Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia (Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute) (Hardcover)
A forceful reckoning with the relationship between energy and power through the history of what was once East Asia’s largest coal mine.
The coal-mining town of Fushun in China’s Northeast is home to a monstrous open pit. First excavated in the early twentieth century, this pit grew like a widening maw over the ensuing decades, as various Chinese and Japanese states endeavored to unearth Fushun’s purportedly “inexhaustible” carbon resources. Today, the depleted mine that remains is a wondrous and terrifying monument to fantasies of a fossil-fueled future and the technologies mobilized in attempts to turn those developmentalist dreams into reality.
In Carbon Technocracy, Victor Seow uses the remarkable story of the Fushun colliery to chart how the fossil fuel economy emerged in tandem with the rise of the modern technocratic state. Taking coal as an essential feedstock of national wealth and power, Chinese and Japanese bureaucrats, engineers, and industrialists deployed new technologies like open-pit mining and hydraulic stowage in pursuit of intensive energy extraction. But as much as these mine operators idealized the might of fossil fuel–driven machines, their extractive efforts nevertheless relied heavily on the human labor that those devices were expected to displace. Under the carbon energy regime, countless workers here and elsewhere would be subjected to invasive techniques of labor control, ever-escalating output targets, and the dangers of an increasingly exploited earth.
Although Fushun is no longer the coal capital it once was, the pattern of aggressive fossil-fueled development that led to its ascent endures. As we confront a planetary crisis precipitated by our extravagant consumption of carbon, it holds urgent lessons. This is a groundbreaking exploration of how the mutual production of energy and power came to define industrial modernity and the wider world that carbon made.
About the Author
Victor Seow is assistant professor of the history of science at Harvard University. A historian of technology, science, and industry, he specializes in China and Japan and in histories of energy and work.
"Years of research allow Seow to trace the multifarious consequences of seemingly mundane geology. To say he mastered the technical minutia is to risk considerable understatement. Seow delineates coal’s role in East Asia’s industrialization, tracing its mutual dependence with every sinew of the wider society."
— Asian Review of Books
"The book is not only an erudite history, but also—perhaps most critically—an urgent call for environmental intervention, as when Seow laments that 'unless radical transformations take place,' his offspring’s generation will inherit the 'world that carbon made, so deeply despoiled and unjust.' An ambitious, scholarly study of the societal complications of energy extraction."
— Kirkus, starred review
"A brilliant account of energy and empire, industrial hubris, and ecological destruction told through the story of the coal capital of China. Providing an alternative global history of technology, the book argues for a distinctive understanding of the role of fossil-fuel energy in shaping the political order of East Asia in the age of carbon."
— Timothy Mitchell, author of Carbon Democracy
"Impressive in scope and significance, Carbon Technocracy offers compelling evidence of the historical relationship between the fossil fuel economy and the rise of the modern nation-state in China and beyond. Readers will gain a fresh understanding of the roots of fossil fuel addiction and its consequences, which encompass not only ecological destruction but also violent exploitation of laborers and increased state capacity for social control. Through a rich historical excavation centered in one Manchurian coal mine, Seow demonstrates in no uncertain terms why we must look beyond technocratic solutions as we struggle to survive the climate crisis."
— Sigrid Schmalzer, author of Red Revolution, Green Revolution
"Seow shows that civilizations built on coal undermine their own foundations with each strike of the shovel. His exploration of carbon technocracy highlights how the desire for technological progress and development runs along a deep seam of violence. Profoundly humane and thoughtful."
— Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival
"Focusing on the history of the Fushun coal mine in Northeast China, this engaging book traces the worlds that coal made across twentieth-century East Asia. Shifting seamlessly from the abstract structures of states and economies to the everyday lives of engineers and workers, Seow tells the story of the big science, big engineering, and big technology that made up the carbon foundation of both Imperial Japan and Communist China. A probing account of the origins and challenges of the climate crisis."
— Louise Young, author of Japan's Total Empire
"Drawing on an impressive range of sources, Seow reveals the intertwined stories of the Fushun colliery and the succession of state regimes that have drawn on Fushun’s material (and even rhetorical) power, from the contestation among Chinese, Russian, and Japanese interests at the turn of the last century through the consolidation of the People’s Republic of China. The clarity of Seow’s thinking, the felicity of his prose, and the significance of his topic will ensure a large audience among modern East Asian historians, energy historians, and the many scholars in environmental studies and environmental humanities who focus on carbon-driven climate change. Clearly written and very thoughtfully conceived."
— Thomas G. Andrews, author of Killing for Coal