Burning Up: a global history of fossil fuel consumption

My book, Burning Up: a global history of fossil fuel consumption, has been published by Pluto Press (August 2018). The book traces the inexorable increase in oil, gas and coal use since the mid 20th century - and shows how consumption growth accelerated since the discovery of global warming in the 1980s. It argues that fuels are mainly consumed through technological systems, which are in turn embedded in social, economic and political systems - and that the transition away from fossil fuels will mean the transformation of all of these.

You can order the book from Pluto Press, the publisher, here, from Amazon here, or from your friendly local bookseller.

I write a blog, often on related issues, at peoplenature.org, and tweet @SimonPirani1.

"Insightful, precise and well-written, Burning Up turns energy consumption on its head. Pirani fills a crucial gap left by a mountain of shiny but vacuous reports and not enough solid history ... Anybody fighting climate change should read this" - Mika Minio-Paluello, campaigner at Platform London and co-author of The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London (Verso, 2013)

"This meticulous depiction of how fossil fuels are woven into our human systems - not only technological but also economic, social and political - is an invaluable aid to getting them back under control" - Walt Patterson, author of Electricity vs Fire (2015)

"Explains the technological, social and economic processes that have prioritised a particular way of satisfying society's demand for energy services" - Michael Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy, Warwick Business School, UK, author of Global Energy Dilemmas (2013)

Video and audio

"The system won't end climate change. The system is climate change." An audio interview with ThisisHell! radio, July 2019. Listen on line here: I come in at 26 minutes 45 secs.

■ PlutoPress podcast: Radicals in Conversation - Climate Justice. With Asad Rehman (War on Want), Chaitanya Kumar (Green Alliance), Anna Taylor (UK Student Climate Network)  and me. July 2019.

■  Talking Shop podcast #9 Burning Up on New Syndicalist radio, June 2019.

An interview with me on Michael LaBelle's podcast (Central European University). The first 29 minutes are on the Russia-Ukraine gas disputes (another area I research); the last 15 minutes are on the history of fossil fuel use. - 7 March 2019

A Jacobin Radio podcast: an interview with me about "fossil fuel transitions" by Suzi Weissmann, January 2019

Interviews and other stuff

"Adults have abdicated climate responsibility" - a talk I gave in Dublin, reported in the Irish Times, 18 February 2019

Until We Confront Capitalism, We Will Not Solve the Climate Crisis. - Interview with Truthout (USA), December 2018

Moving Away From Fossil Fuels Isn't Separate From Moving Towards Social Justice. - Interview with The Wire (India), December 2018

How We Stop the World From "Burning Up" - excerpt from my book, published by Truthout.org (USA), December 2018

A Brief History of Not Dealing with Climate Change. - Interview with Vice News UK, November 2018


"Experts and non-experts can extract a great deal of information and awareness from this book. That Pirani sought to construct a global study is highly commendable and only increases its utility" - Martin Melosi in American Historical Review (September 2022) 

■ “What I found to be so useful about Pirani’s approach was his willingness to do the impossible, to give a strong outline of the numbers and the systemic histories that produced those numbers.” – Christopher Cox in Capitalism Nature Socialism (February 2020)

“Pirani’s main message is that people consume energy, including fossil fuels, through technological systems that are embedded in social and economic systems. Rather than assuming that aggregate economic development and population increase have been the primary causes of the staggering growth in fossil fuel consumption since 1950, Pirani analyses the political, economic and social factors that help to determine levels of consumption.” - David Painter in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History 50:3 (2020)

"a well-researched and detailed study of the evolution of fossil fuel dependency" - Lindon Scott Belshe in IAEE Energy Journal

"Pirani should be congratulated on providing a detailed and comprehensive view of energy consumption and systems - one that is both understandable and technical. Pirani also gives a reasoned call to action, based on solid foundations" - David Fishman in The Political Quarterly

"Burning Up is to be heartily recommended as both rich in detail and capacious in scope. The environmental movement has been in need of a book like this for some time." - Troy Vettese in the Boston Review, October 2019

"A fascinating and disturbing analysis of how the influence of the fossil fuel industry and its short-term financial advantage has come to outweigh the scientific evidence and the welfare of humanity in the minds of politicians" - Paul Brown on Climate News Network, July 2019

“Burning Up takes a structural and a muscular evidence-based tack; in doing so, it shows us the dominant axis of evil driving climate change” – H. Patricia Hynes on Truthdig, April 2019

“The skill and care with which the historical basis underpins thoughts about future possibilities is impressive, as is the cautious and often inevitably pessimistic realism with which these possibilities are evaluated. [...] the power of the writing, with regard to the density of the early chapters, and the succinct clarity and elegant discrimination throughout, makes the challenge of capturing it in a brief review quite daunting” - Frank Oldfield on The Anthropocene Review blog, February 2019

"Combining political and moral philosophy, science, wide-ranging social history and statistics, and drawing on abundant supplies of published academic and other research, Pirani concludes that the only answer to the problem is a drastic rearrangement of energy systems. […] it is useless to expect this shift in attitudes [to industry, wage labour, manufacturing and the use of energy-intensive materials] to come from governments. […] Civil society will, Pirani believes, succeed in this aim, eventually, by tapping into resources of solidarity and collective action that people might not have known they had." - William Powell in Natural Gas World, December 2018

"A deeply researched book of vast scope" - the Inquisitive Biologist, November 2018

"Deserves a wide and urgent discussion" - Luke Neal on Climate and Capitalism, November 2018

"This book points towards a transformative economic and social approach to the use of energy" - Gordon Peters on the London Green Left blog, October 2018

Presentations and articles

How have Greta Thunberg and the school climate strikes made a difference? - State of Nature blog, October 2019

Climate Change: what history tells us - EnergyIntel, May 2019

Burning Up and the Age of Environmental Breakdown - presentation at the Rethinking Economics conference, University of Greenwich, 30 March 2019

Seeking a future free of fossil fuels: why the past matters - Energy Futures Lab (Imperial College London) blog post, 28 March 2019

Why It's So Hard to Trace the Patterns of Unsustainable Fossil Fuel Use - The Conversation, 26 March 2019

We Need to Live Differently - Roar magazine, 28 February 2019

Electric Cars Won't Break Our Fossil Fuel Dependency - CityMetric, 23 January 2019

Technological change in electricity: why history matters - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, November 2018

We need to talk about technology - The Ecologist, 5 October 2018

Climate action means changing technological, social and economic systems - The Ecologist, 18 September 2018

Air conditioning, fossil fuels and history - History Today, September 2018

Plastics and fossil fuels: follow the technological systems - History Workshop Journal, 29 August 2018

The road away from fossil fuels - Red Pepper, 28 August 2018

The truth about the fight against fossil fuels - Pluto Press blog, August 2018

Fossil fuel consumption since 1950: the other side of the extractivist coin. Presentation at the World Ecology Research Network conference, Helsinki, 16 August 2018

"How Did It Come To This? Unsustainable fossil fuel consumption in historical perspective, 1950-2018". Notes and slides from a presentation at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, 24 May 2018

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)


Burning Up: a global history of fossil fuel consumption: 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 technological systems, which are in turn embedded in social, economic and political 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.


Bibliography for Burning Up 

A complete bibliography for my book, Burning Up: a global history of fossil fuel consumption (London: Pluto Press, 2018), is downloadable as a PDF file here. The works mentioned are also referred to in the footnotes to the book itself.  


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