[This NEWTON is part of the new Environment Page launch. All accompanying launch posts can be found here.]
On Barak, Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization (University of California Press, 2020).
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.
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.
Excerpt from the book
Energy and Empire
Fossil fuels and Western imperialism are widely recognized as key elements that shaped the modern world. Today, they are also acknowledged as major forces that threaten future human existence. However, our historical understanding of these powers, and especially of their complex relationship to one another, is still vastly misinformed. For example, the Middle East, which is now mostly associated with oil extraction and American power, was in its history turned into a coherent region by British coal and imperial interventionism. This legacy provides an opportunity for a reappraisal of the entanglements of energy and empire, of classical- and neoimperialism, and of coal and oil. Unsettling the familiar geographies of extraction and combustion, coal’s peculiar Middle Eastern career exposes both these processes and the connections between them to inquiry. In short, it could help us understand the complex process by which the hydrocarbon economy was created and globalized.
In relative terms, only a small portion of the coal mined in the British Isles was exported outside of Europe, and only a small amount of that was shipped to the Middle East. Yet the relative perspective of statistics is misleading, as it obscures the fact that this was enough to fuel a revolution of steamboat imperialism and eventually bring coal mining to life in the Ottoman Empire, as well as in India, China, and elsewhere. Depositing “black diamonds” in Ottoman territories en route to the British Indian Crown Jewel allowed the global fossil fuels economy to pick up steam and take shape during the long nineteenth century. The discovery of liquid “black gold” in this territory at the beginning of the twentieth century is one of the legacies of this passage. Indeed, under the mark of British fossil-fueled imperialism in these settings, coal (both imported and local) was transformed from a useless “black stone” into a valuable “treasure,” rendering it into a resource that could be managed by Islamic and capitalist ethics, which sometimes competed and sometimes complemented one another. Thus, beside its familiar role in fueling industrialization in western Europe, the coal transported from Europe to today’s oil-producing regions set in motion crucial yet overlooked circulations and calculations, which connected the world with durable carbon fibers. Essentially, these are the historical global underpinnings of our current global warming.
Alfred Thayer Mahan who coined, or at least widely popularized, the term Middle East in 1902, exemplifies Britain’s historic carbon footprint. As an American naval strategist, he gained much of his fame and what he thought about the world from the maritime history of the British Empire. Mahan’s understanding of the sea as “a system of highways,” and his consideration of one of these maritime corridors—a string of British coaling depots used as “bases of refit, of supply, and in case of disaster, of security”—as “Middle East” drew on a British nineteenth-century perspective. From the 1830s, Britons tended to refer to the ocean, once seen as a barrier, as “the highway of the nations,” and to the steamship as “the railway train minus the longitudinal pair of metal rails.” Coal thus served as the main building block for the Middle East, both physically and conceptually. Through this vital carbonized hyphen between Europe and Asia, fossil fuels could be unleashed at large.
The British engineers who pioneered thermodynamics and the new science of energy around the 1840s were among the first to make pronouncements like those later adopted by Mahan. The solidification of once-liquid barriers into transmaritime connectors complemented the world these experts promoted conceptually, in which previously distinct physical realities could be made commensurable by means of the abstraction of energy. Histories of empire had neglected thermodynamics and its own epistemic imperialism—the fact that “energy” rapidly became a crucial organizing principle for scientific, and gradually also social and political action—just as current histories of thermodynamics have neglected the imperial aspects of this story.
However, beyond and behind abstraction and the British Isles, a great deal of concrete work and terraforming accompanied the solidification and globalization of the coal economy through avenues like the one between the port cities of Aden and Port Said—the corridor that runs through the heart of this book. The very geography of this region, the basic modes of provisioning water and food, and key forms of conviviality, sociality, and politics owe their existence—and often even their current shape—to mineral coal shipped from the British Isles. In key ways, we are still trapped in coal’s amber.
Insisting on regarding coal exclusively as an energy source renders some of these important aspects—the very dimensions that make coal so detrimental—transparent. After all, it is not its use as an energy source, but rather factors like the emissions from combustion and land degradation resulting from mining and transporting coal, or the carcinogenicity of many coal-based dyestuffs used in synthetic chemistry that should concern us most. Why, then, do we keep using the master’s tools, fuels, and energies to try to dismantle the master’s house? To decarbonize our world, we need to decolonize our terminology and our history and loosen energy’s grip.
