Global Capitalism and Oil: Thoughts on Carbon Democracy

Confession: Timothy Mitchell’s book frustrated me. I found it difficult to conceptualize oil as a political force in the way he was asking. Not because I think he’s wrong, but because the basic premise—that carbon-based energy literally and metaphorically fueled (and continues to fuel) Western democracy both practically and conceptually—felt like nothing I had ever read before. I had to read it slowly and carefully like an entirely new piece of theory. (I’m also no economist or political scientist, so take that how you will.) The point where I felt I could actually wrap my mind around Mitchell’s theory came with the growth of global capitalism alongside the oil industry.

Capitalism, oil, labor, imperialism, industrialized culture—it’s all bound together for Mitchell. He writes, “The leading industrialised countries are also oil states. Without the energy they derive from oil their current forms of political and economic life would not exist. Their citizens have developed ways of eating, travelling, housing themselves and consuming other goods and services that require very large amounts of energy from oil and other fossil fuels. These ways of life are not sustainable, and they now face the twin crises that will end them” (6). Those twin crises—1) fossil fuels are running out and 2) the planet is damaged beyond repair— suggest that politico-economic change is imminent. But what will that change look like? Maybe one of the following…

Capitalist Status Quo

Capitalism makes too much sense to the people who profit from it (corporations and the wealthy elite), and the people who profit from it control the resources and have the power to influence national and global politics. Once the oil runs out and we, as a global populace, are forced to embrace clean(er) more renewable energy sources (let’s say solar for the sake of an example) then dependency simply transfers from now-limited or obsolete carbon-based resources to the newest indefinite energy resource: the sun. Overconsumption continues, albeit within a new frame that will undoubtedly restructure global politics and economies. Perhaps the U.S. focus would shift from the oil-laden Middle East to sunny Africa under this new “solar” democracy? Private corporations would continue to capitalize on and monopolize clean(er) energies.

To illustrate, Ian McEwan satirizes global capitalism and clean energy in his 2010 novel Solar, which explores the implications of shifting from carbon-based energy to solar energy. In the following passage, a businessman, Toby, set to invest in the solar panel industry expresses concern to his business partner. Toby is unsure whether or not people are convinced that global warming actually exists. His business partner attempts to calm his fears. Toby begins:

“If the place isn’t hotting up, we’re fucked.”

“Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Even as we speak, Bangladesh is going down because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. There’s drought in the Amazon rain forest. Methane is pouring out of the Siberian permafrost. There’s a meltdown under the Greenland ice sheet that no one really wants to talk about. Amateur yachts-men have been sailing the Northwest Passage. Two years ago we lost forty percent of the Arctic summer ice. Now the eastern Antarctic is going. The future has arrived, Toby.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You’re not convinced. Here’s the worst case. Suppose the near impossible—the thousand are wrong and the one is right, the data are all skewed, there’s no warming. It’s a mass delusion among scientists, or a plot. Then we still have the old standbys. Energy security, air pollution, peak oil.”

“No one’s going to buy a fancy panel from us just because the oil’s going to run out in thirty years.”

“Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!” (McEwan 251)

Even catastrophe is ripe for capitalist profiteering. Catastrophic planetary collapse—it’s good news!


Can post-oil signify post-capitalism? Nafeez Ahmed thinks so: “The death of the age of oil is, therefore, symptomatic of the end of the capitalism itself” (Beyond Extinction). Is this too idealistic? Will humans find some new substance to mine and burn in order to sustain Amazon Prime? Or, perhaps, will humans start viewing themselves as inhabitants of the land instead of owners of the land? I hope so. We would have to start by reducing our consumption and de-industrializing ourselves. Our technological abilities and industrial capabilities might actually be disabling us.

Further Reading: Nafeez Ahmed, “Beyond Extinction—The Transition to Post-Capitalism is Inevitable.” (Last two sections on “Renewal” and “Revolution” particularly relevant.)

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