The built environment tends to reflect the form of the society of which it is a part. And so a large and growing majority of built environments reflect a world dominated and governed by capitalism – a capitalism whose energetic basis, overwhelmingly, is fossil fuels.
However, that has not always been the case – nor need it be in future.
Three characteristic features of capitalism are: the accumulation of capital; competition for profits; and a population without autonomous means of survival outside a world of waged work.
|Women are primary producers of biofuel worldwide.
Photo: M-Rwimo/ Wikimedia Commons
When production is organised along capitalist lines, it proceeds on a competitive basis, drawing in labour and building capital. Capitalist production is competitively intensive in its appropriation and recombination of labour, energy, and other materials.
Ever since the origins of fossil capitalism in eighteenth-century England, coal, and later gas and oil, have acted as a “force multiplier” to industrial forms of capitalist production.
In this part, I will show how the built environment has been tied up with fossil-fuelled capitalism through history: from the emergence of a fossil capitalist economy in Britain in the 1700s (section 3.1); through the rapid economic expansion of the rich countries after world war two (section 3.2) and during the economic crises from the 1970s onwards (section 3.3).
3.1. From the 18th century to the 20th century
The “at will” nature of commodified fossil energy seems first to have given fossil industrialists a competitive edge in subduing organised labour. That was its main advantage to owners of capital, before it afforded a straightforward energetic advantage over water power.
However, as capitalist production proceeded on an ever-greater energetic basis, thanks to fossil fuels, those fuels became an accelerant to economic growth and capital accumulation on an ever-wider scale. More and more physical materials were sucked into production, combined with labour, and pumped out in the form of more commodities, waste and profit.
The industrial economy, fired by coal, increasingly eclipsed the norms of an agrarian, organic economy, to establish a new mineral economy (the terms are Anthony Wrigley’s) – with a basis in large, but nonetheless finite, mineral stocks mined from the earth. In industrialised countries like England, a capitalist economy in agriculture was supplemented, and overtaken in economic terms, by a capitalist economy in industrial manufacturing.
Already in 1750, plenty of greenhouse gas emissions were being emitted from industry and construction. Close to 100% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels (for energy) and from cement production came from the UK – 9.35 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e). Per capita – that is, averaged across all classes in society – this was 1.01 tonnes of CO2e per head per year in the UK.
|Annual global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and land use change. Source: Hannah Ritchie, Pablo Rosado & Max Roser / Our World in Data CO₂ emissions dataset (see data sources and methods)
|Source: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser / Our World in Data
CO₂ emissions dataset (see data sources and methods)
The dirty emissions sites were concentrated in the working class communities of industrial mill towns. But coal’s puff of dirty smoke got the fossil capital ball rolling, and gave the UK bourgeoisie first-mover advantage in the export economy of fossil-backed industry and plunder.
Nevertheless, in 1820, still 94% of humanity’s primary energy was derived from biomass – that is, from non-fossil, organically compostable materials: wood, peat, dung, straw, and other crop residues.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of effective greenhouse gas emissions globally were caused by changes in land-use – principally deforestation to clear land for farming. Much of that was tied to colonial Europe’s violent expropriation of foreign lands for agricultural use: the products either consumed “domestically” by settler colonies, or exported back to Europe.
For the fossil-powered industries and economies of the early fossil capitalist era, the energetic “base” was coal – but other minerals were also economically crucial: cement, sand, and metals contributed to the expansion of manufacturing capacity, through build-out in capital goods, in the shape of machinery, buildings, and infrastructure.
By volume, according to Paul Bairoch, the “developed” countries of the time were self-sufficient in most of these minerals throughout the 19th century and up until around 1950. Self-sufficiency was predominant, and imports travelled only short distances – certainly for the heaviest minerals such as iron ore, and the non-metallic minerals used mostly in construction.
Sand, gravel and crushed rock for construction are widely available across geographic regions, and are almost always used locally. Much engineering consisted in the excavation or movement of local soils and rocks. Limestone, structural clays and gypsum, the main ingredients of concrete, and concrete itself, at most tended to be traded between countries regionally.
