Fueling Capitalism: Oil, the Regulation Approach, and the Ecology of Capital



Despite a deepening set of socioecological contradictions, it is remarkable that oil's centrality to capitalism persists. In economic geography, the regulation approach has been useful in explaining the persistence of capitalism despite its contradictory tendencies, and scholars have recently applied the regulation approach to the geography of natural resources and environmental governance. In this article, I argue that environmental regulation theory is ill equipped to explain the persistence of petro-capitalism in the United States. This literature has been constructed largely through a critique of regulation theory on two grounds: ignoring the ecological dimension and relying on periodization. Conversely, I aim to show that petro-capitalism can be usefully analyzed through the very classical regulationist lens that environmental appropriations jettison. First, rather than positing nature as an unexamined “extra-economic” dimension, the case of oil reveals how ecology can be integrated into a foundational concept of the regulation approach—the wage relation. Specifically, the Fordist wage relation of mass production for mass consumption was dependent on the construction of a specific kind of “high energy economy.” Massive productivity gains in the labor process, powered by electricity, created larger pressures for an equally energy-intensive geography of consumption. In this respect, oil played a decisive role in the extension of the spaces between home and work through the partial generalization of automobility and single-family home ownership. Second, I attempt to recuperate the method of “periodization” by explaining how a set of institutional supports served to regularize the provision of oil through the domestic oil market from 1935 through 1972. I end with a discussion of the “institutional exhaustion” of a specifically national form of petro-Fordism during the 1970s.