James Watt, Capitalism and Climate Change

This year, 2015, marks the 250 anniversary of James Watt’s steam engine. A form of steam engine had been in use since 1712. Watt’s breakthrough in 1765 made the steam engine operate more efficiently so it needed less coal and was cheaper to run. Due to technical problems, it was not until 1776 that the first full size Watt engine began work pumping water from a coal mine. It took another 20 years of development before Watt’s engine could be used to directly power machinery in a cotton spinning factory. Even then, it was only after Richard Trevithick pioneered the use of smaller- high pressure- steam engines in 1800 that they became practical for use in factories, in steam locomotives and in steam ships.

So, although Watt’s invention was an essential step towards an industrial revolution, the full impact of the shift to a coal fuelled, steam powered economy was not experienced until the nineteenth century. This is important since it meant that Watt’s eighteenth century Scottish contemporaries -James Steuart and Adam Smith -developed their theories of political economy (Steuart 1767, Smith 1776) based on a society and economy reliant on renewable sources of energy. In such an economy, sea transport relied on wind power and land transport by road or canal on horse power. The energy which drove manufacturing industries was water power and human labour.

The revolution which had most impact in eighteenth century Scotland was not an industrial revolution. It was an agricultural revolution. Across lowland Scotland, the heirs to the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture (set up in 1723) swept away a 600 year old system of subsistence farming. Its replacement was an improved system of enlightened agriculture based on rational if not always scientific principles. Although only a few members of the Scottish Enlightenment were directly involved in the agricultural revolution, they were all eye-witnesses to the transformation of a medieval landscape into a modern one.

This had two significant impacts. Firstly, it led the Scots thinkers to develop dynamic theories of society in which early societies based on hunting gave way to pastoral societies based on livestock farming, then more advanced societies based on arable farming. The final stage in this process was a society based on commerce and trade. This ‘civil society’ was also more enlightened and better educated than earlier societies ands so less warlike and superstitious than previous stages of society.

Secondly, it was believed that as the limits of agricultural improvement were reached, economic growth would begin to slow. The problem foreseen was that as improvement was extended to more marginal/ less fertile land a law of diminishing returns would kick in. The cost of improvement would become greater than the profits from improvement. The growth in population which the first phase of improvement had encouraged- when food quantity had risen while food costs had fallen- would start to slow. At the same time wages would have to rise as food prices rose and this would act as a check on economic growth. The end point of the process would be the ‘stationary state’ beyond which further economic growth would be impossible.

In theory then, as the agricultural revolution reached its limits in the nineteenth century, the rapid growth of economy and population which had occurred in the eighteenth century would begin to tail away. This did not happen. Instead both the economy and the population of Scotland (and the UK) grew dramatically in the nineteenth century. One reason why this occurred is that the commercial class of the new civil society revolutionised the economy. Just as the agricultural improvers had applied enlightened rationality to farming, so the economic improvers applied enlightened rationality to industry and commerce.

However, while it was accepted that agricultural improvement was a long term process which could not show rapid results, investments in industry and commerce took place within a much more competitive environment. This led to a form of economic evolution in which capital invested in businesses which improved production was reproduced while capital invested in businesses which did not improve production was lost.

If this process had been confined to one country, problems of, for example, food and raw materials supply , would still have limited economic growth and the stationary state would still have been reached. But the UK was already a trading nation with overseas colonies so the problem of ’capitalism in ne country’ did not arise. At its simplest, the UK was able to exchange manufactured goods (produced cheaply via competition) with food and raw materials from other countries and its colonies. This exchange then had the effect of pushing other countries to improve their manufacturing industries or risk becoming economic colonies of the UK.

Could this revolutionary process have been achieved without a simultaneous shift from renewable energy sources to fossil fuels? Put another way, could capital have gone global without setting climate change in motion?

The first question has been argued over by historians and economists in discussions about the importance of coal in the origins of the industrial revolution. The case for coal has been made by Tony Wrigley who has estimated that English coal production in 1800 produced energy equivalent to 11 million acres of woodland against a total English land area of 32 million acres. [E A Wrigley ‘Energy and the English Industrial Revolution’, Cambridge 2010, p. 39]. The implication being that, in a variation on the stationary state theory, to fuel the English industrial revolution, land which was necessary for food production and animal fodder would have had to have been given over to timber production and that this would have created a conflict between economic growth and population growth.

