High Carbon Capitalism and Climate Change
Ahead of the launch of the Scottish Left Project’s electoral challenge for 2016 on 29 August 2015, ‘a people’s policy platform will tour the country, showing how the Left offers Scottish politics far more than a protest vote.’
One of the key themes to be debated will be ‘Our Greener Future’:
Capitalism is destroying our planet, and this is another reason for a clear left alternative. Pro-market forms of green politics are failing to challenge the roots of our ecological problems in the profit system. Only a different form of economic management can save humanity from the twin dangers of planetary crisis and authoritarian solutions to that crisis. [Scottish Left Project]
Can capitalism really destroy the planet? No, it can’t. But what it is destroying through global warming driven climate change is our future. Food shortages and famines, flooded cities and deadly heat-waves will be its legacy. The problem is that by 2018 there will be enough fossil fuel-burning commodities -cars, homes, factories, power plants, the new Forth road bridge- to lock us in to such a future through a 2 degrees Celsius global temperature rise.
But while a ‘Greener Future’ may be possible for Scotland, it is necessary to remember that modern Scotland was built on coal and that today’s Scotland still has an important oil industry.
Our earliest human ancestors, apes who walked upright, lived nearly three million years ago in what is now Africa. The first ‘modern’ (homo sapiens sapiens) humans also lived in Africa about 150 thousand years ago. The first humans to live in what is now Scotland arrived here at the end of the last ice age 12 000 years ago. For most of those 12 000 years wood from the forests which covered Scotland was the fuel they used. Then, beginning perhaps 5000 years ago, the first farmers started clearing the forests to make fields. Across most of Scotland this led to the substitution of peat for wood as fuel. However, in in central Scotland coal was also used as fuel instead of wood. This innovation probably had a religious origin.
Starting in the twelfth century, Scottish kings encouraged monks from England to set up abbeys in Scotland. These monks, like the Cistercians, were agricultural and industrial pioneers. One of the industries they brought to Scotland involved using coal to make salt from sea water. In the sixteenth century, the Scottish Reformation allowed wealthy Scottish landowners to acquire the huge estates of the abbeys- including their coal mines and salt works. Most of the coal mines and salt works existed around the Firth of Forth. This encouraged the new owners to start supplying Edinburgh with coal for domestic consumption.
The coal produced by these mines contained energy from the sun absorbed by trees 360 million years ago. Back then, what was to become central Scotland was part of a rift valley in a land mass which lay near the equator. Over the next 40 million years dense forests grew in this valley, their growth interrupted several times by the sea flooding in and drowning them. Over succeeding millions of years-through the later age of the dinosaurs for example- the forests were buried deeper and deeper beneath the ground, compressing the trees into layers of black organic rock; into coal. The energy of the sun contained in the ancient forests was not lost. It was concentrated in the coal. Burning the coal released the stored solar energy as heat along with acrid smoke and carbon dioxide.
As the demand for coal grew in the seventeenth century, landowners found it difficult to find workers willing to be miners. In 1606, the Scottish parliament passed laws which turned mining into a form of bonded labour. These laws remained in force until the end of the eighteenth century.
The early mines were small scale and shallow. Some followed slanting seams of coal into hillsides. Others were bell-pits, where the miners dug down until they hit a seam of coal and then dug the coal out from around the shaft. When it became too dangerous to dig any further out from the shaft in case the roof collapsed, another pit would be made nearby. These mines were worked as family affairs with the male miner cutting the coal while his wife, daughters and sons carried the coal to the surface. It was only in 1842 that women and young children were banned by law from working below ground in mines.
Apart from at Govan near Glasgow and some pits near Edinburgh, most early coal mines were in the countryside. However, the miners’ status as ‘bonded labourers’ and the specialised nature of their work set the miners and their families apart from the agricultural communities around them.
At the end of the seventeenth century there were only about 2000 miners in Scotland, producing about 100 000 tons of coal per year. By 1760 there were 4000 which had increased to 9000 in the census figures for 1801. Between 1801 and 1841, the number of miners increased to 18 000. These figures included the women and girls who worked as coal-carriers in the mines. By 1861 coal mining employed 36 000 men and boys, growing to 76 000 by 1874. This peak was not exceeded until 1891 when the numbers reached 81 000. By 1913, when Scottish coal production peaked at 43 million tons there were 147 000 coal miners in Scotland, equivalent to 10% of the entire population. This is equivalent to a Scottish coal industry employing 530 000 in Scotland today, producing 155 million tons of coal every year.
