Democracy and fossil fuels


in Economics, Politics, The environment

The rise of mass democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness. The autonomy enjoyed by coal miners lends itself to this kind of explanation. There is no need, however, to detour into questions of shared culture or collective consciousness to understand the new forms of agency that miners helped assemble. The detour would be misleading, for it would imply that there was some shortage in earlier periods or other places of people demanding a less precarious life.

What was missing was not consciousness, not a repertoire of demands, but an effective way of forcing the powerful to listen to those demands. The flow and concentration of energy made it possible to connect the demands of miners to those of others, and to give their arguments a technical force that could not easily be ignored. Strikes became effective, not because of mining’s isolation, but on the contrary because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers between the ground to every factory, office, home or means of transportation that depended on steam or electrical power.

Mitchell, Timothy. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. Verso; London. 2013. p. 21

Two responses:

First, it’s unfamiliar to think of fossil fuels as a positive force for social welfare.

Second, perhaps the familiar climate activist strategy of building a social movement is insufficient and we need to think about what means (if any) can align power with the objective of a stable climate.

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