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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.”
  • “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.”

Blog

  • Crisis and Conflict in the Middle East: A Reading List

    Syrian revolutionaries, in the wake of Geneva’s partial “cessation of hostilities", have begun to peacefully protest in the streets of Aleppo, Damascus, Dera'a, and Homs. Chanting “the Syrian people are one!,” they rally to demand freedom, democracy, and an end to the deadly civil war. Despite the death toll reaching nearly half a million, the Syrian population has shown that it will not defer to the murderous campaigns of Bashar Al-Assad, the terrorism of jihadist groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIL, nor the imperial strategies of divide-and-rule by foreign superpowers such as the US and Russia. This sudden wave of people power harks back to the broad regime-defying spirit that animated the Arab Uprisings in 2011. Tragically, autocratic forces continue to hold political and economic power, not only in Syria but also in Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and the monarchy of Saudi Arabia (which, with US support, has spearheaded a deadly assault on the population Yemen). As events unfold, we present a reading list of key titles that – through investigative journalism, graphic storytelling, and critical analysis – shed light on what’s at stake for in the conflicts that plague the Middle East. 



    (A Syrian Kurdish boy sits atop a destroyed tank in Kobane three months after ISIS fighters were driven out by Kurdish forces. Photo: Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images)

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  • Welcome to the Anthropocene: A Reading List

    "We already live in the Anthropocene, so let us get used to this ugly word and the reality that it names. It is our epoch and our condition. This geological epoch is the product of the last few hundred years of our history. The Anthropocene is the sign of our power, but also of our impotence. It is an Earth whose atmosphere has been damaged by the 1,500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide we have spilled by burning coal and other fossil fuels. It is the impoverishment and artificializing of Earth’s living tissue, permeated by a host of new synthetic chemical molecules that will even affect our descendants. It is a warmer world with a higher risk of catastrophes, a reduced ice cover, higher sea-levels and a climate out of control." - Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste FressozThe Shock of the Anthropocene

    2015 was the hottest year in recorded history. Scientists have confirmed that the staggering growth of global emissions this past century has caused a definitive turning point in global climate history.

    Some put forth that this climate predicament represents a new geological epoch of human origin, thus dubbing it as the “Anthropocene”. There is no doubt as to whether climate change is occurring. However, identifying the origins of this crisis presents great implications on deciding what to do next.

    Take back the planet and understand what's really going on in these new and recently published (plus soon to come) books on the history and politics of the global climate crisis.

    All of the books on our Anthropocene Reading List are 20% to 30% off (plus free shipping and bundled ebooks where available!)


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  • The Arab Uprisings Five Years On: A Reading List

    Five years ago the Middle East and North Africa was electrified by unprecedented popular protests that heralded the start of the Arab Spring. Beginning in Tunisia popular movements swept regimes from power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and threatened to overthrow ruling elites across the region. Tragically, the Arab Spring has since become mired in counterrevolution and civil war with the extraordinary violence of the war in Syria, the rise of ISIS, the escalating refugee crisis, and the establishment of a new dictatorship in Egypt emblematic of the profound challenges facing the people of the region. As tumultuous events continue to unfold we present Verso's reading list of key titles addressing the developing situation in the Middle East.


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