During the 19th century, those leading capitalist economies probably extracted more than 99% of the metal ores they consumed (by weight), and out of these produced most of their own finished metal products. These were needed both to make machines and for construction. Reinforced concrete using iron or steel reinforcing bars (rebar) had emerged as a construction technique in the 18th century.
The leading capitalist economies of the time were not, however, self-sufficient in certain other economically important raw materials – for example, cotton, sugar, and gold.
Colonial profiteers and settlers had long plundered foreign lands, dominated their peoples and committed genocides, with the economic support of the European states and the ideological props of racial supremacy – all for the sake of acquiring dominance over labour, land and minerals, and cultivating natural products that were unavailable at home, – or unavailable at such volumes and prices.
Those companies and states remained so dependent as fossil industry developed – as did their beneficiaries in the governing echelons of the British Empire, European imperialism, and settler-colonial states. European consumers had also grown to depend on cheap imported goods.
The sites of colonial plunder may not have been where the productivity gains of fossil capitalism were realised – that was in domestic industry and in its local relations of production. But they nonetheless pumped a vital flow of raw materials into the machines and bellies of the industrial heartlands, off the backs of colonially-sourced slavery and “coolie” labour.
The products of industry – like spun cotton and textiles – could then be pumped out and sold for a healthy return. During the 19th century, moreover, Britain’s industrial development was based more and more on overseas and colonial export. So too it depended on gunboat mercantilism to assert the right kind of “liberal” world economy, via forced deindustrialisation in India, coerced levies from China, and so on.
Thereafter, the revolution in profits is what made Britain’s enlarging colonial empire possible: energetically, economically, technologically and militarily.
And almost all of the raw minerals extracted in tropical regions were those exported to the industrial economies.
Yet minerals remained a tiny proportion of colonial exports. Minerals exports were massively overshadowed by the export of natural products – and by weight imported minerals comprised only a tiny fraction of the minerals the rich regions themselves consumed.
The point is that the construction of fixed capital, worked out of domestic raw minerals and powered by coal, was just one of several key determinants of growth in the industrial core – but an fundamental one.
The accumulation of the gross stock of machinery, its technological renewal, and the expansion of non-residential buildings construction, provided the direct physical means for rapid competitive increases in labour productivity and efficiency. During the 19th century, the rate of energy use multiplied approximately five times over.
1820 was also an inflection point for volumes of world trade, which – on the energetic basis of fossil fuels – turned sharply upwards and accelerated for most of the next 200-odd years. Britain exerted a dominant colonial influence, but also a “diffusionist” role, driving world economic “development” on a fossil capitalist basis.
That development, in turn, drove the industrialisation of the production of building materials themselves, and (increasingly) of construction processes.
Private capital and states were building out infrastructure. Projects undertaken by states functioned as a socialised subsidy to capital. But states also undertook civil engineering projects according to “moral” precepts of bettering conditions for their own “native” workers and populations at large – for example through the hygienic delivery of drinking water and removal of wastes. And as the economic rewards of construction came in, so too did new rounds of capital investments in the built environment.
3.2. After the second world war
Growth in the fossil economy took off decisively after 1945, with a “great acceleration” of industrial output, material throughput, and gross domestic product (GDP). It was made possible by the “energy regime” of fossil fuels that by this time had spread world-wide. The acceleration of greenhouse gas emissions followed as a matter of course. World population also expanded rapidly.
The rate of effective CO2 emissions from changes in land-use, such as deforestation for agriculture, had not changed dramatically since 1850. But emissions from fossil fuels now eclipsed those from land-use change.
|The “great acceleration” in graphs. Source: Will Steffen et al (2015)
To understand the way the built environment grew, we need to look at the political and economic mechanisms that drove patterns of industrial development and consumption.
