The JHI Working Group on Imagining and Inhabiting Resource Landscapes is pleased to present:
Andrew Needham, History, New York University
The Neverending Age of Coal: Energy Extraction amidst Dreams of Post-Industrialism
Coal seems the antithesis of the economy of postindustrialism, part of the “maggoty corpse,” in Lewis Mumford’s words, of an industrial age far from present day economies focused on information technology and service work. Scholars have argued as such since at least the 1930s. Indeed, writers as diverse as Mumford, Daniel Bell, Richard Florida and Timothy Mitchell have all portrayed a transition away from coal as a central element of a broader shift to a political economy defined by “flowing energy,” “a creative class,” and the geography of office parks, research labs and university campuses that compose the landscapes of postindustrial society. No longer was economic life “a game against nature,” Daniel Bell contended in 1973. Instead, it was “a game between persons.” “What counts,” he wrote, “is not raw muscle power, or energy, but information.”
In the years since Bell published The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, the global economy has indeed been transformed. Information technology has altered the nature of work, culture, and social life. Those same years have seen a transformation of urban space, fueled largely by highly educated workers in the technology and finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sectors. Cities have become greener, and increasingly economically stratified. At the same time, American coal production has boomed, rising from 573 million tons annually in 1973 to 1.2 billion tons in 2008. Even the celebrated decline in coal use and bankruptcy of coal producers over the past eight years has lowered coal production only to 900 million tons. Indeed, post-industrial society has been, to a large extent, coal fired.
This talk tries to make sense of this paradox. Why has a transition away from coal been imagined as central to the rise of post-industrialism? Why did the political economy of energy rely increasingly on coal? How was its use obscured, both in scholarly work and in political culture more generally? And finally, what are the political and intellectual consequences of the new spatial dynamics of coal-fired, post-industrial society?
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