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Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil Paperback – June 25, 2013
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"Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy examines the simultaneous rise of fossil-fueled capitalism and mass democracy and asks very intelligent questions about the fate of democracy when oil production declines."
—Benjamin Kunkel, New Statesman
“Carbon Democracy is a sweeping overview of the relationship between fossil fuels and political institutions from the industrial revolution to the Arab Spring, which adds layers of depth and complexity to the accounts of how resource wealth and economic development are linked.”
“A challenging, sophisticated, and important book.”
—Marc Lynch, Foreign Policy
“A brilliant, revisionist argument that places oil companies at the heart of 20th century history—and of the political and environmental crises we now face … If we’re ever to curb such behaviour, and to regain some comprehension of our planet’s preciousness, we need first to understand how it came about. Not a book for the season of indulgence, this one. But one that demands to be widely shared.”
—Susanna Rustin, Guardian
“This study of the basis of modern democracy over the past century connects oil-producing states of the Middle East with industrial democracies of the West. Mitchell argues that carbon democracy in the West has been based on the assumption that unlimited oil will produce endless economic growth, and he concludes that this model cannot survive the exhaustion of these fuels and associated climate change. Tim Mitchell has written a remarkable book that deserves a wide audience.”
—Mahmood Mamdani, author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim
“It’s a book that tackles a really big subject, in a sweeping but readable fashion, and after reading it, it’s hard to imagine thinking about political power the same way again ... This book utterly blew me away.”
—Matt Stoller, Naked Capitalism
“A remarkable account of the politics of oil and nation building in the Middle East.”
About the Author
Timothy Mitchell teaches at Columbia University. His books include Colonising Egypt, Rule of Experts, and Carbon Democracy.
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Two preliminary notes. First, the 2013 paperback edition includes a valuable afterword that is not in the Hardbound or ebook versions of the text. Second, the author gave an interesting talk in early 2012 at George Washington University about his ideas that can be found online, for people who want a preview of the book.
The book presents a new version of the oil story. He starts with coal, and a critical problem it had, in that it was highly vulnerable to disruption by labor actions. Oil was attractive from the beginning - including Churchill's decision to replace coal with oil in the British Navy - because it was more easily controlled from above and less threatened from below. The challenge for oil was that the demand was less elastic than supply at any particular time, so the oil companies (eventually including OPEC) had to figure out how to control everything to prevent overproduction and downward price pressures.
The companies worked well together, and took extreme measures to keep control. In 1900 half the world's oil production was in Baku, so the Brits acquired the rights to oil control and transit in Persia mostly to prevent a Russian pipeline to the Persian Gulf. Around 1915 the British Navy was trying to acquire oil from Mexico, then the third largest oil producing company and a part of the world claimed by the Rockefeller interests, which protected itself by funding the overthrow of the government. Ibn Saud's campaign to consolidate power and unify the Arabian Peninsula was financed by Standard of California (now Chevron), which also stopped him when he was moving too far north toward Jordan and Palestine. The companies agreed in the 1930s to manage production to support the (high) US price set by the Texas Railroad Commission. The book is full of such stories.
The demand side was also carefully managed. After World War II, Defense Secretary Forrestal recognized the need to construct an American lifestyle that required lots of energy consumption, to support the oil industry. At the same time, scarce Marshall Plan steel was sent to construct the Trans-Arabian Pipeline to help promote the use of oil instead of coal in the new European economy.
Mitchell argues that "the economy" was a creation of the abundance of cheap oil. While economics had focused on the allocation of scarce resources, the expansion of oil supplies and other natural resources created an expectation and need for endless economic growth that could be managed centrally. Money, not "stuff," became the subject, and mathematics, not organic factors, became the method of analysis. Making Gross National Product (now GDP) the sole measure of prosperity changed politics and redefined what could and could not be discussed in the public sphere.
One recurring theme in the book was the abuse of Iraq. From the earliest negotiations with the Ottoman Empire to dealing with Saddam Hussein, efforts to limit production of oil from Iraq have never ended. Work on the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway was dragged out at a pace just fast enough to keep the British oil concession alive without actually doing anything. The Iraqi Petroleum Company was run and managed by BP, with no Iraqi ownership, and BP failed to tell the locals for two decades that they had discovered the Rumaila oil field, the world's second largest, because they didn't want it developed. By the time Saddam was in power, he resisted the rules of the global oil cartel, so he was subject to three major wars (Iran-Iraq and two Gulf Wars) that prevented an orderly expansion of the Iraqi oil industry for over three decades. (Iraq's oil exports have finally reached the level they had in 1979, 35 years ago.) Similarly, when the elected government of Iran tried to take control of its own oil, the US and the UK had it overthrown in 1953 and set up the Shah instead. In this sense, "Carbon Democracy" is an ironic title, since the oil industry and the governments it worked with rarely tolerated popular governments that could threaten the game.
The book concludes with the recent and ongoing transition to a period of high priced oil and production that can no longer increase to support a growing global economy, while climate changes represent a cost of fuel use that is now coming due. Neither the oil industry nor governments know how to deal with these challenges. The shale/fracking boom makes much more sense to Wall Street than to the profits of the oil industry.
Mitchell's narrative is vastly different from the more common approach taken by Daniel Yergin and others. The story of oil is not about the brave and innovative men to found this wondrous substance, but of the efforts to sabotage and limit production growth while never allowing the public to understand what was happening. This is an innovative and unsettling book.
Maybe not economists bc he starts bashing at the end lol and probably not politicians bc he talks rash of them
Mitchell jumps around quite a bit throughout his chapters but the overall message he portrays is strong.
Some of his facts could be debated.While reading I recommend to think critically.
Mitchell also deposits some conspiracy theories that seem rather bizarre. Take them with a grain of salt and appreciate his refreshingly different perspective.