Center for Environmental Policy and Administration

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

Author:Matthew Huber
Date: 2009
Publication:Geoforum 40(1): 105-115.

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.


Matthew T Huber
Center for Environmental Policy and Administration
The Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Revised 02/09/2011 19:09:51