have been the subject of controversy among historians. The natural constraint on wood production, that Britain had only a fixed amount of land on which to grow it, was the focus of Edward Wrigley's analysis. Without coal and the shift from a wood-fuelled 'organic economy' to a 'mineral-based energy economy', he argued, economic growth would have faltered. Other historians were unconvinced: there were shortages of wood, but these were local (especially in densely populated areas) and transitory. Transport also made a difference: wood had to be collected from multiple locations, and was bulkier to move. Coal, despite being much dirtier to burn, got a foothold in such industries as pottery, brick- and glass-making, as well as iron-making. But it was coal's sheer abundance and its ability to substitute for human labour that were decisive, argued Robert Allen. In eighteenth century Britain, the blast furnace, steam engine, spinning jenny and water frame increased the use of coal and capital relative to labour. These technologies were adopted and diffused in Britain more rapidly than elsewhere, because 'wages were remarkably high, and energy was remarkably cheap'.

In the nineteenth century, steam engines became the leading consumers of coal. But they did not overtake wind and water power overnight. Early steam engines were very expensive and inefficient by any standards. The earliest ones had thermal conversion efficiencies of 1 per cent (the output was 1 per cent of the energy content of the fuel input) and it took a century to boost this to around 20 per cent. Even with Watt's improvements, the engines were relatively inefficient, and wind and water remained dominant in industry. Steam had obvious advantages, though: cotton mills no longer had to be located near flowing water. Employers used the new technologies to reshape their social relations with workers. Factories could now be sited where employers could best force workers into them and best control them while at work. During a series of labour revolts culminating in the 1842 general strike, workers acted against the machines, as the Luddites had a quarter of a century before, and disabled engine houses and pitheads. 'This was collective bargaining by rioting against the fossil economy,' Andreas Malm argued, coining Eric Hobsbawm's phrase.

In 1800, Britain's coal consumption was 11–15 million tonnes (mt)/year; by 1845, 40–45 mt; by 1870, it was crossing the 100 mt mark. The spillover of steam engines into railways gave a further impetus to industrial development. Coal for steam engines, and wrought iron for rails and wheels, underpinned the British railway boom of the 1830s and 1840s. That boom in turn made coal more easily transportable, boosting its competitiveness against wood. Steam was also introduced into ships, but replaced sail only slowly – the US merchant fleet, for example, was 15 per cent steam powered in 1850 and 33 per cent by 1880.

The British Industrial Revolution also led to unprecedented urban development. There had been many cities, including some very large ones, in world history. But industrial cities – populated by wageworkers and their families, full of factories, with streets underfoot and air above full of smoke and soot – had never existed on this scale. By 1860, 50 per cent of England and Wales was urbanised, compared to 25 per cent of Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands and 18 per cent of France. In nineteenth century Britain, the lighting of streets and factories made it possible to lengthen the working day; it went together with clean water and sewage systems designed to minimise the effect of regular and dreadful epidemics. In the USA, too, in the nineteenth century people began to receive water, gas and some steam heat from sources outside the home, well before electrification. This made it easier for male workers to be separated from the daily routine of work at home and to go to the factories. In the eighteenth century, municipal lighting had often used whale oil or vegetable oil; in the nineteenth century, increasingly, coal gas (methane recovered from coal). Up to the 1870s, though, consumption of fossil fuels in people's homes was rare and statistically insignificant.

Coal and steam 'did not make the industrial revolution, but they permitted its extraordinary development and diffusion', historian David Landes pointed out. From about 1830, the coal- and steam-based industrial system spread to France, Belgium, and to the states that would be unified in Germany in 1871. There followed a new round of colonisation led by Britain. As Bruce Podobnik wrote:

Coal-powered ships and railroads allowed Britain and its Continental rivals to seize control over territories in Asia, Africa and the Middle East that had long resisted conquest. Coal-driven transport systems then allowed for a radical increase in the volume of goods moved from the periphery into the core of the world-economy.

The USA expanded too, using slave labour and expropriating native Americans. It was unified by the Civil War of 1861–65, which new weapons technology made the world's most destructive conflict up to that time. Most of the energy for industrial production in these economies was by then provided from coal, although hydro power also made a contribution. The European empires encouraged often one-sided industrialisation in territories they controlled. This, and autonomous development for example in Japan, made coal a truly worldwide industry by the end of the nineteenth century, although even then coal consumption was concentrated overwhelmingly in the rich countries.

