Carbon Democracy

Timothy Mitchell (2011)

TimothyMitchell_CarbonDemocracy Buried amongst sometimes somewhat haughty paragraphs of Mitchell’s book are two fairly radical propositions. The first is that ‘[d]emocratisation has generally depended on engineering […] forms of vulnerability’, and this vulnerability arises because particular manufacturing processes ‘can render the technical processes of producing concentrations of wealth dependent on the well-being of large numbers of people’. What Mitchell means to say is that certain vital processes – to do with energy, as it happens – become vulnerable due to structural bottlenecks, and that leveraging these vulnerabilities has enabled the process of ‘democratisation’. The two examples he covers are those of coal and oil. Coal mines tended to be distal from urban centres and susceptible to strikes by coal miners, which would spread downstream along the supply chain to railways, etc. This allowed coal workers to press for democratic concessions.

The story to do with the structural vulnerabilities around oil is more complicated, and I am not convinced Mitchell’s story is entirely self-consistent. Here we find the – to me – second radical proposition: that oil companies throughout history have been far more concerned with constricting the supply of oil, rather than expanding it.

The net result is that most of Mitchell’s book reads like a whirlwind tour of the 20th Century oil-bearing regions, with Western oil companies and their government cronies in a constant tussle with governments desperately looking for ways to get their national fossil fuel endowment to market.

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