Friday, June 28, 2013

Timothy Mitchell: Carbon Democracy

Dissent Magazine has an article by Timothy Mitchell, Prof. of Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University, on the political-economy of peak oil. I suggest reading the article, which is a lead-up to his book Carbon Democracy.  The article walks through several recent trends on energy, climate change and economics that most of you are already familiar with. But it's pieced together in way that builds toward a penetrating analysis culminating in the issue of the politics of energy. The critical factor that Mitchell adds to the discussion is the role of Labour and its associated politics.The point of the book is stated in the last three paragraphs:
"The post-2009 energy boom that seemed to pull the United States out of a financial collapse and global recession caused by the excesses of speculative capital is not the antidote to that world of excess and speculation. The claim that the shale revolution represents a path to a “potential re-industrialization of the US” was published in the Wall Street Journal by the head of global commodities research at Citigroup. The same banks and newspapers that helped organize and profit from the system of exponentially growing consumer debt and the overvalued derivatives built on it were now creating the unsustainable expectations of a carbon-fueled future. Few people seemed to notice that the decline in U.S. oil imports that signaled the new age of energy independence was, to a significant degree, due not to increased oil production but to a shrinking demand for gasoline, as the doubling of the number of the unemployed and other economic hardships forced people to find ways of reducing the number of miles driven.
As we move, with a dangerous slowness, towards the increased use of renewable sources of energy that do not require the combustion of carbon and its further accumulation in the atmosphere, it is sometimes assumed that the post-carbon world will inevitably be more democratic. More cogently, it is argued that the European model of distributed and networked renewable energy production, based on transforming every household and business into a producer of its own energy and a generator of small surpluses, has a greater democratic potential than U.S. plans for utility-scale generation of renewable power distributed through a conventional long-distance grid. The democratizing potential of the Internet is offered as a model of the political benefits of a localized, distributed and intelligently networked design.34 The lesson from Carbon Democracy is that one cannot predict democratic possibilities directly from the design of socio-technical systems—as the internet itself demonstrates, with its capacity for open communication always threatened by the monopolistic commercial powers of the largest software, computer and internet businesses. The point, rather, is that in battles over the shape of future energy systems the possibilities for democracy are at stake.

There is, however, a considerable campaign to be undertaken before we reach a post-carbon world, especially in the United States. A larger lesson from Carbon Democracy is that such democratic struggles depend not on future designs but upon identifying in current socio-technical systems their points of vulnerability. This postscript has traced the peculiar vulnerability of oil companies dependent on flows of equity investment that must increase as rapidly as the costs of producing oil are rising. Yet those rising costs reflect a world in which cheap, conventional oil is more and more scarce and the technical expense and environmental costs of producing unconventional oil are escalating. These risks and costs reveal a world at odds with the optimistic scenarios on which accelerating flows of equity depend. Meanwhile, capital that long ago began losing interest in organizing—and thus becoming vulnerable to—large-scale productive labor, tried the easier route of organizing lives around the making and servicing of debt. The problems of peak oil hastened the collapse of the debt machine. The recent U.S. energy boom offers only a temporary and equally vulnerable diversion."

Timothy Mitchell teaches at Columbia University. His books include Colonising EgyptRule of Experts, and Carbon Democracy.

More on Carbon Democracy

How oil undermines democracy, and our ability to address the environmental crisis.
Oil is a curse, it is often said, that condemns the countries producing it to an existence defined by war, corruption and enormous inequality. Carbon Democracy tells a more complex story, arguing that no nation escapes the political consequences of our collective dependence on oil. It shapes the body politic both in regions such as the Middle East, which rely upon revenues from oil production, and in the places that have the greatest demand for energy.
Timothy Mitchell begins with the history of coal power to tell a radical new story about the rise of democracy. Coal was a source of energy so open to disruption that oligarchies in the West became vulnerable for the first time to mass demands for democracy. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the development of cheap and abundant energy from oil, most notably from the Middle East, offered a means to reduce this vulnerability to democratic pressures. The abundance of oil made it possible for the first time in history to reorganize political life around the management of something now called "the economy" and the promise of its infinite growth. The politics of the West became dependent on an undemocratic Middle East.
In the twenty-first century, the oil-based forms of modern democratic politics have become unsustainable. Foreign intervention and military rule are faltering in the Middle East, while governments everywhere appear incapable of addressing the crises that threaten to end the age of carbon democracy—the disappearance of cheap energy and the carbon-fuelled collapse of the ecological order.
In making the production of energy the central force shaping the democratic age, Carbon Democracyrethinks the history of energy, the politics of nature, the theory of democracy, and the place of the Middle East in our common world.

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