Fossil energy and the environment – ​​the limits of capitalist accumulation



The environmental issue is the critical point in the logic of the civilizational capitalist model


The use of fossil fuels, initially coal and during the 20th and 21st centuries oil, appears functionally necessary for capitalist accumulation. It is interesting to note that, ironically, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm considered in his magnificent age of extremes, only after 1973, when the oil producers' cartel, OPEC, began to charge what the market could pay, did a large number of policy makers in the central countries of capitalism begin to pay attention to the environmental consequences of the model of economic development established over the last three centuries.

The text is divided into four segments, in addition to this introduction, initially in the first two sections we will discuss essential elements of capitalism, including its cyclical characteristics; In the following section we will deal with the formation and maintenance of the “fossil” pattern of capitalism. Finally, we conclude by asking about the nature of the environmental and energy crisis, postulating that the logic of capitalist accumulation necessarily leads to environmental exhaustion, regardless of the subterfuges that the system and its ideologues seek to build.

Energy and work value

The work process is the basic component of man's relationship with nature, during which the human being, with his own action, drives, regulates and controls his material and energetic exchange with it. Throughout history, humanity (collective man) set “the natural forces of its body in motion, appropriating nature, giving them a form useful to human life” (Marx, 1987).

Em The capital, Marx (2013) compares the human being to other organic forms, noting that “what distinguishes the worst architect from a bee is that he figures his construction in his mind before transforming it into reality”. In other words, we can say that the human workforce is a creative and goal-oriented energy, which makes it possible to reorganize natural matter according to the objective of human nature itself.

Five elements make up the work process: (i) the work itself; (ii) the object of work (raw material and auxiliary materials, the main of which are energy inputs); (iii) work instruments (work tools such as machines and buildings); (iv) technological science; and (v) the inorganic converters that process the energy inputs.

Fig. 1 General form of the production process

The development of capitalist production relations called into question an unusual aspect in relation to previous economic and social forms: the complete alienation of nature and human work. The forces of creation and destruction developed under capitalism have raised the potential possibility of all nature becoming a mere object of human work, even if only a portion of it actually becomes raw material and auxiliary material of the productive process, but its totality is subordinated to the growing interests of capital accumulation.

The means of work are a complex set of instruments. Science works by enabling increasing mastery over the mechanical, physical and chemical properties of things to make them act on other things, according to the objective or goal to be achieved. This composite is part man and part machine, and requires increasing energy investment, as the production process under capitalism becomes more complex.

Capitalism operates on four fronts that disperse energy and conflict with the principles of thermodynamic equilibrium in closed systems[I]: (a) structures the production process on an increasing scale of appropriation and alienation of work and nature in an uncoordinated and anarchic way, producing a large amount of values ​​that are not socially useful, transforming into waste; (b) the expansion of markets requires an increasing transformation of collective use values ​​into individual and commodified use values. Thus, cellular telephony, for example, constituted a necessary invention for the expansion of new markets, but in accordance with the individualist format and ideologically necessary to capitalism than the previous fixed telephone system;

(c) spatial expansion is a necessity, the increasing incorporation of new territories dominated by accumulation, making the destruction of biomes a systemic condition; (d) temporal compression, through the credit system, expands the production of values ​​on a scale only necessary for speculation and the interests of limited groups.

Fig. 2 Capitalist form of production

The work process as a transformation process is related to the use of a certain capacity of creative energy acting on a quantum of raw material (appropriate nature). In this process, we have four integrated movements: (i) the expenditure of human physical and mental strength, which, in turn, requires a prior amount of energy for its reproduction; (ii) the use of nature; (iii) creation of use values; (iv) production of entropic waste, proportional to the complexity of anthropomorphic processes, in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics. In capitalism, three movements go beyond the previous ones, which we can call excessive Anthropocene expansion: (v) creation of exchange values ​​with dispersive use; (vi) production of speculative values ​​and; (vii) production of dispersive and speculative entropic waste.