The US had exited world war two as the dominant political and economic player, beneficiary of half a continent and its resources, looted through broken treaties and genocide. With Europe’s colonial projects thrown out or falling apart, the greater part of Europe’s own infrastructure and fixed capital were in pieces. By contrast, there had been no fundamental damage to US infrastructure and fixed capital. And US industrial and manufacturing capital had been pump-primed for expansion by the war economy.
At the new core of the world economy, the US now possessed such plant, machinery, and relations of production as to place its domestic economy at the forefront of labour productivity.
Physical reconstruction in Europe, alongside technical improvements, restructuring and dollar-denominated investments, drove economic growth in a direction that gave rewards, albeit skewed by racism and gender, to both capital and labour across the “core” economies, but particularly the USA.
The Bretton Woods system of international trade (established in 1944, with the US dollar as the reserve currency) underpinned an expansion in worldwide trade and investment between 1950 and 1973, ventilated by US dollar export.
This also brought a period of wider, unparalleled – if uneven – global economic prosperity, as newly industrialising regions built out their infrastructures and their plant and machinery, cashing the gains of “late development”. Dollar exports came home to the US in the form of investment profits, export sales, and cheap imports, and a mutually-beneficial cycle emerged, of rising domestic and foreign wages, and rising consumption.
As a result, the expansion of GDP worldwide led to a significant convergence between states in their per capita incomes, and in their rates of labour productivity.
|The Aswan Dam. A Creative Commons image
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union eschewed the price and demand signals of consumption via open markets, but nonetheless pursued industrial planning and development of the built environment on a competitively productivist basis – to environmentally-destructive effect.
In fact, all regions that were already industrial economies post-war developed similar profiles of material use. There was “no fundamental difference in the trajectory between market and planned economies”, although most of the impetus for industrial development came from the capitalist nations, according to a recent study conducted at the Vienna Institute of Sociology.
In the global south, programmes of post-colonial state-building and “modernisation” drove large-scale civil engineering, infrastructure, and extraction projects. Again, fossil fuels were at the base of it all. One might not want to endorse all such projects, but as a whole they improved the life chances of millions of people, by furthering delivery of essential services.
Patterns of development were additionally contoured by the inter-imperial rivalries of the Cold War. For example, it was in the US’s political interests, against the perceived threat of communism and an insurgent left, to assist in a developmentalist uplift of people’s lives in Japan. To this end, the US granted Japan (and later South Korea) favourable export conditions into the US domestic market, and helped open its regional neighbours to Japanese exports.
Another example of Cold War construction is Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, across the Nile, which remains the world’s largest embankment dam – and was financed and designed by the Soviet Union.
Military installations, and years of war-readiness, also generated large material, construction, environmental and carbon footprints. The US military’s global sprawl remains notorious for its carbon intensity, as mentioned in part 2.
The graph below shows how energy consumption expanded in the post-war period. After 1945, there was a sharp upturn in total energy consumption, especially oil. By 1965, oil was the dominant fuel, but with coal remaining a major and increased player, alongside the emergence of natural gas.
|Energy consumption, measured by energy content. Source: UNEP (2021)
Up through world war two, the US had been the world’s largest oil producer, but during the post-war boom production rose steadily in the Middle East (chiefly Iran and Saudi Arabia) and North Africa (Libya). This brought a commensurate acceleration in these states’ fixed capital investments, which lasted until the 1980s – when the growth of construction stocks in these countries peaked at about 10% per year, in terms of the mass of materials deposited in infrastructure.
Since oil was the basis of the most competitive elements of the post-war economy, the rich states believed – in their typically racist way – that Middle Eastern and North African oil was rightfully theirs to invest in, control, and exploit at will. Of course this conflicted with local efforts of national self-determination, although circumstances were also ripe for the cooptation of traditional elites, as with Saudi Arabia.
The built environment grew, at multiplying orders of magnitude, thanks to industrial development on a fossil fuels basis.
This meant that there was also a significant change in the composition of global material flows.
