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Coalonialism: Energy and Empire before the Age of Oil

Final Report Summary - COALONIALISM (Coalonialism: Energy and Empire before the Age of Oil)

CIG funding allowed me to conduct archival work in Israel, the UK, Turkey and the US during the last four years. This multi-sited research sheds new light on the geopolitical, social, and cultural implications of energy shifts during the long nineteenth century, and especially on the “age of coal” in the Middle East, a region usually associated with oil. Beginning in the early 1830s, depots which had initially serviced steamships, began providing coal to various interiors, animating riverboats, irrigation pumps, railways, telegraphs, streetlights, and tramways. In light of the scope of this process, “the age of coal” seems like a grounded substitute for the vague designation “modernity,” which we implicitly ascribe to the political, social, special, and temporal effects of the aforementioned technologies. Time\space compression, integration into the global economy, the rise of the interventionist state or the emergence of industrialized agriculture were all energized by these carbon fibers. The project will be of immediate interest to historians and scholars of the contemporary Middle East, as well as to global historians. But it is also pertinent to scholars working in the fields of science and technology studies, and especially for researchers and policy-makers working on issues of energy transition and sustainability, and on global warming and climate change. Finally, as it seeks to demonstrate what the critical humanities have to offer to the social and natural sciences, it will be of relevance also to people interested in the history and praxis of economic thought, scholars of religion and anybody interested in questions of knowledge production and fact-setting.
The project culminates in the preparation of a book manuscript tentatively titled Coalonialism: Energy and Empire before the Age of Oil. The grant also allowed me to form a group of assistants, M.A. and Ph.D. students, and colleagues from the fields of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, energy history and the history of science and technology, and global and transnational history, bringing these fields and people into fruitful conversations. These collaborations yielded more than eighteen lectures and conference papers, five articles, and multiple pedagogical and public dissemination activities in Israel, Europe, and the US.
The importance and impact of the project is best captured when considering the following dimensions: 1. Coalonialism challenges the predominance of a thermodynamic notion of “energy” that since the 1840 shapes how we think about fossil fuels and about transitions between different motive powers. Looking mainly at the area between Aden and Port Said –which during the second half of the nineteenth century emerged as the two major global coaling stations – the project examines the emblematic energy source – coal – away from its conventional context of the industrializing British Isles, and in ways that shun the abstractions inherited from the new science of thermodynamics that took over Western Europe during the nineteenth century. Instead of assuming a commensurability between heat, motion, and work as manifestations of a universal force present in all matter, capable of converting itself into innumerable forms, yet inalterable and constant, I explore key aspects of coal which the framework of an ‘energy source’ occludes or impoverishes. Notably, also the “age of oil” in the Middle East often seems to spring ex nihilo and out-of-context from under the desert sand. But a careful attention to the infrastructures of steam power actually reveals that oil was connected to existing powers and resources. In the early twentieth century these powers included an infrastructure created for transporting and burning coal. Recounting oil’s connection to coal – not simply as commensurable “fossil fuels” but rather as two distinct materials historically coupled to one another (and to existing motive forces like animals and water) helps get a better and more concrete grasp of a slippery substance that tends to be understood today exclusively with abstractions like money and energy.
2. By “provincializing the steam engine”, the project critiques the prevalent notion of “energy regimes” which powerfully organizes our thinking about the ages before and after the industrial adoption of coal. Why is it that even though we have yet to see an “energy transition” – in the sense of actually leaving an old power source behind – we are convinced that steam power “competed” and then “replaced” reliance on biomass or water power when in fact we only see more of the latter? Energy regimes are implicitly thought to be predicated on a hegemonic, modeling energy source, both technologically and geographically. The nineteenth-century adoption of fossil fuels seemed to separate England—the first place to take up coal industrially—from the rest of the world. Such a “great divergence” perspective mapped neatly on divides between agriculture and industry, modernity and tradition, and the (lethargic) East and (energetic) West, obfuscating important connections among these worlds, as well as other kinds of entanglements among machines, humans, animals, and other forces. Yet contrasting urbanizing, industrial, coal-rich Europe with the non- or deindustrialized, non- or underdeveloped agricultural peripheries that fed its working classes and factories missed the fact that not only were these peripheries themselves dependent on coal steam power from about the same time they were fully adopted in England, but also that English industrialization itself depended on these remote settings as markets and laboratories for coal and coal-burning technologies.
3. Clearly, then, also our assumptions about energy require decolonizing. The project therefore examines non-European epistemologies concerning coal and processes like the absorption of this previously useless substance into the Islamic notion of rikaz or ‘buried treasures’ – divine deposits underground for the benefit of the community of believers.
4. Finally, it also subverts the prevalent notion that fossil fuels are labor saving energy sources, by attending to the ample manual labor that went into mining and heaving coal and into stoking steam engines with it. The globalization of steam power universalized new understandings of the working body and new conceptualizations and practices of manual activity. “Free labor” was the most prominent of the latter and the project seeks to understand how its gradually-attained hegemony and form were related to the planetary spread of fossil fuels. “Labor” emerged from the age of steam like a diamond from a lump of coal – supposedly symmetrical and untarnished by the messy historical scaffoldings and pressures that molded it. Examining the process historically and at the actual scale of the worldwide spread of this fuel reveals its multiple asymmetries.