The second Industrial Revolution (1870–1913)

Between 1870 and 1913, the second Industrial Revolution produced innovations that underpinned new fossil-fuel-based technological systems. Two of these – electricity networks and the internal combustion engine (ICE) used in cars, trucks, ships and later, planes – still today account directly for more than half of global fossil fuel use. Coal consolidated its role in the main capitalist countries. The ICE became the prime source of demand for oil, which began to be consumed in significant quantities in the early twentieth century. Large-scale oil production gave rise, in turn, to the petrochemical industry, which would stimulate the use of chemical fertilisers for agriculture. Further indirect consequences of the second Industrial Revolution were manifested throughout the twentieth century, in the types of cities in which much of the rich countries' populations would live, in the industries in which they worked, and in the consumer goods they would buy.

World coal output during the second Industrial Revolution dwarfed that of the first Industrial Revolution; it rose sixfold between 1870 and 1913. (See Figure 2.) By the turn of the century there were modern mines operating on all continents, but the lion's share of production and consumption was in Britain, France, Germany and the USA. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, coal consumption in the USA surpassed the total for western Europe and the USA became the largest consumer nation. Oil and gas production, which was negligible in the nineteenth century, was estimated jointly at 37.4 million tonnes of coal equivalent (tce) in 1900 and 96.6 million tce in 1913.

Electricity, the first significant technology of the second Industrial Revolution, had first been generated for industrial applications by hand-driven dynamos in the 1830s, a few years after Michael Faraday's 1831 discovery of the relationship between electric current, magnetism and force. In the 1840s, larger generators were turned by waterwheels or steam engines. The first big source of demand, in the 1870s, was electric lighting for streets, department stores, theatres and the homes of the rich – but it had to compete with well-established gas lighting systems. The invention of electric light bulbs in 1879 by Thomas Edison in the USA and Joseph Swan in Britain provided the impulse for the first networks, which opened in London and New York in 1882. The generators for these systems were powered by large steam engines. The much lighter and smaller steam turbine, patented by Charles Parsons in 1884, was a crucial technological breakthrough: successors of Parsons's engine have generated most of the world's electricity since then. Edison's first generators produced 90 kW; within thirty years turbine-powered generators were often 100 times more powerful. In Britain the average size of generators installed rose from 500 kW in 1895 to 5 MW in 1913; in Chicago, a 35 MW generator was installed in 1910.

The first electricity networks were local, each plant usually serving a factory or urban area. Large cities had patchworks of isolated systems: by 1900, London had ten different frequencies, 32 voltage levels and 70 different ways of charging for electricity. Networks were unified with the help of transformers and alternating current (AC) transmission systems that could carry electricity over long distances. On the eve of the First World War in 1914, globally there were 55 high-voltage transmission lines, between 30 and 400 km long, mostly in the USA. National electricity networks underpinned the development of the telegraph and telephone, revolutionising communications.

Fossil fuels dominated urban electricity systems from the start. In the countryside, the picture was mixed. Wind turbines began to be used in Denmark from the 1890s and in other European countries soon afterwards. In the USA, hundreds of thousands of farms installed wind turbines in the 1920s–1930s, before they had access to network electricity. In the interwar period, and again during the post-war boom, the growth of centralised networks would push wind power to the margins.


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Table of Contents

Figures, viii,
Tables, ix,
Acknowledgments, x,
Units of measurement, xi,
Acronyms and abbreviations, xiii,
Introduction, 1,
1. Fossil fuels before 1950, 9,
2. Energy technologies, 25,
3. Energy in society, 38,
4. Fossil fuel consumption in numbers, 53,
5. The 1950s and 1960s: post-war boom, 79,
6. The 1970s: crises and oil price shocks, 93,
7. Patterns of electrification, 107,
8. The 1980s: recession and recovery, 122,
9. The 1990s: shunning the global warming challenge, 138,
10. The 2000s: acceleration renewed, 153,
11. Interpretations and ideologies, 173,
12. Possibilities, 181,
13. Conclusions, 193,
Appendix 1. Measuring environmental impacts, energy flows and inequalities, 201,
Appendix 2. Additional figures and tables, 208,
Notes, 212,
Further reading and bibliography, 247,
Index, 249,

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