In 1900, nearly 80% of such annual flows were used “dissipatively” – that is, materials overwhelmingly passed through the various metabolisms of the world’s societies, and out the other side: food, feed and fuel became energy, excrement and emissions, along with other waste products.
In the post-war period, the absolute volumes of dissipative throughputs increased dramatically. However, the proportion of materials that went to dissipative use declined year-on-year. There was a dramatic accumulation of material throughputs deposited as stocks.
Indeed, stock accumulation was the main reason for increases in material throughput after 1950. This is shown in the graphic, from a specialist research paper on material flows.
|Global material flows, 1900-2015: stocks outstrip dissipative uses.
Source: Fridolin Krausmann et al. (2018)
By weight, about 40% of those stocks comprised of concrete (see graphs C and D in the graphic). Aggregates, bricks and asphalt make up most of the remaining stocks. These four are the main ingredients of the built environment, the products of extracted non-metallic minerals and ores. They are used for little else besides construction – so evidently the majority of stock accumulation, and the majority of material throughput post-war, went into the construction of the built environment.
Stock accumulation in the form of other materials, such as metals, wood, glass and plastics, was much smaller by weight. Those too are used in construction; however they are primarily important as ingredients for machinery and consumer durables – and clearly very economically important in driving the boom in construction. 
In terms of waste products, the increase was greatest and most dramatic from waste emissions and vapour outputs (graph F in the graphic). These are followed by processing waste and end-of-life waste – although the percentage increase in those last two was greater. The increase in end-of-life waste, in particular, is related to the growth in consumer economies post-war, built on high levels of throughput and disposability.
The growth in emissions after 1950 was undoubtedly associated with the large increase in buildings and infrastructure – and therefore the growth in stocks in the built environment drove significant embodied emissions. However, the total here is for all emissions, including the operational emissions from buildings and transport, and embodied emissions of non-construction manufacturing.
The rise in fossil-fuelled construction, manufacturing industry, transport, and consumption, are all of a piece in the economic boom after 1950.
The rise of concrete, which came to dominate construction post-war, has been – and remains – hugely consequential for climate-forcing emissions, and the embodied carbon of the built environment. Not least, this is because of its large “process emissions” (see Part 7).
Reinforced concrete – usually using steel rebar – became the standard-bearer of international construction, with buildings and infrastructure between them consuming most of the world’s steel.
Concrete is an ancient material. However, only with the onset of a high-energy, high-carbon society could the combined structural-engineering and economic efficiencies of steel-reinforced concrete become a reality at scale – and thereafter the basis for a globalised construction industry.
Moreover, structural dependability combines with entrenched economic interests. Both presumably contribute to the professional habits of mind that retain reinforced concrete and structural steel as the mainstays of buildings construction and civil engineering.
In buildings design, there is also an aesthetic component to this. In the 20th century, steel and concrete became the main materials for a form of modern architecture that sought to “dematerialise” the structure of buildings behind curtain walls of glass. And yet the quality of engineering strength that helps steel and concrete to “disappear” can correspond to vast material and emissions footprints during the whole life cycle of a building.
Much architectural and civil engineering design has repressed, or been blind to, its wider relationship to the environment – and this continues in many instances today.
Arguably, the repression, or the blindness, has been foundational to the psychological construction of the mainstream of “modernity” – a kind of imperial standard.
Very many countries have also been incredibly industrious in stockpiling asphalt, through car-centric planning, and car-dependent infrastructures of roads and suburbs.
In the US and elsewhere, this is tribute to the political-economic sway of the fossil fuel and motor car industries – and how they have successfully embedded their interests in the entire form of the built environment.
The historic removal of public transit in the US, and the rise of car-centric environments, by the 1960s ensured high per-capita rates of energy consumption in transport, forcing people to travel unduly large distances, often individually, and (until the advent of electric vehicles) exclusively powered by oil.
Besides the direct money costs of transport, highly distributed road systems and low-density urban sprawl have also baked in enormous ongoing embodied costs – in particular, for road maintenance. Those have proven to be fiscally bankrupting to many US states and cities without federal assistance.
