Global history of fossil fuel consumption

I am working on a book on the global history of fossil fuel consumption since 1950, which will be published by Pluto Press in August 2018.

I have completed the first draft of the book, and during the next few months (from July 2017) will be sharing the main conclusions with friends and colleagues at seminars and meetings.

If you are interested in discussing the project, please email me at simonpirani [at]

There are links below to some articles and presentations.

The global history of fossil fuel consumption since 1950: introduction

Each year, fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) are consumed in ever-greater quantities, despite the danger of global warming, which makes such large-scale consumption unsustainable. The facts of consumption growth are at odds with ever-more-insistent claims that we are moving to a post-fossil-fuel era. Clearly, the causes of consumption growth are very strong. The purpose of this book is to put them into historical perspective.

The book covers the period since 1950, because it was in the second half of the twentieth century that fossil fuel consumption expanded to levels associated with dangerous global warming. The fossil fuel industries had taken a central place in rich countries’ economies long before that, and taken their toll on humans and on the natural environment they live in. Tens of thousands of coal miners were buried, burned alive, gassed, blown up or otherwise killed in the production process. Millions of city-dwellers’ lives were painfully cut short by coal-related air pollution. But the threats to human society implicit in global warming – including the effects of rising sea levels, ruination of agriculture and the destabilising effects of storms – are on a still greater scale.  

The accumulation in the atmosphere of the greenhouse gases that cause warming is foremost among dangerous phenomena identified by integrated scientific studies of the changing relationship between human society and nature. Others include the substantial, and largely irreversible, loss of biodiversity, and the disruption of the nitrogen cycle, associated with industrial and agricultural activity. A consensus has emerged in earth systems science that the period since the mid twentieth century may be defined as a “great acceleration”. A major research project on interactions between human society and the physical environment between 1750 and 2000 confirmed a sharp intensification of human impacts in the last half century of that period. (See W. Steffen et al, Global Change and the Earth System (Springer, 2005)). Many questions remain unresolved about exactly which activities, by which humans, have caused these changes, An aim of this book is to make a contribution to clarifying that.

It has been clear to climate scientists since the mid 1980s, and accepted in international political forums since the early 1990s, that the global warming danger necessitates sharp reductions in the level of fossil fuel consumption. But it has kept rising. It swelled by nearly three eighths in the quarter century between 1990 – when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its First Assessment Report, formally urging a strategy to reduce consumption – and 2015. At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, the world’s most powerful governments failed to agree on such a strategy, and by the Paris summit in 2015 admitted that they could not. In a century’s time, when the impacts of global warming will be much more ruinous than they are today, people may look back at this failure as collective madness. There may be an analogy with the way that people today view Europe’s descent in to the barbaric slaughter of the first world war, a century ago, as collective madness. It was madness, but it had definite political, social and economic causes that historians have sought to understand. In this book I will try to do the same with aspects of the madness that is producing global warming.

Fossil fuels are consumed primarily through social, economic and technological systems, and these are this book’s main focus. Relatively small quantities of coal, oil and gas are consumed directly by individuals and households, e.g. for heating or cooking, or (in the form of oil products) to fuel their cars. But mostly fossil fuels are consumed indirectly. They are used in the production of materials – from steel and cement to plastics and fertilisers – for industry and agriculture, which in turn produce goods for consumption; as fuel for industry and for transporting goods; for construction; for military or other state functions; or as fuel to produce electricity, which in turn has multiple uses. Even where individuals consume fossil fuels directly in the technological sense, e.g. petrol in a family car, they do so in the context of social and economic systems over which they may have little control – in this case, urban development that sites homes, jobs and shops far from each other, car-based transport systems, and so on.

The systems through which fossil fuels are consumed have since 1950 evolved, in particular, through six social and economic processes: industrialisation, and especially the expansion of energy-intensive industries such as steel and aluminium production, cement production and car manufacture; technological and other changes in the labour process, both in industry and in the sphere of domestic labour; electrification, which was pretty well completed in Europe and North America during the post-war boom, but in most of the world continued throughout the period since then; urbanisation and motorisation; and household material consumption and the growth of consumerism. These are all considered in detail in the book.

The interpretive approach of this book, with a focus on these social, economic and technological systems, is at odds with the assumption, shared by many economists, that the function of any economy is essentially to serve consumers’ demand. In my view, production and consumption in the global economy have a symbiotic relationship, determined ultimately by the relations of wealth and power in the economy. The driving forces for economic expansion lie ultimately in the constant urge of capital to accumulate, that is, for the wealth and power that dominates society to renew and reassert its dominance. By making social, economic and technological systems the starting-point, my interpretation also contrasts with a great deal of writing about consumption, which concentrates on the cultural and social contexts in which mass consumption has expanded in rich countries over the last century, and on consumers’ psychological motivations. Cultural and social trends, and psychologies, certainly form part of the story, but in my view they need to be considered together with the constraints on consumers – constraints usually associated with the social, economic and technological systems mentioned.

Frank Trentmann concluded a recent major history of consumption by declaring that public discussion is needed about the “environmental costs” of society’s “high and rising level of consumption” (F. Trentmann, Empire of Things, Allen Lane 2016). The economic historian Adam Tooze responded in a review that Trentmann’s approach – which views consumption as “individualistic, creative and cosmopolitan”, “essentially within our control”, and subject to politics – did not allow examination of the way that consumption is “crashing against environmental limits”. The history of “rampant fossil-fuel consumption” has to be addressed; we need “a history that shows how consumption and production became tied together in an expanding feedback loop of ever greater economic and material scope”(A. Tooze, “A sweeping history”, the Guardian, 25 June 2016). Hopefully this book is a step on that path.

Presentations and articles

Video: a talk on "How fossil fuel use became unsustainable", given at the Radical Anthropology Group on 20 February 2018 

■ Why haven't we turned our backs on hydrocarbons yet? Interview with Pro-Ved (a Russian economic news web site). In English here, and Russian original here.

Why unsustainable global fossil fuel use keeps on growing - my guest post for the LSE Grantham Research Institute, 21 September 2017.

"How global fossil fuel use became unsustainable", 1950-2017 - presentation at the LSE Grantham Research Institute, 19 September 2017.

"Tracking corporate power in fossil fuel production and use" (London Green Left Blog, August 2017).

The Paris climate agreement after Trump (article in Labour Briefing, July 2017)

Fossil fuel consumption outside the rich countries: research questions. (Presentation at the World Ecology Network conference, 15-16 July 2016, Durham University, UK.)

Global fossil fuel consumption, 1950 to the present: seven histories in one. (Presentation at the Planetary Natures conference, July 2015, Binghamton university, USA.)

The global drivers of fossil fuel consumption. Is the IPCC looking at them the right way? (Presentation at a seminar, 1 October 2015 on “How fossil fuel consumption shapes the lives communities lead”.)

■ Drivers of global fossil fuel consumption since 1950: notes here and slides here. (Presentation in Sheffield and London, November 2014.)

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