This set of movements results in an increasing expansion of capital accumulation, not having as its center the production of use values ​​but rather the production of values ​​appropriable in the form of profit by capital, but requiring a material substrate that implies dispersion and destruction. material and energetic on an exponential scale. As the work process becomes a form alienated from capital, the production of dispersive entropic waste is reinforced.

Capital rotation and energy cycles

All social wealth in capitalism is broken down into three components: (1) constant capital, which encompasses the monetary magnitudes of the means of production, raw materials and energy inputs; (2) variable capital, referring to the sum of wages paid in the economy (∑w); and (3) the value created with each new reproductive cycle and which, when realized in the market, will be broken down into different forms of income (entrepreneur's profit, banker's interest, land rent from the land controller and taxes from the capitalist State) .

The intrinsic speculative and expansive nature of capital forces it to accelerate the rotational speed of its economic reproduction cycles. For capitalists in general, it is essential that their capital value is fixed for the shortest possible time in each cycle, accelerating rotation and reducing production and circulation times, guaranteeing appreciation in increasingly shorter rotational cycles and, therefore, more dispersive means of necessary energy and materials, fulfilling the maximum condition that “everything solid dissolves into air”.

Capitalist expansion initially occurs with the expansion of the capitalist use of all nature, expanding commercial production to the limit where the scarcity of labor force, on the one hand, or of natural inputs (energy and materials), on the other, determines a gradual decline in the rate of profit. It will be in response to the aforementioned decline in the average rate of profit that the movement of cycles of technological innovation will take place, with a view to increasing relative and extraordinary surplus value and recomposing capitalist profit. Technological advances that make energy and material resources cheaper act by reducing the share of constant capital in the mass of global value allocated to the production process, reducing the technical composition of capital and favoring an increase in the rate of profit.

The use of electricity and fossil fuels enabled, among other aspects, an acceleration of capital cycles and a reduction in the required rotation time, either through the more dynamic use they gave to the transport of goods, enabling the circulation of large amounts of capital-goods , whether due to the aspect of uninterrupted production allowed by the more flexible use of the machine tool and lighting. We can say that fossil fuel, due to its characteristics, has become the most convenient form of energy for the capitalist mode of production, as we will see below.

The fossil energy model

The development of capitalist production relations initially takes place on very discrete bases, what Deleage (1993) called proto-industrialization. In general, it was a “more intense mobilization of surplus peasant labor force and an optimization of the use of energy sources and traditional converters”, in other words, a “systematic destocking of natural energy reserves”. We can point out that capitalism at its inception subjects work and nature to the technological conditions in which it finds it historically, as Marx rightly states. The primitive accumulation of capital, having proto-industrialization as one of its support bases, established the necessary conditions for productive and energetic technological revolutionization that capitalism will require for its insatiable expansion.

The development of modern industrial machinery freed capitalism from the constraints on the growth of accumulation posed by the relative control of working times by the worker and, therefore, the expansion of profit was still a function of the absolute exploitation of the workforce, which implied longer working hours. work. Thus, the set of technological improvements of the last two centuries has its logic conditioned on increasing labor productivity and the preponderance of fossil fuels in the energy matrix will be determined by the advantages they present in specific industrial use.

Modern industrial machinery has enabled the advantageous use of fossil fuel, and four factors can be enumerated that have made it, so to speak, the proper fuel of capitalist accumulation: (i) its energy capacity favors its intensive industrial use; (ii) its production costs were decreasing and its supply elasticity was increasing, until the 1970s; (iii) it has great mobility of use, being able to power different types of engines with low transport costs; (iv) its use in transport machines (rail, road, navigation) favored the circulation of goods on a global scale.

As Hobsbawm (1982) noted, it was the possibility of varied uses, whether in the mobile machine or in the fixed machine, that determined the preponderance of mineral coal and, later, oil, as characteristic fuels for the process of capitalist accumulation. Initially this model was based on mineral coal, characteristic of the English expansion.

The so-called Fordist model of development, based on a regime of accumulation and intensive consumption, was the predominant brand of US imperialism from the second half of the 1995th century onwards. Elmar Altvater (XNUMX) calls “fossilistic Fordism” the development model that will be structured from the USA, with the use of oil as an energy input playing a central role in the economic dynamics of this model.