After 1955, the more “developed” economies became increasingly dependent on the global south for many more materials – and far less self-reliant than they had been before. For example, they have imported most metal ores, although North America is the exception here.
For industrialised states such as the US, UK and Japan, fossil fuels fed comparatively developed systems of production, and increasingly energy-dense habits of consumption and mobility.
Most poorer countries grew heavily dependent on imports of oil and manufactured goods. Fossil fuels were disproportionately the means of “catch up” development: building out the basic requirements of modernisation and industrial development, including vital infrastructure, electrification and housing.
Fossil fuels also enabled a decreased dependence on biofuels for domestic heating and cooking (athough it remains high worldwide – see below). This transition is vital to lifting domestic air quality, respiratory health, and related burdens of disease.
In the global south, workers could buy slightly more with their wages at the end of the 1920s than they could around 1875. However, from the 1950s onward, poorer non-oil-producing countries faced ever-worsening terms of trade.
The international supply of raw materials and produce grew, and this drove prices down – which in turn brought declines in foreign exchange income. Poorer countries therefore faced perennial downward pressures on their currencies, even as they sought to acquire dollar-denominated manufactures to carry their economies along the path of “modernisation”.
Another aspect of the “great acceleration” that followed the second world war was an unprecedently rapid growth of population.
The post-war period brought unprecedented declines in mortality across the “developing” world. This was caused by the increased use of insecticides, vaccines and antibiotics, and public health interventions that effected a revolution in the treatment of communicable disease, e.g. via improvements in everyday sanitation.
Civil engineering projects for delivering clean water and managing waste also helped substantially, especially in cities.
From these improvements to public health, rapid population growth followed, with the world’s population expanding at over 2% a year by the early 1960s – and by more than 3% a year in some poorer countries. Just a 2% annual rise implied a doubling every 35 years.
Notwithstanding the availability of, and use of, artificial contraception in some countries, the unprecedented declines in mortality continued to be bolstered by high rates of fertility in many regions, and across “less-developed” countries as a whole – including in Brazil, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, and Egypt. In such regions, population expanded rapidly through the 1970s – and in most cases continues to expand now, although often at diminishing rates.
This demographic expansion has tended to be focused in urban areas – cities already being places where people live in greater numbers. This “natural” demographic expansion has been the main factor driving urban population growth in poorer countries, although migration into cities from also-more-populous rural areas has been significant too.
Rural-urban migration can be driven by many factors besides the pull of potentially higher wages. People can be pulled by personal circumstances. Or they can be pushed, as when dispossessed from land-based livelihoods by politically-sanctioned land-grabs, by the prevalence of political instability and war, or by encroaching environmental devastation. “Environmental migration” is already a significant factor affecting the lives of millions of people.
All net growth in urban population has obvious impacts on states’ and markets’ ability to meet populations’ material needs – and that includes through the “services” of the built environment.
However, although the post-war population expansion is usually considered to be part and parcel of the “great acceleration”, the link to exponential rises in material consumption and climate-forcing emissions is partial at most.
In part 2, I cited a series of Oxfam/SEI studies that allotted consumption emissions to the world’s individuals in proportion to their income. Those studies conclude that greenhouse gas emissions are almost entirely caused by the high levels of material consumption – flows and stocks – from the world’s rich. The bottom 50% of people by income are responsible for only 7% of global consumption-based CO2 emissions, according to Oxfam/SEI.
Those studies make simplifying assumptions. However, it is clear that responsibility for the environmental impacts of high rates of consumption lies with a minority of richer consumers, and with the world’s corporations and states devouring ever-more resources – not with the world’s poor, however numerous.
A large minority of the world’s population “may not even have any net contribution to [greenhouse gas] emissions”, according to the researcher David Satterthwaite.
