Coal, gas, and oil have powered our societies for hundreds of years. But the pace at which we use them changed dramatically in the twentieth century: of all the fossil fuels ever consumed, more than half were burnt up in the past fifty years alone, the vast majority of that within a single generation. Most worrying of all, this dramatic acceleration has occurred against the backdrop of an increasingly unanimous scientific consensus: that their environmental impact is devastating and potentially irreversible.
In Burning Up, Simon Pirani recounts the history of the relentless rise of fossil fuels in the past half century, and lays out the ways in which the expansion of the global capitalist economy has driven it forward. Dispelling common explanations that foreground Western consumerism, as well as arguments about unsustainable population growth, Pirani offers instead an insightful intervention in what is arguably the crisis of our time.
Part One: Contexts
1. Fossil fuels before 1950
2. Energy technologies
3. Energy in society
4. Fossil fuel consumption in numbers
Part Two: Chronologies
5. The 1950s and 60s: post-war boom
6. The 1970s: crises and oil price shocks
7. Patterns of electrification
8. The 1980s: recession and recovery
9. The 1990s: shunning the global warming challenge
10. The 2000s: acceleration renewed
Part Three: Reflections
11. Interpretations and ideologies
Appendix 1. Measuring environmental impacts, energy flows and inequalities
Appendix 2. Additional tables and figures
Simon Pirani is author of The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24: Soviet Workers and the New Communist Elite (2008), and of books and articles on post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine. He is a journalist with a lifelong commitment to the labour movement, and a former editor of the British miners' union journal. He is currently senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies and co-author of Russian and CIS Gas Markets and Their Impact on Europe (2009).
"An extraordinarily ambitious, but arguably necessary task for our times"
– Paul Warde, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge
"Insightful, precise and well-written, Burning Up turns energy consumption on its head. Pirani fills a crucial gap left by a mountain of shiny but vacuous reports and not enough solid history [...] Anybody fighting climate change should read this"
– Mika Minio-Paluello, campaigner at Platform London and co-author of The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London (Verso, 2013)
"This meticulous depiction of how fossil fuels are woven into our human systems – not only technological but also economic, social and political – is an invaluable aid to getting them back under control"
– Walt Patterson, author of Electricity vs Fire (2015)
"Explains the technological, social and economic processes that have prioritised a particular way of satisfying society's demand for energy services"
– Michael Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy, Warwick Business School, UK, author of Global Energy Dilemmas (2013)
"Burning Up is a vital contribution to the climate movement. A first step to organizing around its insights will be to ensure it is widely read in the movement, and by those whose lives will be affected by climate change"
– Climate and Capitalism
"This comprehensive book provides a modern history of global fossil fuel consumption. Authoritative and well researched, it provides a solid bedrock to understand the ins and outs of fuels"
– Bright Green
"An essential tool for understanding fossil fuel consumption in terms of the vested interests who have benefited from it"
– Ann Pettifor, Guardian