On Barak’s Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization seeks to “decolonize our world” by demystifying “energy”. He does so by historically contextualizing our fossil fuel regime, tracing much of what we presently connote with oil back to coal in a global thermodynamic story centered on the Egyptian sphere of influence of the Ottoman empire through 6 thematic tentacles: water, animals, humans, environment, risk, and “fossil”. In order to do so he intensively interrelates four different material/energetic components: coal, water (and ice), muscle, and salt. Barak so fascinatingly weaves these energetic ingredients together that they begin to appear almost as a new tetret of fundamental elements. Contra the metonymy of coal and energy, Barak shows how essential (both animal and human) muscle power became to the use of coal-fueled steam power. Steam engines relied as much on the thermodynamic energetics of water and muscle power as it did on that of coal. Muscles (almost invariably covered by darker-complected skin) loaded coal on and off steamships and shoveled it into boiler furnaces. Those muscles required the hydration of fresh water and the electrolytic properties of salt ions to function and to do work (in all senses of the word). Moreover, those salts were essential to the tentacular spread of the coal-water-muscle-salt energy regime from Britain to Oceania and back, especially on the water scarce African and Arabian coasts of the Red Sea where geopolitically and logistically critical coaling stations were sited to service the Suez canal steamship traffic. Steam travel necessitated enormous amounts of fresh water to nourish not only human and animal muscles but also the insatiable hydraulics of steam engines. At the Red Sea coaling stations this fresh water could only be supplied through the desalination of salt water, a process likewise powered by both coal and muscles and which left, as a byproduct, enormous quantities of salt, much of which would be cycled into the animal and human bodies of those laboring in boiler rooms, coal stations, and ancillary industries to enable their neuro-muscular impulses to continue firing.
Barak’s, then, is not just a “history of coal’s innate energy or intrinsic agency,” but, through water, muscle, and salt, is “a history of the multiple, nonlinear juxtapositions and chains of agency that spawned new objects, addictions, and consumption practices.” These chains of agency and the logistical and power networks that make them possible are for Barak akin to tentacles. His is thus what he calls a tentacular history — “attuned to a multiplicity of creatures and things with which we are embroiled.” Barak initially outlines his tentacle metaphor in reference to a map of 1864 British coal exports by the famed progenitor of the data visualization, Charles Joseph Minard. But the tentacle metaphor is more than just a visual descriptor of a far reaching network, it is given semantic legs by the fact that, due to the distribution of neuronal cells and ganglion clusters in cephalopods, their cognitive function is not localized to one region of their body but instead evenly dispersed throughout. Their titular latin portmanteau illustrates this fact — they are animals whose feet are their heads. Such a tentacular way of thinking about the “multiplicity of creatures and things with which we are embroiled” promises to decenter historical narratives — and not simply in bifurcated ways such as reversing the center-periphery polarity or establishing a periphery-periphery dipole dynamic, but in a way commensurate with the messy multifariousness of socio-enviro-technical reality.
We have recently discussed at length whether human beings or bodies might be thought of as technologies or as machines in the context of the history of technology. It is clear that for methodological, but also obviously ethical reasons, we do not want to conceive of humans in this way. But what do historians do when confronted with the fact that the historical actors of interest to them construct other humans and bodies as machines and discipline and deploy those humans and bodies as technologies schematically integrated into technological regimes? Barak encounters this problem in his third chapter, “Humans”, which details the mid-19th century thermodynamic model of the human “motor” and the accompanying “‘science of labor’ meant to curtail fatigue and energy depletion in order to make the interface between man and machine ever smoother.” The thermodynamics of the human machine interface were highly racialized in the stokehold of the steamship engine compartment. Thermodynamic and caloric theories of skin pigmentation were expounded from contemporary beliefs about skin color and climate to prove the suitability of the black body to the stokehold. They were conceived of as less susceptible to the heat, as having “less diathermancy” and therefore more efficiently able to radiate heat. How do historians of technology avoid treating humans as technologies when humans were very much treated as technologies in their historical contexts?
Another interesting aspect of Barak’s tentacular coal infrastructure was the co-production of environment and technology through the Suez canal, the oceanographic properties of the Red Sea, lighthouses, and the construction of ships. For Barak, “ships’ shape and geography recreated one another,” as the initial narrowness of the canal incentivized screw propulsion mounted aft of the hull rather than the side-mounted paddle propulsion prone to collisions with the embankments of the canal. The canal was successively widened in response to the ships’ dimensions which would consequently widen to maximize the carrying capacity through the canal. A similar co-constructive dynamic is detailed in Ashley Carse’s Beyond the Big Ditch, an environmental history of the Panama Canal, where the co-construction of geography and ship architecture resulted in the Panamax shipping standard — the widest and longest possible hull able to navigate the Panama Canal. These kinds of negotiations between the landscape and the tentacles of coaling evolve, for Barak, into larger conversations about the nature of risk and the development of insurance through the creation of lighthouses. Where friction between coaling tentacles and oceanic topography became abrasive in ways uncompensate-able by insurance or other non-technological risk management and mitigation mechanisms, lighthouses were built.