Indeed, where populations have expanded significantly after 1960, they have tended to do so primarily in the absence of rising incomes and economic growth, and in the absence of equitable access to material resources, stocks, and services. Per capita access to services has usually struggled – and in many cases failed – even to keep up with the growth of populations, and populations have struggled to “get out of poverty”.
Nevertheless, two additional factors should be mentioned.
First is the widespread use in poor countries of biomass combustion for domestic cooking and heating – often linked to deforestation. That is a huge cause of respiratory illness and ill health. It is also a not-insignificant cause of greenhouse gas emissions. (See part 9 and Appendix 3, in the PDF version.)
Secondly, we should all want the material conditions of the world’s poor to improve significantly – and that would include increased material consumption, in the form of electricity, food, and other services.
If that is to occur, under present consumption norms, then both historical and future population growth amongst the world’s poor would then result in increased emissions. As things stand now, however, that has substantially not occurred. What is needed is “contraction and convergence”, and energy transition. (See part 6.)
According to the World Bank, more than 80% of world GDP is now generated in cities. And with a rising majority of the world’s population (about 56%) living in cities, it is hardly surprising that a majority of the world’s material consumption is also on average concentrated in cities.
And yet, in circumstances where population growth continues to outpace economic development, urban growth is certainly not – as it is sometimes presumed to be – an automatic indicator or driver of economic improvement and the improvement of people’s lives.
Instead, the question is whether sufficient economic activity – formal or informal – can be generated to absorb a growing population that lacks any other non-market means of subsistence. Furthermore, a circuit of under-consumption can have a self-reinforcing character.
Just this kind of dynamic is at play in the growing populations of sub-Saharan Africa and India – in particular, in cities – where an even greater future population boom is forecast. I look at the implications of this for decarbonisation and the built environment in part 6.
3.3. From the 1970s: growth through downturns
Whereas the 1950s and 1960s were characterised by the diffusion and convergence of countries’ per capita GDP gains and material footprints, the 1970s brought considerable divergence.
In the USA and other historical centres of capital, many people benefited from the golden age – but by no means everybody. Capitalists, the otherwise wealthy, and those with rising terms of employment and social rights benefited. There were clear racial components to the patterns of social and workplace gains, and the intergenerational transmission of wealth and oppression.
As the post-war world economy grew, it also brought newly-industrialising export economies a competitive edge. However, heightened commercial competition within key sectors eventually came to impinge on profit rates in the rich countries.
Alongside the US’s war in Vietnam, expanded world trade had also brought a swollen demand for US dollars internationally. As a result, not only was confidence in the convertibility of US dollars to gold shaken, exchangeability became all but impossible to uphold. An overheated domestic US economy generated inflation, and this was transmitted around the world through the fixed exchange rate system.
When Richard Nixon, the US president, unilaterally ended the Bretton Woods system in 1971, and let go of the “monetary anchor” of dollar convertibility, it was in part in defence of domestic production. Implicitly, however, the US had come to accept its economic position as the international “consumer of last resort” – of movable commodities – in a world economy largely denominated in US dollars.
With OPEC’s subsequent withholding of oil production in 1973, the price of crude oil rose nearly fourfold. In the rich capitalist countries, this set off a wage-price spiral in which capital and labour, “fought it out for who would take the real income loss arising from the imported oil prices” in the words of economist Bill Mitchell. Not least, the full coercive force of the old imperialist states was used to squeeze labour on behalf of capital. Labour lost.
This immediate victory of capital was subsequently secured for the next 40+ years by globalisation, with its perpetual threat of offshoring, combined with the elite capture of social democratic labour parties.
The domestic economies of the capitalist core were wound down, driving them into recession. Functionally, this drove the bargaining power of labour into the dirt, while eventually re-securing a low-inflation environment based on the disempowerment of labour.
For reasons of monetarist ideology and capitalist self-interest, current spending and investments by the state were meanwhile made subsidiary to the fortunes of capital.
Annual spending by government was pegged to the scale of tax “revenue” out of the non-government sector. Government investments were “funded” by bond sales – a blatant subsidy to large commercial banks. These constituted policy choices about the social function of a national currency.
