In The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work
(Duke University Press, 2019), Cara New Daggett
suggests that reassessing our relationships with fossil fuels in the face of climate change also requires that we rethink the concept of energy itself. Although a seemingly self-evident and natural scientific object, the idea of energy that informed the development of fossil fueled capitalism is a surprisingly modern invention. In the 19th century, as tinkerers sought to explain mystical steam power, they rehashed this ancient word to conceptualize limitless potential and ceaseless expansion. Daggett demonstrates that not only did this new abstraction explain and empower novel technologies and fields of physics, but also became an ideological fulcrum with which to describe and proscribe the emerging societies of industrial capitalism. The harnessing of energy and maximizing its efficiency became not only the principles of mechanical engineering, but also of workplace organization and worker discipline. At home, energy served as a measure of virtue, self-control, and good citizenship; and abroad agents of empire used it to inculcate colonized peoples with those values and habits of supposed modernity. The historical knotting together of virtue, labor, and fossil fuel power – argues Daggett – means that reimagining the role of energy in society requires a fuller transformation of the politics of work.
Cara New Daggett
is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Virginia Tech.
Lance C. Thurner teaches history at Rutgers Newark. His research and writing address the production of knowledge, political subjectivities, and racial and national identities in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Mexico. He is broadly interested in the methods and politics of applying a global perspective to the history of science and medicine and the role of the humanities in the age of the Anthropocene. More at http://empiresprogeny.org.