Fossil fuels have proven difficult to relinquish, despite urgent scientific warnings about climate change. In seeking a global energy transition, many have recognized that simply switching to new technologies or fuel sources will not be enough to resolve the ecological crises facing humanity. An energy transition will entail corresponding shifts in the ethics and cultures of energy. My research addresses the difficulty of mobilizing political action in response to the environmental crises of the Anthropocene, emphasizing the need to cultivate new aesthetic and affective relationships with planet-scale objects like energy.
Among the recent interest in fossil fuel cultures, however, the contribution of energy physics itself remains understudied. My book manuscript, Energy at Work: Fossil Ethics in the Anthropocene, offers a genealogy of energy that shows how energy was not discovered, but rather produced, functioning as a disciplinary apparatus to govern industrial work and flows of fuel. It is under contract with Duke University Press.
Only after physics ‘discovered’ energy in the 1840s did energy, as a political object, become centrally associated with fuel and fuel technologies. Thermodynamics contributed to an industrial work ethic that elevated productivity as the highest virtue. Political scientists tend to approach productivism as an effect of global capitalism and, more recently, neoliberalism. Meanwhile, the history of science literature suggests that productivism also depended upon the material traits of fossil fuels and steam engines. Without a cross-disciplinary engagement that analyzes the emergence of productivism as a feature of fossil fuel systems, environmental politics underestimates the extent to which the veneration of productive work feeds modern cultures of energy. This book offers a genealogy of energy that shows how energy was not discovered, but rather produced, functioning as a disciplinary apparatus to govern industrial flows of fuel. In particular, the historical case studies of thermodynamics and nuclear science illustrate the political dimensions of this energy-productivism relationship, spanning from British new imperialism to the nuclear debates of the twentieth century.
Excavating the historical connection between energy and work has consequences for contemporary environmental politics. It suggests that the politics of work – and not just the treatment and status of workers, but the veneration of waged work – will be instrumental to confronting energy problems in the Anthropocene. The book thus advances a normative claim that energy and work can, and should, be decoupled. Divesting from fossil fuels would then entail a concomitant shift in the valuation of work. Instead of focusing on an asceticism of energy, in which we save energy and use it more efficiently, the book considers the benefits of an energy politics that would emphasize the pleasures of liberating energy from the strictures of productive work. In doing so, it proposes a closer alliance between post-work and post-carbon politics.