Already at its inception, this model demonstrated an enormous capacity to, through technological increase and competition concentrated in large industrial oligopolies, feed the cycle of accumulation. The use of fossil energy and electricity accompanied this dynamic, as can be seen from the set of innovations that led to the development of the automobile in the first two decades of the 20th century.[ii] The development model will be so marked by the use of the automobile and the specific form of production of this good on the assembly line advocated and implemented by Henry Ford, that the title Fordism will refer with relative accuracy to the accumulation pattern of the last century.

The world energy balance is illustrative of the dimensions and importance that fossil fuels (solid, oil and natural gas) have taken on in the developed capitalist economy. The figure below refers to the percentage distribution in global terms of the main energy sources in terms of final consumption. Fossil fuels represent more than 80% of the world's energy balance, with a tendency to increase in recent decades, with oil accounting for 31,6%.

Figure 3 – World energy balance in 2022/ Source: Statistical Review of World Energy (2023):

Energy crisis and environmental crisis: what are the limits of capital accumulation?

As noted throughout the exposition, capitalist accumulation had as its most obvious counterpart the almost complete exploitation of nature in all parts of the planet, not to mention the most immediate contradiction which is the alienation of human labor and the subordination of the majority of humanity to the interests of the minority that financially controls the production process.

The post-war economic expansion provided at least a third of humanity, mostly located in OECD countries, with a high standard of living and an apparent feeling that capitalism had resolved its contradictions, at least in the restricted space of countries. central. In any case, as Hobsbawm (2012) considered, the world economy grew at explosive rates during the thirty years after the Second World War in the four corners of the globe, in such a way that world trade in manufactured products increased tenfold between the beginning of 1950s and the beginning of the 1970s.

However, the following decades of the last quarter of the 2008th century demonstrated that the cyclical dynamics of capitalism had changed its rhythm, but had not eliminated its structural characteristic of presenting crises of overproduction and declining profit rates. In general, since the XNUMXth century, the characteristics of crises in capitalism have been diagnosed and recorded: deflation, sharp reduction in production, decrease in nominal wages, increase in unemployment, shortage of credit (although there is an abundance of inactive loan capital), rise interest rate, devaluation of securities and various assets, widespread bankruptcy proceedings. A similar episode is still warm in our memory in relation to the XNUMX crisis.

The novelty of the decades of crisis in late capitalism, as Hobsbawm (2012) and Mandel (1988) argued, is that the system had been transformed by technological changes, by the transnationalization of capital on a much larger scale and by state intervention that smoothed the cycles. However, the global capitalist advance now had ecological consequences that could no longer be treated by the simplism of economists as mere “externalities”.

Still during the 1970s, the vast majority of the system's ideologues sought to elect OPEC and the rise in oil prices as the main culprits behind the end of the “golden era”. As several authors noted (Martin, 1992; Deléage et alii, 1986; Mandel, 1988) what was actually observed was the compatibility of interests between the “Seven Sisters” cartel and the interests of the producing and exporting countries (OPEC), seeking an average price that satisfied both the interests of oligopolistic companies and the interests of the national elites of exporting countries.

Martin (1992) considered, still in the 1980s, that “since the large-scale exploration of fossil energy sources began on the degree of perpetuity of available resources”, since then, however, only progress has been made in dependence on oil, and as international prices rise again, stocks of recoverable resources increase and higher cost sources become viable.[iii]

It is worth noting that the established deadlines for oil reserves must be relativized by the management and profitability rules of oil companies and, within the framework of financialization of the economy, by the dividends distributed. Therefore, the idea of ​​scarcity should not be understood as a natural or neutral condition of the availability of a given resource, but rather relative to the interests of capitalist accumulation in that segment. Likewise, the progress of oil extraction techniques, such as the one Petrobrás developed for the pre-salt, influence and define the levels of explored reserves.

