The German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist Max Weber (1864-1920) is often cited, with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx, as among the three founders of sociology. Weber is best known for his contention that ascetic Protestantism was the driving force behind market-driven capitalism and the rational-legal nation-state in the West. Against Marx’s “historical materialism”, Weber emphasised the importance of cultural influences embedded in religion as a means for understanding the genesis of capitalism. This view was summed up in his magnum opus, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, one of the founding texts of Sociology.
But what interests us here is this intriguing passage, which comes towards the end of Weber’s classic book:
“[The tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order] is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.”
According to John Bradford of the U.S.’ Mississippi State University, “Not only does this passage eloquently articulate the binding imperatives engendered by the “modern economic order”, it also unambiguously contravenes the view that the classical theorists were unaware of the essential role that energy played in the creation and maintenance of that order.”
Reviewing a work on Weber in the Times Literary Supplement, Prof Duncan Kelly of Cambridge University says, “In The Protestant Ethic, [Weber] wrote that perhaps the mechanization of life would continue unchallenged until the last ounces of fossil fuel had been used up, and the danger was that we might simply fail to notice. In later work, such environmental imagery had turned into a worry about the future as a polar night of icy darkness.”
It’s interesting is that Weber aired this view nearly 110 years ago (The Protestant Ethic was completed in 1905). As Kelly says, “In our own age, where borderlands between environmental crisis, near-pathological boredom and disaffection with mainstream politics, and tensions driven by religion have if anything become more rigidly crippling than ever, Max Weber looks a more profound guide than we might care to think.” And an overlooked one, we might add.