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Old King Coal

The Capitalocene and The Anthropocene

Old King Coal

School history for me, both child

and quondam secondary teacher,

Was compartmentalised:

Political history; social and economic history;

Diplomatic history and foreign policy.

There was no synthesis in this conservative hierarchy,

Diplomatic history was tops;

Political history meant Westminster rivalries;

Social and economic meant statistics:

The industrial revolution with the merest hint of class;

And all was separate and fenced off from the others.

In consequence, we never learned,

Nor did I effectively teach

How enslavement, the triangular trade,

War, Empire and foreign policy

Were inextricably interlinked

With the ‘industrial and agricultural revolutions.’

As regards those two revolutions as a child,

I recall tables and statistics and diagrams,

And pictures of burgeoning beasts:

‘Successful Selective Breeding’;

And pictures of textile machinery inventions,

And, of course, the James Watt steam engine,

Labelled to show condenser and rotary motion.

The industrial revolution chapter:

All this picturesque depiction

Of ‘The Workshop of the World’,

Untouched, of course, by war, and Empire,

And the triangular trade, and foreign policy.


Now take your exams.

The result of all this for my generation,

With my sort of leftist position,

Was a sort of pride in the working class,

And its evident exploitation;

It was a masculinised pride,

That foregrounded the collier

As the personification of oppression,

And striking resistant solidarity.

My generation of boys also saw steam as a hobby,

We grew up with Ian Allan loco-spotting books,

Gazing in wonder at the wreathes of smoke

Curling through countryside and town,

Enjoying November fogs:

‘No sun, no moon,

No hint of noon …’

And we took a certain boyish pride

In British know-how, ingenuity,

Innovation and practicality:

We were the first country to industrialise!

‘The Workshop of the World’!

Weren’t we lucky to have all those advantages,

And benefits of nature, such as coal?

Obviously, the advent of feminist history,

And more recent decolonising of history

Have critiqued this Old School history,

But the climate crisis now creates

A new urgent and drastic review of the

Old School of Old King Coal.

And so here I am, at the age of seventy,

Questioning and critiquing my whole

Generational identity and zeitgeist,

And, serendipitously, at this precise

Moment of self-questioning and analysis,

My old mate, Bill, messaged me:

Had I come across Fossil Capital

The Rise of Steam Power

and the Roots of Global Warming?

A book that rejects the Anthropocene thesis,

But which asserts, instead,

‘a more scientifically accurate designation, then, would be “the Capitalocene.” This is the geology not of mankind but of capital accumulation … The long trail of Co2 from the stock will stretch out for hundreds of thousands of years … Little did a cotton master switching to steam in Lancashire … suspect that this would be his gift to eternity.’

And Andreas Malm shows, in his book,

How coal and steam were not cheaper than water power,

And there was not some inevitable human impulse

To burn and slash and dig and mine and fire;

Malm demonstrates how the decision to go for steam

Was a capitalist one based upon control of the workforce:

The corralling of a workforce in towns and factories

(Despite nascent trade unions

And political movements such as Chartism),

Meant it was easier to break a strike:

More workers were available in towns and cities

Compared with ‘colonies’ of spinners and weaver

In isolated villages and hamlets

With their fast-flowing steams and water wheels:

‘Contrary to established views, steam offered neither cheaper nor more abundant energy – but rather superior control of subordinate labour. Animated by fossil fuels, capital could concentrate production at the most profitable sites and during the most convenient hours as it continues to do today.’

And with factory acts controlling child labour,

And eventually the adult working day too,

Cotton manufacturers needed to work mill

And factory more intensively,

To compensate for a shorter working day,

And that meant steam and urbanisation:

The Chimney:



The Capitalocene.

Not the Anthropocene.

Old King Coal.

‘The Workshop of the World’.

And you can still smell it today,

You can taste it in the air,

Hear it in the thunder clouds,

Touch it in the dry river beds

And flash flood fields and valleys

And for those with eyes to see it,

The past is still visible in the edgelands

And warehouses of the service economy of today,

Not just imagined liminalities

And landscape palimpsests

Within our borders,

But there in the consequences

For global climate catastrophe,

Across the whole world.

This is our legacy.

I wrote this after three pints in the Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in the country. A three hour walk on the Pennine Way, past old coal pits, after beer memorialising mining, with bar walls decorated with intricate maps detailing the seams and pit heads, got me thinking.

The beer was good, particularly the draught Old Peculiar, and it led to a walk whereby we read not just the landscape as a historical text, but our own lives as well.

It was an unforgettable walk and talk. And it led to this piece.

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