The counter-argument is that cheap timber from around the Baltic or from north America could have been imported as a substitute for coal. While this might have worked if cost alone was the deciding factor in choosing between coal and wood as a fuel, the need to transport huge volumes of timber from sea-ports to end users would have been immense. When a railway from Liverpool to Manchester was proposed in 1825, a Liverpool timber importer supported the railway because the existing roads and canals could not cope with Manchester’s increasing demand for timber. In 1821 100 000 tons of Baltic and Canadian timber had arrived at Liverpool. By 1824 this had increased to 160 000 tons. This wood was not need for fuel so delays in transporting it were not critical. But if Manchester’s cotton mills had relied on timber for fuel, any delays would have forced the cotton mills to close. The railway opened in 1830 and solved the transportt problem-by using coal fuelled steam engines.

1830 also saw the beginnings of a coal fuelled industrial revolution in Scotland. Here, the coal was used to produce iron. Wood, as charcoal, had been used 100 years earlier in iron furnaces in the Highlands where there were still extensive forests. But although there was wood, there was no iron ore in the Highlands so the industry had not taken off. In Lanarkshire and Ayrshire coal and iron ore were both present so the industry was able to expand rapidly. The use of coal (as coke) allowed the size of iron furnaces to grow, making iron production more efficient. By the 1860s, iron furnaces in north-east England were 100 feet tall. In theory, these furnaces could have used charcoal from Baltic timber but the charcoal furnaces would have had to be much smaller to stop the weight of iron ore crushing the charcoal. The economies of scale would therefore have been lost and millions of tons of wood would have had to be imported to replace the 3 millions tons of coal the north-east England iron industry consumed annually in the 1860s.

To summarise, without coal the British industrial revolution which began in the late eighteenth century would have faltered in the nineteenth century instead of continuing to develop and expand. But the coal was used and its use allowed the British industrial revolution to continue. This in turn allowed the UK to become the dominant global power in the nineteenth century, compelling rival economies to adopt coal fuelled industrialisation. In the twentieth century another fossil fuel- oil- came into use. The cumulative impact of burning billions of tons of coal and oil has been to release enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to trigger global warming. Global warming in turn is now driving global climate change.

One of the impacts of global warming, which is already becoming apparent, is a gradual rise in sea levels which will at some point overwhelm the flood defences of cities like London . Meanwhile climate , through prolonged droughts and extreme floods , will impact on food production. Our ability to adapt to these impacts depends on how quickly we can shift to renewable energy sources and make the decision to leave as yet unused resources of coal and oil in the ground rather than burning them.

If we lived in a rational and enlightened world, the accumulation of scientific research into the relationship between global warming and climate change would by now see huge efforts being put into de-carbonising the global economy. There would be recognition that although burning coal and oil has delayed the onset of the stationary state for 200 years, there really are limits to economic growth and that we have now reached those limits.

Why then are there so few signs of transition to the stationary state? In ‘The Enigma of Capital’ (London, 2010) David Harvey provides some clues to the answer. Using work done by Angus Maddison, Harvey notes that in 1820 ‘the total output of goods and services in the capitalist world economy was $694 billion’. By 1913 the figure was $2.7 trillion, by 1950 $5.3 trillion, 1973 $16 trillion, 2003 $41 trillion and by 2009 $56.2 trillion. Harvey goes on to state that ‘Throughout the history of capitalism, the annual compound growth rate has been close to 2.25%;’ and that to maintain the ‘health’ (profitability) of capitalism requires an annual growth rate of 3%. If the growth rate falls below 1%, capitalists make no profit. As Harvey goes on to explain:

When capitalism was made up of activity within a fifty-mile radius of Manchester and Birmingham in England and a few other hotspots in 1750, then seemingly endless capital accumulation at a compound rate of 3% posed no big problem.

But if we bring global warming into the equation, there was a big problem. As discussed above, for the English industrial revolution to take-off after 1750, a shift from renewable sources of energy to coal had to take place. If this shift had not taken place then ‘seemingly endless capital accumulation at compound rate of 3%’ would not have been possible. The growth rate would have fallen towards 1% – the stationary state again- and the early capitalists would have made no profit. No coal, no capitalism…no capitalism, no climate change.