Why did coal mining become such a large and important industry in Scotland? The process started with the opening of the Carron iron works in 1759. At Carron coke made from locally sourced coal was used to produce cast iron from locally sourced iron ore. The technology and many of the workers came from England. The workers included English miners who introduced the long-wall method of deep coal mining. The existing method of deep (pits more than 50 feet below the surface) mining involved leaving large pillars of coal in place to support the roof of the mine workings. The long-wall technique allowed all the coal in a seam to be extracted. The roof of the working face was supported by wooden props and the area behind the working face was backfilled with stone and small pieces of coal. As the working face moved forward, the roof props were moved forward as well, allowing the rock above to gradually settle on the backfill. This often led to subsidence in the ground above.
As well as allowing more coal to be extracted, the long-wall technique reduced the skill-level required of miners. As more coke-fuelled iron furnaces were opened, mainly in Lanarkshire, the demand for coal increased. Until the technology was improved in 1830, each ton of cast iron needed 8 tons of coking coal. After 1830 only 3 tons of coal were needed, but the number of furnaces then grew rapidly. The furnaces were in production 24 hours a day, seven days a week requiring the iron-masters to ensure a constant supply of coal so they opened their own long-wall mines. Since there were not enough existing miners to work the new pits, they recruited miners from the general population, including many from Ireland.
In 1755 only 14% (180 000) of the Scottish population lived in west central Scotland while 21% (326 000) lived in east central Scotland. By 1871 34% (1 242 000) lived in west central Scotland and 21% (690 000) lived in east central Scotland. This rise in the importance of west central Scotland was linked to growth of coal mining and the many industries like shipbuilding which used iron produced by coal.
Coal made the industrial revolution happen
Over the past 50 years, professor Tony Wrigley of Cambridge university has argued that access to and use of coal was the key driver of the nineteenth century industrial revolution. This may seem obvious, but some economic historians have argued that cheap wood from around the Baltic sea or from north America could have been substituted for coal without holding back the pace of industrialisation. Other s have argued that the key driver was the revolutionary impact of the European Enlightenment on industrial development. Now a recent (2014) paper analysing urban growth in Europe from 1300 to 1900 has shown that at least 60% of European urban growth between 1750 and 1900 can be attributed to ‘the coal effect’. The cities which grew most rapidly in that period were those situated on or near coal fields.
[Source : http://www.economics.ox.ac.uk/materials/papers/13183/Coal%20-%20O'Rourke%20124.pdf ]
Unfortunately, most of Wrigley’s work has focused on England so, for example Wrigley has estimated that English coal production in 1800 yielded energy that would otherwise have required 11 million acres of woodland compared with a total English land area of 32 million acres. However, at the heart of Wrigley’s work is the wider argument that without the use of coal (later oil) economic growth through industrialisation would have been constrained by the limits of renewable energy sources.
In Scotland, the difference between the development of Galloway and Dumfriesshire and that of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire since 1755 illustrates Wrigley’s argument. For the first fifty years, both areas were transformed by the process of agricultural improvement. The pattern of a farmed landscape which had medieval origins was rationalised out of existence. New farms, new roads and bridges, new ports, new towns and villages were constructed for improving landowners and a whole class of rural workers- the cottars- vanished from history. Some of the improving landowners diversified into new industries encouraging the construction of water- powered cotton mills -at Gatehouse of Fleet in Galloway for example.
Then during the nineteenth century, an accident of ancient geology intervened. A geological fault runs across the south of Scotland from Girvan in the west to Dunbar in the east. North of this Southern Uplands Fault there is coal. To the south, apart from an isolated pocket near Gretna on the border, there is no coal. By 1840, cotton spinning had ceased at Gatehouse of Fleet’s water-powered mills. Between 1841 and 1881, the population of Dumfries and Galloway grew by 4.7%. In the same period, the population of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire grew by 114%.
