Historians' Watch

Plastics and Fossil Fuels: Follow the History of Technological Systems

by Simon Pirani

The “Great Pacific garbage patch”. Picture credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Plastics have a history too. David Attenborough’s magnificent Blue Planet II TV series, which last year jolted public anger over plastic waste in the oceans, focused attention on a bunch of materials that hardly existed a century ago. Output of plastics has mushroomed since the mid twentieth century, on the back of rising production of oil and gas, the main raw materials from which they are made, and the petrochemicals industry that processes them.

Warnings about the damage done by plastics to other living creatures, and to their and our habitats, are not new either. In 1970, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl appealed to the United Nations to take action on the oil and plastics pollution that he monitored on ocean voyages. In 1997, the environmentalist Charles Moore showed that plastic waste outweighed plankton in the Pacific by a ratio of six to one.

When Blue Planet hurled plastics back into the headlines, campaigner Chris Rose commented that there had been “most of a lifetime of wasted opportunity” since Moore’s discovery. Moreover, that “most of a lifetime” came after scientists confirmed the global warming effect, and the role of fossil fuels in producing it, in the 1980s – and even after the world’s leading politicians acknowledged that reality, and the need to tackle it, at the Rio climate summit in 1992.

A sense of many histories – political, economic, social, technological – is needed to appreciate the roots of the rupture, symbolised by plastics, between human society and the natural world of which we are part. Attenborough’s films of sea creatures being starved, choked, enmeshed and tortured by plastics triggered appeals to consumers not to buy plastic bags, and boasts by coffee shop chains that they would phase out plastic cups. All progress of a kind, but not really the point. Most plastic packaging is used in supply chains, not by individuals. Much other plastic is used, wastefully, in construction. Companies decide to use materials in damaging ways; politicians decide not to regulate them.

Underneath these obvious problems are deeper-seated economic trends. It was the post-war boom, and the availability of cheap oil and gas that characterised it, that boosted the petrochemicals industry, of which plastics are key products. Global plastics output was 1 million tonnes (mt) in 1949, 6 mt in 1960 and 100 mt in 1989. The move away from more recyclable types of packaging (glass milk bottles to plastic, string bags to plastic, cardboard boxes to plastic) was accelerated by the rise of throwaway culture in the 1980s. That in turn was associated with globalisation, changing labour practices in the global north and materials production shifting to the global south. Global plastics output in 2014: 311 mt.

A seabird found dead after consuming plastics. Picture credit: Creative Commons.

To understand better the present anthropocene epoch (defined as the time in which human impacts are the most significant physical forces changing nature), we need to look at technological systems and the way they are embedded in social and economic systems. In a book just published, Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption, I have presented an overview of all the systems that use coal, oil and gas – not just the highly visible culprits such as plastic bags, egregious flying or SUVs, but also the largest users such as electricity networks, urban transport systems, chemical fertilisers, heating and air conditioning.

Technologies are not bad. But they are sent down particular paths, and used in particular ways, because of the capitalist social relations in which they have developed. Take the motor car, which future historians will look back on as an incredibly over-rated, fossil-fuel-intensive way of getting people from place to place. The manufacture of cars with internal combustion engines, predominantly in the USA, started before the First World War. It was given impetus by the installation of the first automated production lines in Detroit in the years leading up to 1914, and by the war itself, during which motor transport was developed for military purposes.

In the interwar period, in the US, car transport became a mass phenomenon. The industry was consolidated and concentrated into three huge corporations and a few slightly smaller ones. It pioneered sales techniques such as planned obsolescence, and political lobbying techniques used to support road infrastructure construction and to undermine alternative forms of transport (specifically, public transit in cities, and railways between them). The latter campaign reached its apex after the second world war, when the US state’s direct cash support for highway construction was more than four times as great as the entire Marshall Plan (US aid to post-war reconstruction in Europe). From the 1950s, the US system of car-based transport was copied in Europe, and from the 1980s efforts were made to export it to parts of the global south.

Car-based cities, where historically most car journeys have been made, were not inevitable, efficient, or the natural outcome of technological development: they developed in line with the profit-centred expansion of American capitalism, and were then copied elsewhere. Cars and urban infrastructure were key causes of oil consumption growth during the post-war boom, and still are today.

One of the best things about working on a general history has been the excitement of learning from legions of historians whose research has been motivated, directly or indirectly, by the anthropocene tragedy. On that concept, read Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene (Verso, 2016). On plastics, read Vaclav Smil, Making the Modern World (Wiley, 2014). On cars, read Stan Luger, Corporate Power, American Democracy and the Automobile Industry (Cambridge, 2000) and Matthew Huber, Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom and the Forces of Capital (Quadrant, 2013). History books help to change the world.


  1. Is sad to see how people take the earth for granted. What are we gonna do when is not just the oceans covered by trash?

  2. Even with more people becoming eco friendly, there’s still a lot of damage being done by wastes.

  3. This is so sad, people need to start thinking about the earth and not just themselves.

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