This relationship between coal, capital and climate change helps to explain why it is proving so difficult, effectively impossible, to cut global carbon dioxide emissions. For the past 250 years, ever since James Watt invented the world’s first thermodynamically efficient steam engine, global economic growth has been intimately tied-up with the use of fossil fuels as an energy source. The social impact of this prolonged period of economic growth has been to embed the belief that the only practically possible way to organise society is on the basis of ‘endless capital accumulation’ -what Mark Fisher has described as ‘capitalist realism’.

Under capitalist realism there is no alternative to business as usual. Under capitalist realise we have no choice but to keep burning coal and oil so capital can keep accumulating and the economy keep growing. Is this rational? With the possible exception of the theory of evolution, no branch of science has been subjected to the same level of sustained and vehement criticism as climate science has. Yet the science has survived these attacks and is now as certain as any part of scientific rationality can be. Climate change is real and it is rational. If so, then capitalist realism cannot be rational. If it is not rational than it is not real. If it is not real then it is a form of myth. An illusion, a delusion. If it is not true then it must be false, it must be a lie.

There is a savage irony at play here. As Donald Cardwell explains so lucidly, James Watt was aware that his steam engine would be more expensive to manufacture than Newcomen’s simpler atmospheric engines. Watt therefore had to ensure that his engine could save enough fuel (coal) to be an economically viable product. Unlike John Seaton (1724-1792) who dramatically increased the efficiency of the Newcomen engine through a lengthy process of trial and error, the need to maximise the economic efficiency of his engine made Watt the founder of a new science- thermodynamics.

In particular, Cardwell draws attention to the patent application Watt took out 4 January 1769 in which the steam cylinder is to be kept as hot as the steam entering it while the condensing cylinder is to be kept as cold as possible. ‘These ideas…constituted the basis of thermodynamics; but nearly sixty years were to elapse before cognate scientific knowledge and technological practice had advanced sufficiently for Sadi Carnot (1796-1834) to present them in one great synthesis.’ [ D. Cardwell ‘From Watt to Clausius-The Rise of Thermodynamics in the Early Industrial Age’, Cornell University Press 1971, p. 55]

The science of thermodynamics is an essential foundation for the science of global warming and climate change. Furthermore, as Cardwell shows, there was a symbiotic relationship between the advance of thermodynamics as a science and the economically driven development of increasingly efficient heat-engines. The rational- thermodynamics- emerged out of the irrational- the pursuit of ‘seemingly endless’ economic growth.

From the 1840s onwards, as the new science of thermodynamics was being developed from the work of Watt and Carnot, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx developed their rational critique of capitalism.

In 1790, before steam power had been applied to cotton spinning, Manchester had a population of 40 000. By 1831, after steam power had been applied, the population had grown to 142 000. One of Manchester’s new inhabitants was Peter Ermen who arrived from Germany as a 23 year old in 1825. Ermen set up as a manufacturer of cotton thread and his two brothers Godfrey and Anthony later joined him there. In 1838 Peter Ermen decided to set up a new business and went into partnership with Friedrich Engels from Barmen in Prussian Germany. The new firm of Ermen and Engels shared its offices with the existing Ermen brothers firm. To keep an eye on his investment, in 1842 Friedrich Engels sent his 22 year old son, also called Friedrich, over to Manchester where he stayed for 2 years.

During these two years in Manchester, Friedrich Engels junior met Mary Burns, an Irish working class woman who was to become his partner until her death in 1861. Through Mary, Engels was able to ‘discover the proletariat’ as Stathis Kouvelakis puts it [ ‘Philosophy and Revolution From Kant To Marx‘, Verso 2003, Chapter 4]. Karl Marx published reports of Engels discovery in publications he was editing which then formed the basis for Engels book ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ published in 1845. In 1850 Engels returned to work for Ermen and Engels in Manchester where he stayed until 1870.