Since the Longannet mine in Fife closed in 2002, there has been no deep coal mining in Scotland. The last coal mine in Northern Ireland closed in 1970 and the last mine in the Irish Republic closed in 1990. In 2008, the last deep coal mine in Wales closed. In 2015, England’s three remaining deep mines, employing 2,000 miners will close. In contrast world-wide coal production hit a record peak of 7.8 billion tons in 2013.
The legacy of coal mining
What is the legacy of coal mining in Scotland? The most obvious legacy is the concentration of Scotland’s population in the central lowlands. In 1755 when Scotland was still an agricultural nation, 35% of Scots lived in the central lowlands. In 1801 this had risen to 41%, by 1871 to 55% and today its is 70 % (3.7 million people). Without coal and the industries which used coal this concentration of population would not have arisen. Although coalmining has ended, the towns and cities, the road and rail networks which are now in place mean it is unlikely that this will concentration will change in the future. So while the popular images of Scotland used to attract visitors focus on rural Scotland, the reality experienced by most Scots is that of urban Scotland.
The political legacy of coal mining was, until this year, that of Scotland’s labour movement as represented by the Labour party. Forged in a struggle which began 100 years before the Union of 1707, Scotland’s coal mining communities fought first to free themselves from legal servitude and then from economic servitude. While the stigma of serfdom was lifted in 1799 the economic and political struggle continued through nationalisation in 1947 to a bitter conclusion in 1984/5.
The human legacy of coal mining is marked by the thousands of miners killed in accidents and the shortening of thousands more lives through industrial diseases. The last of the miners raws which were hastily and shoddily thrown-up across still rural Lanarkshire and Ayrshire to meet the iron-furnaces insatiable demand for coal in the early nineteenth century survived into the 1950s. Fear of cholera, which struck down the rich as well as the poor, prompted Victorian reformers to equip Scottish towns and cities with clean water and sewage systems. The miners and their families did not benefit from these reforms. Instead they had to rely on often polluted wells for their water and a sewage system consisting of communal earth closets until political pressure from miners’ unions and the Labour and Communist parties saw the slow introduction of public (council) housing from the 1930s onwards and of pit-head baths from the 1920s onwards.
The geophysical legacy of Scotland’s coal is its historic contribution to global warming. While the direct contribution is minimal, since the most significant rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere has taken place over the last 50 years, when Scottish coal production was declining, the indirect legacy is significant. Unlike south Wales which developed an important coal-exporting industry, most Scottish coal was consumed close to where it was mined. Many millions of tons were used to produce iron which required more coal to convert it into castings, into wrought iron and later steel to make ships and locomotives, steam engines, bridges and railway tracks. These were sold all over the world and through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries globalised the industrial revolution. Of particular importance in this process were the many thousands of steam locomotives exported from Glasgow to south America, India, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and China from 1840s to the early 1960s.
It was Scotland's oil
Since the 1960s, oil rather than coal has been the fossil fuel which has been revolutionising the means of production around the world. And since the 1970s it has been Scotland’s oil which has been our main contribution to global warming. But while the arguments about the legacy of Scotland’s coal are now historical arguments, arguments about Scotland’s oil are powerfully present.
During the independence referendum the economics and politics of Scotland’s oil were fiercely fought. However, the focus of the arguments was not on the potential contribution of Scotland’s oil to global warming. Rather the arguments were about how much oil remains, how much it might be worth and how critical oil revenues would be to the finances of an independent Scotland. Even the Scottish Green party, rather than calling for an immediate halt to oil production, talked about investing oil revenues in renewable energy developments.
Moving billions of tons of oil and coal from below the ground to above the ground is a very small part of the problem, although it does require energy to do so. The problem comes when the coal is burnt in power plants or used to produce steel or when the oil is burnt in the engines of ships, planes, trucks and cars. We can’t do anything about the coal and oil that have already been burnt, but we can do something about future use.
Unfortunately, a Report by Steve Davis (University of California) and Robert Soochow (Princeton University) ‘Commitment Accounting of CO2 Emissions’ published last year shows that today’s capital investments are locking us in to a high-carbon use future.