Fig. 4 – Proved Reserves (in Gtoe)/ Source Statistical Review of World Energy (2023):

Stocks or reserves of fossil fuels therefore show great variability. By current calculations, the world's petroleum resources are valued at 1.732,4 Gtoe (109 tonnes of oil equivalent). The figure above shows oil reserves growing at an annual rate of 1,3% (2009/2019). Likewise, natural gas reserves and coal reserves grew, as statistics show.

What becomes evident is that capitalism has never faced a crisis caused by an energy shortage, but rather human civilization is facing a profound environmental crisis caused by the unmeasured expansion of commodity production and its own energy dispersion. of this mode of production. Energy dispersion can be measured as losses during the use of different energy sources and represents almost 50% of the final consumption of the world energy balance (Martin, 1992). These losses can be understood as the inefficiency of converters, but also as the reproductive condition of capital.

In addition to this dispersion, energy expenditure incurred due to commercial logic itself must be added. For example, according to studies carried out in the USA, of the total urban waste produced in the city of Chicago, around 30% is made up of packaging, not much different in the Brazilian case, which represents 1/3 of domestic waste.[iv] Likewise, planned obsolescence[v] reduces the useful life of products in order to accelerate capital turnover. The German Siemens, for example, in 1980 had 48% of its sales made up of products with less than five years on the market; in 2001, this number had risen to 75% (Pacheco, 2003).

The environmental issue is the critical point in the logic of the civilizational capitalist model. Marx (2013) considered that “use value should never be considered the immediate capitalist objective, nor isolated profit, but the endless process of obtaining profits”. Marx returns to Aristotle to determine the real limit of capitalist accumulation and rescues from the great Greek philosopher the differentiation between economics and chrematistics: economics would be an art that would be “a means to an end”, something that we can exemplify through the conditions of reproduction and life of the vast majority of people; chrematistics represents an art that is “an end in itself”, aiming at “absolute enrichment”.

Capitalist accumulation as a chrematistic art does not have a limited end, its limit seems to be the complete domination of natural forces, absorbing and transforming value or alienated wealth into the entirety of nature. Far from any chimera or liberal ideology, which considers the increasing efficiency of homo economicus, with its perfect rationality and maximization of marginal utilities at the optimal limit, it seems more correct to think that the automatic conditions of capitalist accumulation, irremediably, whether in the longer or shorter term, will overwhelm the planetary environmental conditions to the detriment of the existence of humanity itself.

*Jose Raimundo Trinidad He is a professor at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences at UFPA. Author, among other books, of Agenda for debates and theoretical challenges: the trajectory of dependency and the limits of Brazilian peripheral capitalism and its regional constraints (paka armadillo).

Modified version of article published in the ICSA/UFPA Magazine.


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DELÉAGE, JP et al. A history of energy. Brasília: Editora da UNB, 1993.

HOBSBAWM, E. The Age of Capital🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1982.

HOBSBAWM, E. The Age of Extremes: the brief 20th century🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2012.

MANDELL, E. late capitalism. São Paulo: Cultural April, 1988.

MARTIN, JM. The global energy economy. São Paulo: UNESP, 1992.

MARX, K. The capital. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2013.


[I] We are referring to environmental conditions in planetary order and to the two principles of thermodynamics: (i) energy conservation and; (ii) entropy.

[ii] Deleage et. alii (1993: 193) observes that the invention of the explosion engine led to a new leap in the use of fossil energy.

[iii] The Spot price of crude oil (Dubai) in 1973 was US$2,83, reaching US$35,69 in 1980. In the 1990s it fell throughout the period, closing in 1998 at the lowest price ($12,30 ), continues to rise again and reaches its highest price in 2012 (US$ 109), the data were taken from the Statistical Review of World Energy (06). Access at:


[v] Obsolescence refers to the aging or disuse of a machine or product, as a result of physical wear and tear or the emergence of technologically different models. Planned obsolescence refers to the prior programming of the product's durability period. Due to competition and the obtaining of extraordinary profits, companies prepare artificially short wear to force faster replacement of products and acceleration of capital turnover (Mandel, 1988).

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