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Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil

How oil undermines democracy, and our ability to address the environmental crisis

Does oil wealth lead to political poverty? It often looks that way, but Carbon Democracy tells a more complex story. In this magisterial study, Timothy Mitchell rethinks the history of energy, bringing into his grasp as he does so environmental politics, the struggle for democracy, and the place of the Middle East in the modern world.

With the rise of coal power, the producers who oversaw its production acquired the ability to shut down energy systems, a threat they used to build the first mass democracies. Oil offered the West an alternative, and with it came a new form of politics. Oil created a denatured political life whose central object—the economy—appeared capable of infinite growth. What followed was a Western democracy dependent on an undemocratic Middle East. We now live with the consequences: an impoverished political practice, incapable of addressing the crises that threaten to end the age of carbon democracy—namely, the disappearance of cheap energy and the carbon-fueled collapse of the ecological order.

Reviews

  • “A challenging, sophisticated, and important book that undermines expectations in the best kind of intellectual provocation.”
  • 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.”
  • “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.”
  • “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.”
  • “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.
  • “An insightful historical account of how changes in energy production have expanded and restricted possibilities for democratic governance … Mitchell’s provocative approach is a critical intervention into the study of the politics of energy … Recommended.”

Blog

  • 21st September: Climate action in New York and across the globe – free Verso ebook

    Summer was mellow in Gotham, and now the New York fall is fit to melt a poet’s heart. It’s all mists and mellow fruitfulness. The clement weather could almost make city dwellers forget the dire state of our global environment. But, as we know, weather and climate are very different matters. Since the days when sonnets did the work Tinder does now, it’s been true that sometimes too bright the eye of heaven shines; just as often is his gold complexion dimmed. The weather’s like that. It goes up and down. But the changing climate is a matter of steady deterioration, and the eye of heaven is going to burn your backside to the bone if you don’t get up off your fat one and make a difference.

    September 21, 2014, is a GLOBAL DAY OF CLIMATE ACTION, and the epicenter is NEW YORK.

    Tell your friends; tell your enemies; tell your enemy’s enemy, regardless of his questionable status as your friend; tell your family; tell the Adam’s family; don’t tell your partner – pretend your partner told you, and then feign reluctance because you know how determined that will make him/her that you both attend and get there when the clubs are emptying and the lark’s still making coffee; don’t go tell it on the mountain—try the city:

    On Saturday, September 21, United Nations delegates will converge on Manhattan to prepare for next year’s climate conference in Paris. We need to make them understand that the world is watching and will not stand for inaction.

    To keep you all focused on the march and what it means, Verso is giving away free ebooks of I’m With the Bears: Stories from a Damaged Planet, featuring fiction by David Mitchell and T. C. Boyle, among others, and an introduction by Bill McKibben.

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  • Writing on Iraq in the Aftermath of War: A Reading List on the "War on Terror"

    What can be learned from Iraq's recent past — a past haunted by imperial power — to help us critically engage with the present cycle of violence in Iraq?

    Verso has been actively publishing books over the last decade that addresses the conflict in Iraq. Below is a list of critical texts that seeks to contextualize the disaster which has resulted from the US and UK "War on Terror".


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  • Privatised catastrophe: Bets on the weather and natural disasters

    Governments can no longer afford to compensate the victims of earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis, or rebuild infrastructure. The tax revenues just aren’t there. So they’re selling insurance bonds to private investors. In an article recently published by Le Monde Diplomatique, the opening paragraphs of which we publish here, Razmig Keucheyan charts the horrendous new developments of finance capitalism.

    Last November, super-typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people, damaging or destroying 1.5m homes and causing $13bn damage. Three months later, insurance brokers Munich Re and Willis Re, accompanied by representatives of the UN international strategy for disaster reduction (UNISDR), presented a new financial product to members of the Philippine senate: it was intended to make up for the supposed deficiencies of state provision against major climate-related disasters. The Philippines risk and insurance scheme for municipalities (PRISM) is a high-yield security that municipalities would offer to private investors (1), who would receive an attractive rate of interest, subsidised by the state, but would lose their investment in the event of a disaster of a given scale and severity.

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