[The Report can be found here http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/9/8/084018/ ]
Based on the report’s findings, environmental journalist Stephen Leahy has calculated that
In only three years there will be enough fossil fuel-burning stuff—cars, homes, factories, power plants, etc.—built to blow through our carbon budget for a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise. Never mind staying below a safer, saner 1.5°C of global warming. The relentless laws of physics have given us a hard, non-negotiable deadline, making G7 statements about a fossil fuel-phase out by 2100 or a weak deal at the UN climate talks in Paris irrelevant. By 2018, no new cars, homes, schools, factories, or electrical power plants should be built anywhere in the world, ever again unless they’re either replacements for old ones or are carbon neutral…
According to scientific rationality then, to prevent global warming leading to a civilisation ending level of climate change, global growth must be halted within three years. But although scientific rationality is supposed to be a founding principle of the modern world, the driving force of modernity has been the rationality of capitalism and its need for continuous economic growth. This in turn has influenced political rationality so that the competition between political parties for votes at elections usually comes down to offering slightly different routes to economic growth in the immediate future.
This means that however strong the scientific arguments for halting economic growth to mitigate the consequences of climate change might be, under the circumstances of actually existing capitalism, there is no political will to do so. This should hardly come as a surprise. The social costs of capitalist rationality have been obvious for the past 250 years but this year the UK (if not Scotland) still managed to elect a Conservative government with ‘welfare’ cutting policies the Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) would have applauded.
High carbon or low carbon capitalism?
But even if scientific rationality achieved a breakthrough leading to the adoption of zero growth, low-carbon policies, profound challenges would still remain, as this quote from Neil Davidson illustrates-
A position that holds that it would have been better if capitalism had been avoided is understandable, given the daily disasters for which the system continues to be responsible. Marxists must nevertheless reject it. Without capitalism, we would have no possibility of developing the forces of production to the extent that will enable the whole of the world’s population to enjoy what is currently denied most of them - a fully human life. In fact without capitalism there would be no ‘us’ -in the sense of a working class- to seriously consider accomplishing such a goal in the first place. [Neil Davidson ‘How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?’ (Chicago, 2012) p. 651]
The economies and societies which existed before capitalism were very ‘Green’. They were low-carbon and had growth rates which were virtually zero. Scotland when it was still an independent state had a very pristine environment and apart from its tiny coal industry was powered by renewable energy sources- including human labour. While, as discussed above, the physical transformation of Scotland into a modern nation involved a shift to coal as an energy source, Neil Davidson has argued that the transformation of Scotland from a traditional to a modern nation also required a cultural or social revolution brought about by capitalism. [Neil Davidson ‘Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746, London, 2003, pp. 298-301]
Tony Wrigley, however, makes a distinction between the ‘low carbon’ capitalism of Adam Smith and the ‘high-carbon’ capitalism of his less well known successor, John Ramsay McCulloch (1789-1864). Wrigley noted that although in ‘Wealth of Nations’ Smith connected the location of ‘manufactures’ in the UK with areas where coal was cheap, this was because coal was a low cost heat source ‘for the many sorts of workmen who work indoors’. Writing 54 years after Smith, it was the importance of coal as fuel for steam engines which was significant for McCulloch
It is not because the inhabitants of Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, &c. are more industrious or inventive than those of Canterbury, Winchester, Exeter, &c., that they have made such prodigious advances in manufactures, wealth, and population, while the latter have been comparatively stationary — but it is because the former are abundantly supplied with coal, while the latter are not. Since the invention of the steam engine, fire has become of infinitely more importance as a moving power than either water or wind ; and in the present state of the arts, those who cannot obtain abundant supplies of coal at a cheap rate, must submit to be outstripped by their neighbours in the career of improvement. [John McCulloch ‘Observations on the Duty on Sea-borne Coal’ [London, 1830, p.4]
Is Wrigley’s historic distinction between low and high carbon capitalism still relevant today? I suggest it is and that it reveals a critical difference between the ‘clear left alternative’ to capitalism of the Scottish Left Project and the ‘pro-market forms of green politics’ advocated by the Scottish Green party.
While low-carbon capitalism may be ‘greener’ than high-carbon capitalism, it is still capitalism and so leaves the vital means of producing a sustainable future in private rather than public ownership.