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Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oilby Timothy Mitchell
Synopses & Reviews
Does oil wealth lead to political poverty? It often looks that way, but Carbon Democracy tells a more complex story. In this magisterial study, Timothy Mitchell rethinks the history of energy, bringing into his grasp as he does so environmental politics, the struggle for democracy, and the place of the Middle East in the modern world.
With the rise of coal power, the producers who oversaw its production acquired the ability to shut down energy systems, a threat they used to build the first mass democracies. Oil offered the West an alternative, and with it came a new form of politics. Oil created a denatured political life whose central object – the economy – appeared capable of infinite growth. What followed was a Western democracy dependent on an undemocratic Middle East. We now live with the consequences: an impoverished political practice, incapable of addressing the crises that threaten to end the age of carbon democracy – namely, the disappearance of cheap energy and the carbon-fueled collapse of the ecological order.
How oil undermines democracy, and our ability to address the environmental crisis
In the global north the commoditization of creativity and knowledge under the banner of a creative economy is being posed as the post-industrial answer to dependency on labour and natural resources. Not only does it promise a more stable and sustainable future, but an economy focused on intellectual property is more environmentally friendly, so it is suggested.
Resource Sovereigns argues that the fixes being offered by this model, popularised by market economics since the end of World War II, are bluffs; that development in the global south continues to be hindered by a global division of labour and nature that puts the capacity for technological advancement in private hands. The authors call for a multilayered understanding of sovereignty (an ostensibly outdated political concept in the world of global capital) arguing that it holds the key to undermining rigid accounts of the relationship between carbon and democracy, energy and development, and energy and political expression. Furthermore, a critical focus on energy politics is crucial to wider debates on development and sustainability.
Essential reading for those wondering how energy resources are converted into political power and why we still value the energy we take from our surroundings more than the means of its extraction.
Contested Powers looks specifically at the role of fossil fuels and renewable energy in the economic development of countries in Latin America. The contributors to this volume argue that the two currently dominant approaches to energy policyandmdash;either a focus on energy conservation or a focus on creating renewable energy resourcesandmdash;are actually two sides of the same coin. Both approaches are hindered by an underlying division of labor and capital that puts the means for ecologically sound technological advancement in the hands of a minority. The essays in Contested Powers go beyond Latin America to demonstrate that the key to addressing climate change and sustainable development around the globe is to first address the relationship between political and financial power and energy use and resources.
Carbon Democracy provides a unique examination of the relationship between oil and democracy. Interweaving the history of energy, political analysis, and economic theory, Mitchell targets conventional wisdom regarding energy and governance. Emphasizing how oil and democracy have intermixed, he argues that while coal provided the impetus for mass democracy, the shift to oil drastically limited democratic possibility; above all, the ability to confront contemporary ecological crises.
About the Author
Timothy Mitchell teaches at Columbia University. His books include Colonising Egypt, Rule of Experts, and Carbon Democracy.
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