I have tried here to give but a small smattering of the multifarious interconnects Barak presents between coal and everything and everyone its tentacles reached and suctioned in his attempt to demystify and therefore decolonize “energy”. Powering Empire is a fascinating study of labor, environment, geopolitics, religion, industrialization, urbanization, thermodynamic physics, and carbon energy that connects these all-encompassing topics so thoroughly that it never feels like a history of simplistically saying “everything is connected to everything”. These connects feel tangible, with an evidentiary basis in the historical record, such that the tentacles can always be traces back to the cephalus, coal, which orders their assemblage.
- 3 – 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.
- 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.
- 7 – Water desalination in Suez and Aden, Chinese tea, Mocha or Java coffee, and Gaza barley turned to India Pale Ale, not to mention European and even non-European blood and sweat — from the 1840s and on these and other loci and flows examined in the following pages were all frontiers where heat, cold, steam, and coal were tested, developed, and theorized.
- 8 – Yet coal could accomplish very little by itself. Rather than a history of coal’s innate energy or intrinsic agency, this is a history of the multiple, nonlinear juxtapositions and chains of agency that spawned new objects, addictions, and consumption practices. In all these respects of history, materiality, and peripherality, I seek to provincialize energy.
- 13 – For better or worse, predation does not exclude collaboration. In the context of coal-fired transformation underwater — but also on land and even in the air — the axis of both intra- and interspecies collaboration and predation characterized the flows creatures along steamer, rail, and telegraph lines. Coal depots were often multispecies boomtowns.
CHAPTER 1 – WATER
- 24 – The notion of an energy regime, together with similar heuristic devices, such as periodization into ‘the age of . . .,’ were not without their advantages for narrating historical transformations in broad strokes and for identifying characteristic features of different systems. But there was a price: energy regimes are implicitly thought to be predicated on a hegemonic, modeling energy source, both technologically and geographically.
- The divergence perspective mapped neatly onto divides between industry and agriculture, modernity and tradition, the artificial (polluting, abnormal) and natural (renewable, sustainable), and the (energetic) West and (lethargic) East, obfuscating important connections among these worlds as well as other kinds of entanglements among machines, human, animals, and other forces.
- Contrasting urbanizing, industrial, coal-rich Europe with the non- or deindustrialized, non- or underdeveloped agricultural peripheries that fed its working classes and factories missed two key facts: not only were these peripheries themselves dependent on coal steam power from about the same time they were fully adopted in England, but English industrialization itself depended on these remote settings as markets and laboratories for coal and coal-burning technologies.
- 45 – The Saudi regime, using about 15 percent of the country’s oil to desalinate water, thereby sustaining large-scale wheat agriculture and water and bread subsidies upon which its legitimacy and stability depend, should be seen as a hydro-state resting on the pillars of earlier Ottoman and then British experiments with water supply. Yet the Saudi petro/hydro-state was in fact brought about by the arrival of coal and steam power in the region, and as such it bears the imprint of coal’s relationship with water and animal power.
- 51 – The very limited usefulness of entertaining an insulated ‘age of coal’ and the impossibility of separating coal from water and animal power during most of the nineteenth century also disrupts the ‘energy regimes’ perspective when moving forward or climbing the ladder of energy sources. Like coal, Iranian or Saudi oil — and by extension the ‘age of oil’ in the Middle East — often seems to spring ex nihilo and out of context from under the desert sand. Yet oil too was connected to existing powers and resources. In the early twentieth century, these powers included an infrastructure created for transporting and burning coal. Recounting oil’s connection to coal via animal and water power helps get a firmer and more concrete grasp of a slippery substance that tends to be understood today exclusively with abstractions like money and energy.
- 51-52 – Instead of an ‘energy regimes’ perspective, we have opted for a historical framework that does not a priori analytically and artificially separate fossil fuels from sustainable sources, coal from oil, steam engines and horses or camels, or even the BRitish Empire, from the Bedouins who carried its desalinated water or oil pipes across Arabia.
CHAPTER 2 – ANIMALS
- 63 – It is hardly surprising that in a place like Aden, one of the frontiers of the global fossil-fueled transportation sector, coal, ice, water, salt, animals for work and food, and steam power were bound together in various synergic relations. Water was desalinated by coal-fueled steam condensers and distributed around Aden with mules and camels. Steam technology was also used to produce ice from the desalinated water, which was distributed the same way.
