From stream to steam

Transitioning from dirty energy is also the only option for humanity’s survival

Imran Jan January 10, 2021
The writer is a political analyst. Email: [email protected] Twitter @Imran_Jan

Many thinkers concerned about climate change often ask this question as to whether Industrial Revolution or capitalism is the culprit behind the degradation of our environment. The reality is that the two are partners in crime. Capitalism built its bones on the back of the Industrial Revolution, which came about with dirty energy squeezed from the naturally occurring commodities on Earth. In the history of humanity’s advancement, success, and wealth generation, not much entrepreneurship was ever involved. It was all achieved mainly by burning coal and oil.

The Industrial Revolution happened when machines replaced the work of human beings. Energy was needed to power those machines. This is where the story of capitalism and Industrial Revolution takes shape. The business took on a certain course, which put the world on a path to the planet’s destruction. Usually water puts down fires and red-hot coal. In this story, however, coal burns the water down.

Businesses used to use water as a source to generate power. Machines were taken to water streams where the moving water helped run machines. The problem with that was that businesses were confined to certain locations only. Businesses had to be able to find labour only in those locations. Many people may not have been willing to live there because there were better jobs in the cities where the markets were. Also, indigenous populations resisted the idea of businesses coming to their place and exploiting the clean water resources, polluting the area. Indigenous people also were not comfortable to work under a manager who had come to their town, dictating rules of business.

Then came coal. It was a fantastic source of energy. It solved the problem of being confined to locations with water streams. Depending on a natural source of water stream was replaced by burning coal. Business became able to be moved to any location because coal could be moved anywhere for burning and power generation. Corporations could now move their operations to cities where there was an abundance of skilled labour, willing to be exploited.

And as Andreas Malm explains in his book, Fossil Capital, the steam engine provided a great source of energy but the transition from water wheels to steam engine wasn’t because the latter was a cheaper alternative. Indeed, waterpower was less expensive at the time and the technology for driving machines with waterpower was quite advanced. The real benefit for businesses was the ability to employ exploitable labour to work in horrible working conditions of England. There was a larger labour workforce in the cities than by the water stream. While that changed the trajectory of business, it also changed our course and put us on a path from clean energy generated by water to the dirty one, creating carbon emissions.

And ever since there has been no looking back. Technology developed and machines evolved creating energy using coal and oil. Sophistication came in machines and technology but not in how energy would be produced. Efficiency was achieved creating machines that consumed less energy and gave more output. However, no innovation was achieved, advertently or inadvertently, in what resources would be exploited to create that energy.

The marvels of human invention such as George Stephenson’s train to Elon Musk’s Tesla only represent wishful thinking and our need to tap ourselves on the back. Stephenson’s train and Musk’s Tesla are powered using the same coal and oil. It may not be cheaper to shift to solar, wind and nuclear as sources of clean energy. But just as a transition was made to a more expensive source of energy to exploit human beings, let us make another expensive transition to clean energy, except this time to save humanity. Countries strive to achieve nuclear weapons because for many going nuclear is the only option for national survival. Transitioning from dirty energy is also the only option for humanity’s survival.


Published in The Express Tribune, January 11th, 2021.

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