Under the neoliberal consensus, henceforth, deficit and debt became dirty words, wherever they threatened to deliver broad social uplift. Governments tended to prioritise assistance to capital and the wealthy, ahead of building stocks of social welfare.
Growth in territorial material use across the core industrial economies slowed abruptly through the 1970s. In the national industrial sectors, profitability also slumped.
Integrated steel mills, for example, depended on high throughputs to maintain competitiveness. Globalisation meant they faced competition from newer integrated mills and mini mills abroad – although those were often owned or financed from within the capitalist core economies.
Favourably located close to new and cheaper sources of ore, these new mills also benefited from technological upgrades that made them less labour-intensive, and from comparatively cheaper and more “flexible” labour relations. The market in low value-added finished steel products was globalised: this included the market for steel rebar used in construction.
At the same time, the oil price hikes reasserted the fact in the minds of fossil capitalists, and to all states dependent on oil imports, that they were vulnerable to interruptions in the supply of fossil fuels, so long as their dependence continued.
But while the inflationary spiral had led bosses and states to impose wage stagnation and recession in the capitalist core, the 1973 oil shock was far worse for the people of poorer oil-importing countries.
It drove their economies through the floor: import prices rose, currencies depreciated, and what export markets there were dried up – which crippled economic growth in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, already suffering under unfavourable terms of trade. The external debts of these countries soared. Capital took advantage with new rounds of plunder, particularly through land grabs from agrarian economies.
Meanwhile, across Africa and Latin America, development needs went unmet – not least in urgent infrastructure spending.
But more than anything, labour militancy and inflation in the core, and the post-1971 monetary environment, combined with improvements in transport and communications to encourage ever more global “offshoring” of extraction and manufacturing.
Industrial and manufacturing businesses looked beyond the old industrial core to the newly industrialising countries that already had a foothold in providing infrastructures and workforces amenable to capital. The bid here was to find more and readier access to cheap labour, and it paid off.
|Source: Our World in Data
So as capital imposed 40+ years of stagnated or declining wages in the rich economies, it invested in production and economic growth globally – primarily in East Asia. From the 1970s onwards, East Asia’s per capita growth improved from the “golden age”. South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and China all replicated Japan’s earlier growth spurt.
Those shifts entailed wholesale build-outs of the production and export capacities of those “emerging” economies – from the fixed capital of heavy industry and manufacturing, to infrastructure; but also, more and more capital funding and materials for civil engineering and housing.
That expanded productive base thereafter mobilised progressively greater throughputs of materials in production, subsequently embodied in oceans of new products, whose lower prices found a growing market of buyers globally. The expansion of the global labour force meanwhile lifted incomes, which in turn fed more demand into the system, realising and continually raising the promise of expanded reproduction.
It is those changing geographies of production that enabled the continued expansion in the world economy through the 1970s and through the period of “secular stagnation” in the old core economies – even as high rates of competition continued to hold down the declared average rate of profit across the G20 group of rich nations. (The G20 comprise around 90% of world GDP and two-thirds of world population.)
I say declared rate of profit, because so-called “profit shifting” had a role in accentuating the outward appearance of stagnation. It is reckoned that the actual rate of profit was higher than declared, and wealth increasingly hidden offshore. But at the end of the day, it was the massively increased scale of investment that more than compensated for a reduced average rate of return.
|Economic growth, raw material extraction and emissions from fossil fuel use.
Source: Thomas Wiedmann et al (2020)
Meanwhile, in the old “core” economies, – in particular in the US and UK – corporate profits and private wealth after around 1980 have grown along four main paths: first, the “classical” route to enrichment by investment in production, often in emerging markets; second, “fictitious” capitalisation of assets and the raising of debt; third, rent-seeking and associated forms of secondary exploitation; and fourth, overtly politically-enabled accumulation, with funds siphoned directly from states and central banks into the pockets of the 1%, via the private banking sector, privatisation of public assets, untendered contracts, bailouts, “tax cuts”, and the like.
