Energizing historical materialism: Fossil fuels, space and the capitalist mode of production

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176 Scopus citations


In this paper, I present a theoretical argument that fossil fuel represents a historically specific and internally necessary aspect of the capitalist mode of production. Despite sustained attention to distributional conflicts between international capital and energy rich nation-states, few historical-materialists have paid attention to the relations between fossil fuel and capital accumulation in industrial capitalist societies. In opposition to ecological economic notions of fixed thermodynamic "laws", I first propose a dialectical conception of energy as embedded in dynamic social processes and power relations. Second, I review the historical importance of the energy shift from solar or biological sources of energy (muscles, wind, and water) to fossilized sources of energy (coal, oil, and gas). I then demonstrate how attention to fossil fuel energy forces a reexamination of the core insights of ecological Marxism and the political economy of nature. In the core argument of the paper, I reconsider the shift from biological to fossil energy as internal to the generalization and extension of capitalist social relations from two basic vantage points - (1) capitalist production based on wage labor; (2) the spatial conditions of capitalist circulation. I conclude by asking whether it is accurate to conceptualize capitalism as a "fossil fuel mode of production" and highlight the political urgency of a historical materialist perspective that takes seriously the importance of energy to the reproduction of capitalist social relations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)105-115
Number of pages11
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Capitalism
  • Coal
  • Ecological economics
  • Energy
  • Fossil fuel
  • Marxist political economy
  • Space
  • Wage labor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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