Author On Barak argues in Powering Empire that we cannot promote worldwide decarbonization without first understanding the history of the globalization of carbon energy. How did this black rock come to have such long-lasting power over the world economy?

In this interview with Jadaliyya, Barak discusses the motivation behind writing the book and the Covid-19 pandemic in our current age of oil.

This interview was originally published on Jadaliyya, and is reposted here with permission.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

On Barak (OB): In the broadest sense, when asking myself how historians can best contribute to the conversation about climate change, I noticed that with all the talk about global decarbonization as the key horizon we must all advance towards in order to mitigate environmental collapse, we have yet to come up with a roadmap of global carbonization; we still do not have an answer to the question of how the hydrocarbon economy went global. Powering Empire tries to tell this story; that is, it tries to turn this process—evidence of which is scattered in various archives and subjected to diverse modes of presentation from multiple disciplines—into a story, with the assumption that storytelling is essential for political engagement. It tries to tell this story from the Middle East, demonstrating the usefulness of resources from this region. Today, the region is associated mainly with oil extraction in the twentieth century. But these extractive industries and mentalities stand on the shoulders of British coal imported into the region already in the early decades of the nineteenth century. In fact, places like Egypt started developing a dependence on coal roughly when fossil fuels addiction swept the British Isles. And if this is the case, if the Industrial Revolution was a global process forcing us to provincialize the steam engine, as it were, then perhaps the experiences of people in places like Port Said, Aden, or the Ottoman coal coast, with their social, intellectual, and even theological resources, can help us rethink our present predicament, and push us to consider it not so much from outside the box, but from within a box that is significantly expanded…. the globalization of the hydrocarbon economy cannot be reduced to considerations of fueling alone.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

OB: In order to chart how the world was carbonized, Powering Empire jettisons some misleading yet prevalent myths and clears impediments to this task. One is the naïve assumption that we are currently living in the age of oil, or even post-oil, and that coal fumes are a thing of the past. Quite the reverse! This is still the age of coal and much of what we associate with oil rests upon the foundations of coal. We must also overturn the conjecture that global carbonization started in Western Europe and then spread to the rest of the world. Settings like the Ottoman Empire were early arenas for testing and adopting coal and steamships. The steamer-friendly corridors running between Europe and Asia—which would become the “Middle East”—stimulated British industrialization and imperial expansion simultaneously. Finally, we must resist the control of energy on all things fossil-related: the globalization of the hydrocarbon economy cannot be reduced to considerations of fueling alone. Coal depots were also created as a pretext for imperial land grab, out of concerns about ballasting, and stemmed from aspects of coal that had little to do with its combustion. This book, therefore, reveals a thickening carbon-intensive entanglement of energy and empire, of Western and non-Western powers, thereby excavating unfamiliar resources—from Islamic risk-aversion, through Ottoman attitudes to the underground, to Gandhian vegetarianism—for a climate justice that relies on a more diverse ethical repertoire. 

On the methodological level, the book attempts to open up a narrative form and an analytical language that resist conceptual straitjackets by connecting anew “old” (Marxian) and “new” (Latourian) materialisms, and by uniting Western and non-Western humanities to reforge the link between materialism and humanities; it is inspired by recent trends in the fields of global history, labor history, and the history of enslavement and abolition, as well as by the history of capitalism and insurance. Finally, it attempts to ask what a global history of science and technology might look like.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

OB: One way to think about the transition from my previous book, On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt to Powering Empire, is as a shift from technologies like the steamship and railway to the fuel that animated them. But I soon realized that thinking about coal merely as fuel or simply as an energy source reduces important aspects like coal’s materiality, its weight, and its embeddedness in non-European epistemologies. In this respect, my treatment of energy and the counter-energies that I trace in the colonies is quite similar to the story I told about time. In On Time, I have shown that the universalization of notions of empty homogeneous time cannot be seen as a diffusion from center to periphery, or as a seamless progression through imperial space. Also, the contradictions and counter-tempos that the process involved were not registered in some external sphere. Rather, the inflections and reverberations that abstract homogeneous time generated as it traveled “in translation” to a place like Egypt were constitutive of its universality. The emergence of “energy,” thermodynamics, and a thermodynamic theory of labor seems to have followed a similar trajectory.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

OB: Coal animated almost everything we associate with modernity in the Middle East so my first audience is anybody interested in the modern Middle East in the last two hundred years, as I hope the book affords new insights about the region and its place in the fossil-fueled global economy. Readers interested in oil will find in Powering Empire a pre-history for many of the processes that supposedly sprang ex nihilio from the Arabian Desert’s sand. And I think readers interested in climate change will realize that history complicates—though certainly does not weaken—our struggles for climate justice (as it reveals the active role of non-Western powers and agents in the spread of hydrocarbons), yet at the same time it might equip us with recycled sensibilities and wherewithal from these peripheral settings to address our common predicament. This is not a “black savior” salvation or some pure indigenous epistemology un-implicated by fossil fuels. Many Ottoman and Islamic dispositions to coal and oil were and are every bit as bad as the capitalist Western ones. Yet they afford a set of engagements in more languages than English, based on life experiences that are not necessarily secular or liberal to repurpose and redeploy. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

OB: I am currently working on a social and cultural history of heat in the twentieth-century Middle East, asking what makes the region into a hot place and for whom. This book project is a multi-sited historical research into the environmental, political, social, and cultural implications of rising temperatures. Known before the nineteenth century for its sweltering climate and hence for creative modes of heat-resistance developed by its inhabitants, in modern times the region has seen the introduction of cooling protocols and devices that paradoxically exacerbate environmental hotness by burning coal and then oil. The project retrieves modes of bodily comportment, homemaking, urban planning, and social interaction that were intimately attuned to the weather and that eventually gave way to new lifestyles predicated on fossil fuels. It is also a history of shorts and swimwear, beach-going, refrigerated soft drinks, sweat, and its connection to labor, the qaylula, and various cooling devices, from the mashrabiyya to the AC.

J: Does a global history of coal teach us anything about the Covid-19 pandemic in our current age of oil?

OB: As I am answering NEWTON’s questions quarantined at home, it is indeed hard not to think of what the world of coal and the steamship has to teach us about the rapid global spread of the coronavirus today. I would argue that the fossil-fueled planetary conveyer belt that facilitated the rapid global spread of the virus was first assembled in the age of coal. We now associate fossil fuels mainly with the sixth mass extinction and a reduction of biodiversity. But already in its early phases (and to this day) global carbonization facilitated the movement of numerous invading species— from water mollusks through prickly pear to cholera bacteria. Cholera was the pandemic of the long nineteenth century. Before that time, both coal and cholera did not cross oceans. With the emergence of the all-weather steamship, a technology that significantly shortened cholera’s contagion vector and severed travel from seasonality, both went global. The use of “buried sunshine” for intercontinental travel intensified over the course of the following centuries, as evident by the remarkable growth of Chinese aviation and ground transportation during the last decades. From this perspective, the novel coronavirus is not a distress signal from Mother Nature to stop global warming. Rather, its ability to leap between species and continents is another symptom of the system that produces global warming, a motion sickness indicating that the carbon-based world we assembled is contaminated in more ways than we care to admit.

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