As world GDP continued to expand, it ensured the continuity of a robustly secular expansion in volumes of extraction, production, consumption, and waste products. Correspondingly, greenhouse gas emissions continued their upward trend.
After 1980, the rises in global GDP and global material footprints seem to have correlated to one another, following a minor decoupling during the 1970s.
And within that, the expansion in “stocks” – principally concrete and other building materials – has been unprecedented.
In Part 4, I focus on China, where the building boom has in the last two decades dramatically outstripped all other regions, and all previous phases of growth.
Finally: the 1970s also showed that organised grassroots struggle can have a dramatic impact on the course of urban planning and the built environment.
In the Netherlands, post-war planning through the 1960s had carved up historic neighbourhoods, in favour of the motor car. But in the 1970s, mobility protests reversed that tide. They drove a fundamental rethink in planning, to support walking, cycling, and public transit – in urban, suburban, and rural locations.
Now, compared to other similar countries (like the UK), the Netherlands has – amongst other things – strengthened the rights of children and those with mobility impairments to travel safely and independently. In the Netherlands, 75% of all secondary school children cycle to school (2008 data) – although poorer families often lack access to bikes. Cycling is one of the many reasons why Dutch children have the highest well-being across all rich countries, according to UNICEF.
These positive changes in the built environments of the Netherlands are not perfect, and the process (and struggle) is ongoing. Areas of habitation are just one important part of the global built environment.
However, pleasant, walkable neighbourhoods – and a people-centered built environment in general – are not a pipe dream. They should be available to all, globally.
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 In 1850, for example, effective emissions from the loss of land-based carbon sinks have been calculated at 2.54 billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon, versus 197 million tonnes from burning fossil fuels. (To be more specific, the graph line showing land use change represents a bookkeeping average from three different estimates for “net CO2 flux”, the net effect on atmospheric CO2 of sociogenic changes in land-use, such as deforestation, forest degradation, logging, agricultural harvest and land management practices, afforestation, and forest regrowth.)
 See Paul Bairoch, Economics and World History: myths and paradoxes (1993), p.86
 In the UK, the gross stock of machinery rose from $92 per person in 1820, to $878 per person in 1913 (in 1990 US dollars). The value of non-residential structures rose from $1,074 per person to $2,509 per person. Alongside this, the average years of primary education per person rose from two years to nearly nine years.
 For data, see this previous paper
 Graph D in the graphic above deserves some additional comment. Note that the “baseline” entry stock at 1900 is in the 10s of gigatonnes for the world as a whole. All the graphs rely on statistical reports related to industrial development. But as mentioned by some of the same authors in a later paper, existing material stocks prior to industrialisation are probably underestimated – think, for example, of historic towns and cities, and all the earthworks, whose construction predated the industrial era. So it is likely that the curve of graph D should be shifted further upward to reflect a larger legacy stock of buildings and infrastructure before 1900.
Nevertheless, it is the shape of the curve that matters most to climate politics. Prior to around 1950, those legacy stocks were accumulated slowly – as were all stocks (graph C). The difference made by industrial development on a fossil fuel basis after 1945 was that the built environment then expanded massively and rapidly.
Additionally, reporting gaps remain for some materials: bricks, sand and gravel go under-reported. So do illicit material flows. For obvious reasons, informal, non-industrial construction is also under-reported – including traditional construction, and construction in informal settlements and slum neighbourhoods.
However, in quantitative material terms, the volume of such construction probably remains tiny compared with the sort of industrial construction that leaves a statistical footprint – although it provides essential “services” to populations outside the mainstream of industrial consumption.
 Bairoch, Economics and World History, pp. 115-116.
 As I complete this series of articles, Oxfam/SEI have released a new 2023 study, reported prominently in the Guardian newspaper. This updates the 2020 study, with some changes to data sources. However, the methodology remains the same
 On material stocks, see the paper mentioned above: Fridolin Krausmann et al., 2018