- 71 – More broadly still, the topic of meat consumption, new indices like the calorie, and discussions about refrigeration were the ‘cold’ version of the emergence in the Middle East of the model of the human engine: if food became fuel, the body that processed it could be seen as a machine. In this, the human body was just one element in a comprehensive system in which all of nature could be mechanized.
- I know historians of technology don’t conceive of humans as a technology but what do we do about our historical actors under our consideration treating humans like technologies
- 78-79 – What came to be called ‘fossil fuel addiction’ after the 1973 oil-price shocks can actually be traced back more than a century earlier; more importantly, it can be identified as part of the literal adoption of various habits and habit-forming substances including tea, coffee, sugar and other stimulants, meat, salt, and opium. This is similar to how Matthe Huber describes the dep inscriptions of oil on the American way of life that deepened oil dependency, and the embodied practices through which subjects come to experience oil in daily life as acts of social reproduction.
- How do we think of technologies as facilitating or enacting social reproduction, assigning to them, in part, responsibility for their ancillary effects. These arguments can be made stronger by networking several technologies with amplifying ancillary effects together, as Barak does here with coal, salt, water, and meat
- 79 – Yet from the human body, to one’s immediate community, to the global position of that community’s abode, difference was a regular companion to standardization. As meat and other foodstuffs reveal, temperature variations informed the structuring of the global political economy into a network in which warmer places of agricultural cultivation were grafted onto colder places of industrial processing.
CHAPTER 4 – ENVIRONMENT
- 124 – For example, since its inauguration, the canal’s narrow waterway promoted screw-propelled steamers and demoted side-wheelers, which hit the banks with their propellers, and sail ships, which depended on costly towing services for the entire stretch between Suez and Port Said. The canal itself kept changing: during its first decades it was continuously widened and deepened, a process which both suited and informed the changing size of the steamers that passed between its banks. Ships’ shape and geography recreated one another.
- Co-production of canals and ships — we see something similar with the panama canal and the “panamax” ship dimension standard — the largest ship that can fit through the panama canal
- 150 – Factoring human actors in large-scale infrastructures also applies in the Ottoman ‘infrastructural turn.’ The hydrocarbon pathways that came to be seen as the key yardsticks for Ottoman effective and legitimate sovereignty in the Anglo-Ottoman frontiers of the Red Sea and the Hijaz also acted as conduits for British extraterritoriality couched in religious terms. Whereas the Ottomans relied more and more on machines that burned British coal . . ., Britain relied on the ‘Mohammedanism’ of its India subjects to extend influence into the Hijaz and on traditions and legal technologies often made in the Ottoman Empire.
- 157 – Beyond thermodynamics, coal’s weight and anxiolytic properties also shaped this built, social, and legal landscape. These artificial conduits of materials, as well as legal and even religious traditions, were soon naturalized. Recounting such entanglements in all their dizzying complexity and insisting on the multidirectionality and on the agency and complicity of local actors obviates our adoption of simple narratives that allocate full responsibility solely to industrializing Britain, capitalism, or imperialism. Instead, we are compelled to acknowledge that the complexities of imperialism are integral to the global fossil economy.
CHAPTER 5 – RISK
- 163 – Thus, rather than assuming a priori that ‘steamships had two advantages over sailing ships in the Red Sea: they could ignore the prevailing wind patterns and because of their easier manoeuvrability they could come closer to reefs,’ it is important to inquire how they came to develop these advantages. As an explanatory mechanism, I propose below what may be termed accidentalism. Accidents, as I will show, occur as a result of contingency and also the schemes devised to curtail, direct, and use it.
- 168-69 – In particular, the paper trail left by the Jeddah affair enables a discussion of the accident’s technopolitical causes and implications, its territorial reverberations, and the underlying epistemological mechanisms of these technical, territorial, and political developments. As disruptions of everyday routine, accidents are especially revealing moments which allow historical actors, and then historians, to understand how technical systems work. If the mechanics of quotidian existence are ‘black-boxed’ when infrastructures operate smoothly, breakdowns, malfunctions, and their ill effects focus attention on what usually occurs behind the scenes.
- 169 – However, such accidents offer more than a window for passive understanding. They were also powerful real-time driving forces for enhancement and improvement of the systems within which they occurred. Any technological system is developed through a process of trial and error.
- Timothy Mitchell on dams
CHAPTER 6 – FOSSIL
- 195 – What we need instead is to develop appropriate modes of tentacular thinking attuned to a multiplicity of creatures and things with which we are embroiled.