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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

Burning Up A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption

By: Simon Pirani(Author)
255 pages, b/w illustrations, tables
Publisher: Pluto Press
Meticulously researched and vast in scope, Burning Up argues that our fossil fuel use is far more than just the sum of population growth and individual consumption.
Burning Up
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  • Burning Up ISBN: 9780745335612 Paperback Aug 2018 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
  • Burning Up ISBN: 9780745335629 Hardback Aug 2018 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
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About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

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
12. Possibilities
13. Conclusions

Appendix 1. Measuring environmental impacts, energy flows and inequalities
Appendix 2. Additional tables and figures


Customer Reviews (1)

  • Meticulously researched and vast in scope
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 23 Nov 2018 Written for Paperback

    Fossils fuels have powered civilization since the Industrial Revolution, and their consumption has exploded in the last few decades. But for all the prosperity that coal, gas, and oil have brought, there are many downsides, not least amongst these climate change. So how did we get here? Usual explanations point at individual consumption and population growth, and I would be quick to agree. With Burning Up, Simon Pirani, a visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, basically says “not so quick, things are not that simple” and provides a deeply researched history of fossil fuel consumption.

    Okay, that is not quite what Pirani says. In his own words: “fossil fuels are consumed through technological, social, and economic systems”. Coming to this topic as a biologist with little background in economics, this mantra, repeated throughout the book, was one that needed some unpacking.

    Burning Up is divided into three main parts. The first four chapters provide context, giving a brief history of fossil fuel use before 1950, how fossil fuel is turned into energy (electricity or refined fuel), and how its use has changed over time in different countries and in different industries from the 1950s onwards. It is these last seven decades that are the focus of this book, as this is a period when population and consumption ballooned (see The Great Acceleration).

    These chapters already reveal many trends and facts I was not familiar with. Such as America’s trendsetting role in road building and private car ownership, ahead of the rest of the world. With it came the ugly invention of planned obsolescence, the purposeful decision to design products that break prematurely, locking consumers into a cycle of buying more stuff (see also Made to Break). Or the incredible amounts of energy that are lost when fossil fuels are transformed into electricity and transported through power lines (one figure quoted on page 26 puts the global (!) loss in 2000 at a mind-boggling 63%, leaving only 37% available to industry and consumers). Or the staggering amounts of energy used by industry for the production of steel, aluminium, and concrete (the last one was already highlighted in The World in a Grain for its huge demand for sand). Or the design choices made by architects and engineers how, for example, public buildings and houses should be heated. Or how urban planning decisions, the resulting urban sprawl, and the lack of investment in public transport created a dependency on cars. Or the heavy electricity toll exacted by the data centres powering the internet and other modern communication technologies.

    I could go on, as Burning Up offers many more insightful examples. But they all highlight areas where the average consumer has little knowledge of the inefficient use of resources and the egregious waste of energy, let alone has leverage to bring about change (though I would argue that consuming less can address some of these).

    The second and largest part of the book is a detailed chronology of fossil fuel use from the 1950s onwards, taking the reader through the post-war boom, the oil crises of the 1970s, the economic recessions of the 1980s and the continued rise in use during the 1990s and 2000s. This is interrupted by a section on electrification (i.e. the development of electric grids) in several countries around the world. The later chapters also address the inability of governments to address climate change by limiting fossil fuel use. The third part reflects on the assumptions that Pirani has made (you could almost start the book by reading this chapter after the introduction), and his suggestions on what is needed for society to move away from its dependence on fossil fuels.

    The chronology of part 2 reveals many fascinating trends that support Pirani’s contention that population growth does not correspond directly to fossil fuel use. Economic growth, and with it a higher standard of living, are perhaps a more influential part of the equation where fossil fuel use is concerned. Though, I would argue, the fact that we now have such a large population is what makes this increased affluence so impactful.

    Equally, the victory of neoliberalism – the political reforms that favour free-market capitalism and, in the UK, have given us the (cough) “wonders” of privatised public transport and the likes – has had a huge impact. Profit motive and economic growth remain the guiding principles for companies and governments alike. Vested company interests often oppose technological developments that could make for efficiency gains and reductions in fossil fuel use (the example of engineers indicating that cars could be ten times more efficient is but one of many). Governments similarly have continued to subsidise fossil fuels for decades and have been guilty of creative bookkeeping with emission targets and carbon credits once negotiations to curb climate change got going. Especially with China now the world’s largest producer of globally exported consumer goods, a new round of finger-pointing has started over who should be responsible for the ensuing environmental effects of consuming the vast amounts of energy required to make all this stuff.

    I admit that I did not find Burning Up an easy read. For a large part that will be my lack of background knowledge in economics and international politics, so I found some of the subject matter a bit obtuse and dry. But that does not take away that Pirani convincingly shows that fossil fuel use is indeed also determined by economic, social, and technological factors, and not just by population growth and individual consumption.

    What it especially clarifies, I think, are the historical patterns that have resulted in our societies functioning the way they do (the economic factor); in people’s expectations of what makes a good life, and the energy-guzzling stuff they need to make it happen – from cars to household electronics to air-conditioning (the social factor); and in our existing infrastructure, such as power stations and electric grids, and the choices made when designing consumer products (the technological factor).

    Burning Up is a deeply researched book of vast scope that provides a rich context to the basic notion of “climate change happened because we burned fossil fuels”. Though the subject matter might make your head spin in places, Pirani does a great job of putting the mind-bogglingly large numbers involved in context. If there are any doubters left who think that we could not possibly influence something as large as our planet through our actions, feel free to pummel them over the head with this book.
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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).

By: Simon Pirani(Author)
255 pages, b/w illustrations, tables
Publisher: Pluto Press
Meticulously researched and vast in scope, Burning Up argues that our fossil fuel use is far more than just the sum of population growth and individual consumption.
Media reviews

"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

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