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August 19th, 2019

↳ Energy

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DETERMINED MOVEMENT

Energy production and political institutions

The role of labor (with some notable exceptions) has been relatively marginal in debates over how to decarbonize the economy. But given the growing number of clean energy jobs (and some recent labor news), it is reasonable to predict that any large-scale shifts in the nature of energy production will be accompanied by large-scale shifts in the nature of energy work and the labor relations that define it.

In his 2011 book Carbon Democracy, Columbia University professor TIMOTHY MITCHELL explores the political history of energy production. The wide-ranging study spans history from the industrial revolution to the Arab Spring, and charts the relationship between carbon-based energy production and various forms of governance. Among the arguments at the core of the book is Mitchell's identification of the emergence of democratic labor institutions within the structure and position of coal mines during industrialization—a position that was weakened in the transition to oil.

From the book:

"Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry. The rise of mass democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness, and the autonomy enjoyed by coal miners lends itself to this kind of explanation. There is no need, however, to detour into questions of a shared culture or collective consciousness to understand the new forms of agency that miners helped assemble. Strikes became effective, not because of mining's isolation, but because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers beneath the ground to every factory, office, home, or means of transportation that depended on steam or electric power.

Changes in the way forms of fossil energy were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable to the political claims of those whose labor kept them running. Unlike the movement of coal, the flow of oil could not readily enable large numbers of people to exercise novel forms of political power."

Link to the book preview, link to a 2009 article that preceded its publication.

  • For more on labor dynamics in industrial Britain, see Robert Steinfeld's 2010 book Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century, and Suresh Naidu and Noah Yuchtman's 2012 paper on coercive contract enforcement in coal and other industries. Link to the first, link to the second.
  • A 2012 review of Mitchell's book by Matt Stoller: "Globally, the switch from coal to oil was a fight about labor. You can’t understand modern democratic or third world political structures without understanding energy, and particularly, coal and oil." Link.
  • A book on the role of Mexico's oil fields in labor disputes during the Mexican revolution, by Myrna I. Santiago. Link.
  • A Next System report by Johanna Bozuwa imagines a network of democratically-run energy projects as the core of a "just transition." Link.
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