Coal as Democratic Cancer

I am wading through two good books :  Carbon Democracy' by Timothy Mitchell. and 'Fossil Capital' by Andreas Malm. Both are history - fact based, fascinating, and relevant to today. They challenge the reader to rethink our common tropes of what is happening today, and both retrace key aspects of how we got to be in our major predicaments of today.  It is past time to reconsider our social-political and technical relationships to fossil fuels, and ditch our fossil based addictions. Carbon Democracy looks hardest at oil, and Fossil Capital looks at coal. In Australia we have a Coal Democracy, so it is good to read both. Malm has the benefit of having read Mitchell's book, and checks and refines some of the points.

'"Carbon democracy", is purpose-evolved to keep democratic choice in carbon energy matters out of the public sphere, and in the hands of the "economic free market', the corporate agents of capitalism and resource profits. This is more or less the Australian Liberal - Labor Party alliance positions which are bent on destroying the Galilee Basin for profit, starting with the Adani Coal Mine. The several large planned coal mines, when combined, will be the largest coal excavation in the world. They are already surveyed out, mining licenses setup, water supplies allotted, with infrastructure built, planned, contracts drawn up, in the form of port and rail.  Mineral rights exclude and destroy common rights to renewable ecosystem resources.  Australian politicians have already accomplished the big beware in symbolic form as the native title sign-overs to the Mining Industry. Opposition to mining exclusions from protesters may in the end be finished in a final confrontation with state capital armed forces, if the normal patterns are followed.

The Queensland variety of political system  and real estate development was practically centrally planned around Fossil Fuel development. This is a challenging extrapolation of my own, not directly mentioned in these books. There are enough significant events, journalism and publications detailing the Australian government's behavior around the Coal Industry, and Climate Change denial, and so many of us have sleep-walked through events of the past decades. As a disease, Australia has Coal Cancer, and its long since metastasized into our collective government brain.

They will receive central planning help from already existing large public subsidies for fossil industry, including some newer purpose designed instruments of NAIF and EFIC. Fossil power is political power, and such god-like power is hoarded. It is not to be shared with the public, either for control or veto.

'Fossil Capital' looks at dynamics of growth of the fossil industries, starting with coal and steam in early fossil industry beginnings. Coal was useful particularly in the larger cities that had already cleared all nearby forests for supplies of wood for heating, smelting and cooking. Coal then became an economic earner for its supply owners.

Starting around Elizabethan times in England, the "leap" included the period of enclosures and dispossession from common lands, as mineral rights to coal under the land had been granted to private concerns. Eventually state armed forces and private security where used against the many physical protests and fight-backs organized by the dispossessed. This pattern of dispossession, the destruction of the renewable capacities of land and water by mining the minerals, and the use of state or capitalist employed armed forces repeats in so many times, places and forms. Fossil power, is wealth-concentration power, is political and military power, to be deployed at increasing itself to ever larger size and concentration. The increase in labor numbers, their removal from primary agriculture production, reduction of land devoted to primary production, makes necessary the enslavement of foreign lands to supply the food stuffs and raw materials needed by industrial workforce and industrial manufacture. Thus begins a further necessity for empire and control of overseas national economies, also useful as markets for industrial products. Control of overseas production means the privatization and dispossession process gets exported.

Mining activities, pits, subsidence, clearing, ruined water and renewable land usage, and created an industrial work force of the dispossessed, that helped to swell the populations of towns.
In the recent present, China has engaged in the large scale processes of harnessing Coal , to boost growth to serve the forces of international finance, and displace global carbon emissions from western economies.
'Fossil Capital' mentions the recent political troubles in Mongolia, are where traditional ways of life, on grassland ecosystems have been disrupted, along with the land and water, and rights to use it. Naturally the armed forces of the state, have been used to smash any rebellion against fossil capitalism.

The forces of international corporate capital are mobile and metastatic, as they search for regions with large numbers of unemployed and cheap labor, and supporting reliable infrastructure for energy and transport. Governments that want to compete, tend to bid down their price conditions, taxes, labor regulations, so that Capital can gain the most of what it wants, which is termed 'surplus-value'. In China, after a larger number of boom years and extraordinary growth rates of manufacture by and for global export corporations, the labor forces organized to get more for themselves and reduce the 'surplus-value' of the transplanted factories.

Growth rates have fallen in China, and other nations in more desperate straits are now enticing prospects in the search for maximum 'surplus-value'. Coal electricity, at the cheapest price, is the energy fuel of choice for Capital seeking growth. The lowest cost is also associated with the greatest inefficiency of energy production, and highest CO2 emissions per unit of production. As China spends more and charges more to clean up its massive air pollution, Capital looks elsewhere for dirtier and cheaper factors of production.

In its offerings of sacrifice of land, water and sustainability, the Australian Government is merely following the standard recipe of global cargo-cultists for bringing about short term capital investment into Australia. Queensland is a collapsing economy with unemployed labor on offer, with infrastructure custom made for global capital. We are even providing our own investment vehicles.

The expectation is to bring about the magic consequences of limited "Jobs and Growth", to take part in the once-only bubble of fossil capital, already plugged in to the heart of our democracy.  There is no thought about the after-dynamics of the process, and where global consequences are now taking us. This is now the wrong time in our history, and the recipe doesn't work as advertised. It is now a case of fake jobs and growth, designed to prop up global capital and finance, and all the blood sacrifice will gain us is more blood.

At today's levels of CO2 emissions production, reached by decades of exponential growth, we are endangering our own existence as a species. The CO2 accumulates in oceans and air.  The energy balance of earth is accumulating vast amounts of stored heat in our oceans.  The thermal expansion of oceans and contributions of melting ice sheets are accelerating sea level rise.  When it gets 2 degrees C of warming, likely within the next 20 years, so many global warming changes and momenta will be beyond halting. 

Real growth in fossil fuel extraction and combustion is proving difficult to maintain, and will collapse. The process is that the easiest extractions, done with the least energy costs, have already happened. The marginal energy returns of investing in deeper, darker, harder more energy intensive and complex extraction are falling.

Joseph Tainter in this interview podcast on "Peak Prosperity" tells us how the overall story of a non-renewable energy based civilization normally ends.  He defines 'collapse' as a return to much simpler levels of civilization structure and organization, a loss of both complexity and energy supply. He also suggests that the first step is education, producing humans that  can think in terms of larger time scales and spatial extents than our present limited mental horizons, starting with child education.

Tainter's weak proposal of education is an admission that the collapse memes, and broader horizons are too difficult to take in the large scale by a majority of untrained adults, particularly our politicians and corporate decision makers. Next generation is too late. He is saying collapse is inevitable, and that is so true.

The present problems of global warming and non-renewable energy depletion are growing intractable within the lifetime of today's adult generation. Those of us denying our present capacity for expanded mental horizons are already lost.  We can try to activate some of our unused facility and take actions now or join the lost.

These worthwhile books are fascinating in detail and overall story,  as they tell us how our history really worked, and warn us how various episodes of the story too often repeat with a sad end.  They may change how we feel about our story and give us better vocabulary and rhetorical argument. Didn't we really know all of this already?

author: Michael Rynn
description: Fossil Capitalism - Carbon Democracy a book review from a reading in progress. How this connects to our history, current events in Australia, and collapse.
keywords: Coal Cancer in Australia Democracy, the peak of Fossil Capitalism