That the world we associate with oil in fact rests on the foundations of coal is indeed a symptom of a larger problem in our thinking about—and with—energy. After all, our own “age of oil,” and by some accounts even “post-oil,” is currently witnessing unprecedented coal burning. Rather than a story of “transitions” between different “energy regimes,” this book reveals a great intensification of the existing forces that coal itself supposedly replaced. These included the power of water, human and animal muscles, as well as less tangible forces such as Islamic piety, competing against and converging with notions of risk management tied to finance capitalism, which were also on the rise. Tracing such historically specific entanglements, this book anchors the annals of the Middle East in the broader history of fossil fuels and what we call the Anthropocene, while at the same time asking what the history of this region, with its particular ethical dispositions, ideas about the body, about solidarity and community, and about nature, might offer in the face of our shared planetary conundrum. Any comprehensive scheme of decarbonization must begin by addressing the double historical nexus of how different energy sources are connected to one another and of the role of non-Western settings and actors in the global march of hydrocarbons.
Britain’s industrialization and imperialism were not separate processes: both—not only the former—were predicated on coal. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, a gradual reorientation of the British coal industry began, moving away from London household consumption and toward overseas export. Between 1816 and 1840, exports rose as a proportion of the output of England’s northeast—itself continuously on the rise until the early twentieth century—from approximately 4 percent to nearly 13 percent. By 1900, British coal constituted about 85 percent of the entire international trade. England used coal exports to project its power, offshoring and outsourcing the Industrial Revolution by building an infrastructure that could support it overseas and connect it to other facets of the imperial project. This resulted in the development of “landscapes of intensification,” which simultaneously stimulated an increase in production as well as new uses and demands for British coal, and eventually for coal mined overseas as well.
From the 1830s onwards, a system of regularly spaced coaling depots sprang up in places like Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Mocha, Aden, and Bombay in a reverse domino effect. This development concurred with another one: the fact that Britain is an island, which was previously understood as a disadvantage, came to be seen during the Victorian era as a “wise dispensation of Providence,” a means to access the wider world. The new artificial archipelago soon began providing coal to various interiors, animating riverboats, irrigation pumps, railways, telegraphs, streetlights, and tramways in what would soon become the Middle East. This process offers a grounded substitute for the vague designation “modernity,” which we implicitly ascribe to the political, social, spatial, and temporal effects of the aforementioned technologies. Time/space compression, integration into the global economy, the rise of the interventionist state, urbanization, and the emergence of cash-cropping were all energized by these carbon fibers. In the Ottoman Empire, the lion’s share of the coal flowing through these ports was British. Coal depots provided perfect pretexts for military presence and securitization; they were thus also footholds for British and other European colonial officials, as well as for Ottoman, Egyptian, and other local powers.
Historicizing energy at these meeting points repoliticizes coal and casts new light on energy politics. If in the British Isles coal appeared to be “political” mainly in the sense of labor- and class politics, lending itself neatly to a framework of capitalism and accordingly pushing us to diagnose our present fossil-fueled planetary crisis as “Capitalocene,” here a more complex carbon politics animated by interimperial rivalry was hard to miss. This book probes how these ostensibly separate political registers were in fact mutually constitutive.
Coal bunkers were indeed established throughout the British Empire for reasons other and often more pressing than fueling alone. The most obvious of these motivations was territorial expansion. Regarding coal today exclusively as an energy source misses this crucial part of the story, and makes us complicit with nineteenth-century imperialist excuses. It was not only European powers but also Cairo and Istanbul that played this game. However, the British usually came out on top. Ruling the waves in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean and being the world’s largest coal exporter during the nineteenth century, Britain regularly established coal depots in order to extend the British Isles. The neologism “coalonialism” thus seeks to capture the confluence of energy and empire and bind them analytically together. Simultaneously, it also seeks to estrange and puncture holes in the gravity of both concepts. As historians of empire have done this repeatedly, let us begin with energy.