The Proletariat originated in the industrial revolution, which took place in England in the last half of the last (18th) century, and which has since then been repeated in all the civilized countries of the world. This industrial revolution was precipitated by the discovery of the steam engine, various spinning machines, the mechanical loom, and a whole series of other mechanical devices. These machines, which were very expensive and hence could be bought only by big capitalists, altered the whole mode of production and displaced the former workers, because the machines turned out cheaper and better commodities than the workers could produce with their inefficient spinning wheels and handlooms. The machines delivered industry wholly into the hands of the big capitalists and rendered entirely worthless the meagre property of the workers (tools, looms, etc.). The result was that the capitalists soon had everything in their hands and nothing remained to the workers. This marked the introduction of the factory system into the textile industry. [Friedrich Engels ‘The Principles of Communism’, 1847, Part 4]

Although Engels mentions the steam engine here, it is listed along with other expensive ‘mechanical devices’. In 1847 (or even 1947) it was not possible to anticipate that by 2047 the industrial revolution which placed everything in the capitalists hands leaving nothing for the workers would have changed the world’s climate. This raises a question- with the climate change clock ticking away in the background, will the Proletariat be able to gain the upper hand over the Capitalists before 2 to 4 degrees Celsius of global warming becomes irreversible and we all become bit players in a Mad Max movie?

At the rate of current progress in the struggle between capital and labour, the answer is no. The cotton factories of Manchester have passed over into history but the capitalism they gave birth to continues to shape and reshape our world and our lives in its image. The workers of the world are still exploited and still in chains. As the Clash put it in 1976, all the power is [still] in the hands of the people rich enough to buy it.

1976 also saw the publication of a book which laid the foundations for what was to become the Green movement. Although the science of climate change and global warming was not directly mentioned in the book, the ‘radical technology’ of its title focused on the need to develop renewable energy sources to deliver a sustainable ‘steady/stationary state’ economy. To achieve this goal a social or cultural revolution which would overturn capitalism was necessary. However, as the authors explained in their Introduction, there was a problem.

Right from the beginning we were all socialists of one kind or another. We didn’t need any persuading that capitalism had to go. And yet, many of the things we felt were most wrong in capitalist society were heartily approved of by many others who called themselves socialists. We began to realise that there are two great streams of socialist thought. One, represented by Marxists and social democrats, however deep its disagreement with capitalism, at least shared its rational, materialist values of Progress, Science, Efficiency, Specialisation, Growth, Centralised Power, and fascination with the numbing achievements of smart-ass technology like Apollo and Concorde. And this was not all. They seemed to have a model of social development similar in many respects to the ideology of corporate liberalism.: that society should be organised for maximum production, with the products themselves being the principle rewards, offered as a compensation for the inevitable alienations of life and work in an industrial economy.

But the other great stream of socialist thought, represented by the anarchists and the utopians, looked at things quite differently. At first one could hardly take them seriously. They seemed to believe that subtle human satisfactions should be given priority over production requirements; that life should be satisfying in all its aspects; that power should flow from below; that the action is not all in the city; that production and consumption need not be segregated in the factory and the home, but could be fused in the community; that revolutions are born of hope not despair… What to do while waiting for the revolution? We let our imaginations off the leash and  get on with building parts of the post-revolutionary society where ever and whenever we can. [Radical Technology, 1976, p.8]

To bring this article to a jolting conclusion, next year in Scotland, the Scottish Green party and the Scottish Left Project in alliance with the Scottish Socialist party will be competing for ‘list’ (second) votes in elections to the Scottish parliament. The immediate political situation is the need to oppose the UK’s Conservative government and its austerity agenda. But beyond the destructive impact of austerity on the most vulnerable members of our society, the climate change clock keeps ticking away. Unless we can slow its ticking down, there won’t be much left of society to save.

As it stands right now, although I recognise the importance of the Scottish Left Project, I will still be voting for the Scottish Green party next year because of their climate change policies. On the other hand, if the Scottish Left Project can recognise the intimate links between climate change and capitalism, I would vote for the List candidate they support.

2 thoughts on “James Watt, Capitalism and Climate Change

  1. Proofreading note””

    This led to a form of economic evolution in which capital invested ***in***businesses which improved production was reproduced while capital invested in businesses which did not improve production was lost.
    Good piece – enjoying it so far…

  2. Pingback: James Watt, Capitalism, and Climate Change - Scottish Left Project

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