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Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age…

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (2011)

by Timothy Mitchell

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This book took me a month, at least. Part of that was just how busy I am, but certainly also because of the book’s density. There is a lot of data, and Timothy Mitchell provides a lot of information, context, history, and statistics for his argument. At times it feels like sticking your head into a waterfall of information and trying to take it all in (or sometimes even trying to retain anything). But despite all of that, reading it was definitely a profound experience, and it’s changed how I think about politics and economics in a way that few other individual works have done. I’m going to summarize the book as best I can, but if you care at all about politics, the economy, or twentieth century history, you should read this book because I’m not going to do it justice.

The first part of the book lays out Mitchell’s thesis: energy, and specifically carbon, has been responsible for the political structure of the world since at least the Industrial Revolution. The invention of methods to extract and transport coal in large quantities allowed for urbanization (since huge groups of populations no longer had to live nearby their food sources) and the underpinnings of democracy, namely labor rights. This, Mitchell says, is due to the very nature of coal extraction: because managers and bosses are so far removed from the actual work that takes place within the mine, workers translate their autonomy into strikes and work stoppages. The same principle applies to transportation of this energy, since railways and other lines through which energy travels are susceptible to interruption by the workers at any point on the narrow, linear path of transportation. Coal emerged in part because of and as the cause of workers’ ability to bring society to a halt. “Democracy,” such as it was, emerged to give miners and workers enough of a say in their lives to not cause that halt.

Oil changed this. Coal moves in “dendritic networks,” with a main channel that can be blocked. Oil, Mitchell explains, moves in something more like an electrical grid: if one channel is blocked, it can still make it to the other side through another part of the grid. Thus, strikes and stoppages become much less effective. Naturally, once governments and corporations figured this out, oil became the preferred carbon energy source. Mitchell’s argument perhaps overlooks a lot of other factors, especially considering the history of labor, but it makes sense that the methods of production like he talks about played at least a moderate part in the rise (and fall) of labor power.

Next, Mitchell moves into the late nineteenth to twentieth centuries, where he spends most of the book’s time. He lays out the colonial history of the Middle East and the oil discoveries there. Apparently the popular narrative (I can’t confirm or deny because I haven’t read a ton about early oil discoveries there) was that of brave entrepreneurs taking risks to find a rare and powerful form of energy with which to build the Western world. That isn’t what happened. Oil wasn’t scarce; there were incredible, seemingly unimaginable quantities of it all over the world. The problem for governments and oil corporations wasn’t dealing with scarcity; it was manufacturing the scarcity. Companies worked with imperial powers to ensure a monopoly on oil, often exploiting ethnic tensions to ensure control over oil production.

So after Western governments and corporations secured access to oil in the Middle East (more on that in a bit), they had to first create the demand for oil, then make sure they controlled the supply and could make a profit. For instance, the Marshall Plan after WWII was specifically designed to build an oil infrastructure in Europe, like the one being built in the US. (The US specifically used up its post-war prosperity to build suburbs and force people to make commuting an inescapable part of daily life.) Oil companies financed the development of car engines that used gasoline, up until then a waste product from the synthesis of kerosene from crude oil, then made US life impossible without one. Once everyone was used to oil in their daily lives, the companies played games with the price in order to ensure huge profits. What’s more, the abundance of cheap American-controlled oil cemented the US dollar as the backbone of the global economy.

Then Mitchell goes into some more contextual history of how the entire idea of “the economy” emerged. The first instances in the West of governments collecting economic data was to quantify coal reserves, and since that point, the economy has come to refer to a realm somehow “separate” from daily life and especially politics. The economy quickly shifted, however, to the idea of infinite growth, even while ostensibly managing “scarcity.”

The last third or so of the book lays out specifically what’s happened in the Middle East and South Asia in the last fifty or sixty years, attributing most of the political strife and turnover to the machinations of oil companies and the governments that love them. Between the CIA, oil companies’ own operatives, and blatant political maneuvering from the West, the constant lack of stable, democratic government is a natural consequence. The sale of arms and munitions is a perfect way to dispose of excess oil wealth (since there’s no “maximum” number of arms a group or state can accumulate), and various coups, revolutions, and assassinations were often planned and carried out in the interests of oil. It’s sobering and difficult to argue with, considering all of the evidence Mitchell brings to the table. This part specifically is what I’m doing the least amount of justice to, because he starts at the beginning and goes all the way up to 2013, and it is staggering to see it all laid out.

"Three numbers shape this calculus [of energy dependence]," Mitchell writes in the afterword:

two degrees Celsius - the target accepted in the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Accord as the mean global temperature rise below which the most dangerous effects of anthropogenic climate change might be avoided; 886 gigatons - the quantity of carbon dioxide humankind can place in the atmosphere between the year 2000 and mid-century and still have some chance of keeping below the two-degree target, a budget of which more than one third was used up in the first decade of the century, leaving just 565 gigatons to spend by 2050; and 2,795 gigatons - the carbon potential of the proven coal, oil and gas reserves owned by the world’s private and public companies and governments. This last figure is five times the size of the remaining carbon budget. Energy firms, which dominate the lists of the world’s largest corporations, suffer from a deepening dependency. They depend upon counting as a financial asset a reserve of fossil fuels of which four-fifths must stay buried and uncounted in the ground if we are serious about keeping the planet habitable.

Reading this after the entire rest of the book wasn’t the most encouraging thing I’ve ever experienced. With how much of the 20th century has been shaped by the quest for profit from oil, how can we suddenly expect this to change? Mitchell has a few suggestions, which largely center on collective action. I agree that if anything is going to help, it has to be that. I’m just feeling particularly cynical, in part because of Mitchell’s masterful argument throughout the entire book. ( )
1 vote godinpain | May 8, 2015 |
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Oil is a curse, it is often said, that condemns the countries producing it to an existence defined by war, corruption and enormous inequality. Carbon Democracy tells a more complex story, arguing that no nation escapes the political consequences of our collective dependence on oil. It shapes the body politic both in regions such as the Middle East, which rely upon revenues from oil production, and in the places that have the greatest demand for energy. Timothy Mitchell begins with the history of coal power to tell a radical new story about the rise of democracy. Coal was a source of energy so open to disruption that oligarchies in the West became vulnerable for the first time to mass demands for democracy. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the development of cheap and abundant energy from oil, most notably from the Middle East, offered a means to reduce this vulnerability to democratic pressures. The abundance of oil made it possible for the first time in history to reorganize political life around the management of something now called "the economy" and the promise of its infinite growth. The politics of the West became dependent on an undemocratic Middle East. In the twenty-first century, the oil-based forms of modern democratic politics have become unsustainable. Foreign intervention and military rule are faltering in the Middle East, while governments everywhere appear incapable of addressing the crises that threaten to end the age of carbon democracy-- the disappearance of cheap energy and the carbon-fuelled collapse of the ecological order. -- Book jacket.… (more)

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