Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia (Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute) (Paperback)

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Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia (Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute) By Victor Seow Cover Image
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A forceful reckoning with the relationship between energy and power through the history of what was once East Asia’s largest coal mine.

The coal-mining town of Fushun in China’s Northeast is home to a monstrous open pit. First excavated in the early twentieth century, this pit grew like a widening maw over the ensuing decades, as various Chinese and Japanese states endeavored to unearth Fushun’s purportedly “inexhaustible” carbon resources. Today, the depleted mine that remains is a wondrous and terrifying monument to fantasies of a fossil-fueled future and the technologies mobilized in attempts to turn those developmentalist dreams into reality.

In Carbon Technocracy, Victor Seow uses the remarkable story of the Fushun colliery to chart how the fossil fuel economy emerged in tandem with the rise of the modern technocratic state. Taking coal as an essential feedstock of national wealth and power, Chinese and Japanese bureaucrats, engineers, and industrialists deployed new technologies like open-pit mining and hydraulic stowage in pursuit of intensive energy extraction. But as much as these mine operators idealized the might of fossil fuel–driven machines, their extractive efforts nevertheless relied heavily on the human labor that those devices were expected to displace. Under the carbon energy regime, countless workers here and elsewhere would be subjected to invasive techniques of labor control, ever-escalating output targets, and the dangers of an increasingly exploited earth.

Although Fushun is no longer the coal capital it once was, the pattern of aggressive fossil-fueled development that led to its ascent endures. As we confront a planetary crisis precipitated by our extravagant consumption of carbon, it holds urgent lessons. This is a groundbreaking exploration of how the mutual production of energy and power came to define industrial modernity and the wider world that carbon made.

About the Author

Victor Seow is assistant professor of the history of science at Harvard University. A historian of technology, science, and industry, he specializes in China and Japan and in histories of energy and work.

Praise For…

"The book is not only an erudite history, but also—perhaps most critically—an urgent call for environmental intervention, as when Seow laments that 'unless radical transformations take place,' his offspring’s generation will inherit the 'world that carbon made, so deeply despoiled and unjust.' An ambitious, scholarly study of the societal complications of energy extraction."

— Kirkus, starred review

"Years of research allow Seow to trace the multifarious consequences of seemingly mundane geology. To say he mastered the technical minutia is to risk considerable understatement. Seow delineates coal’s role in East Asia’s industrialization, tracing its mutual dependence with every sinew of the wider society."
— Asian Review of Books

Carbon Technocracy, Seow’s impressive debut . . . centers on one city, Fushun. The first Ming-China outpost to fall to the Manchus in 1618, the former fortress and trade site was home to the largest coal-mining operation in East Asia for much of the last century. . . . A crucial contribution to the understandings of East Asia, of imperialism. . . . and of science and the modern state.”
— Los Angeles Review of Books

Carbon Technocracy balances macro-level questions about the mutual constitution of nation and global energy regimes with a sensitivity to individual laborers caught up in these machinations.” 
— New Books Network

“A particular strength of this book lies in Seow’s befitting elucidation of the science and technology of coal mining, which allows the materiality of Fushun’s coal deposits to shine through the convoluted social, political, and economic realities of energy regimes. . . . This is a book of the history of technology with substantive technology.” 
— East Asian Science, Technology and Society

“Seow’s book arrives as the climatic effects of fossil fuel consumption have become alarmingly apparent everywhere. Recent floods in Pakistan exacerbated by melting glaciers, drought and unrelenting heat in China, Europe, the U.S., and all around the globe bespeak the urgency of understanding the history that Seow traces. While Carbon Technocracy does not give much cause for optimism that a transition to renewable forms of energy in China will be any less technocratic than the exploitation of fossil fuels has been, it is an insightful and engaging book that should shape conversations about East Asia and energy for years to come.”    
— positions politics

“The beauty in his crafting of the story, the weaving together of various conceptual threads, and the blending of different source material is in how Seow both recreates the physical and mental worlds of industrial northeast China and frames up a compelling argument that helps us better understand their fabric. The work that Seow has done to pull together research from government and company records, a variety of gray literature, travel diaries, oral histories, and private collections of mining engineers from China, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States is staggering.”
— H-Environment

“Seow’s timely new book, Carbon Technocracy, offers a deeply researched account for how China came to construct its carbon economy. . . . Through Fushun, Seow succeeds in demonstrating how the broader global embrace of development based on fossil fuels was built on similar unstable grounds at enormous costs to human lives and the environment.”
— The China Quarterly

“This volume is a very worthy addition to the historiographical field: first and foremost for its detailed case study of such a globally significant coal mine, but also for the interesting and insightful way in which it emphasizes the interconnectedness of calorific power and political power—not just within the specific context of East Asian state-building, but also more broadly. It should most certainly be required reading for students and scholars of East Asian mining history in particular, but also for anyone interested in twentieth-century mining and energy history in general.” 
— Labour History Review

“A fascinating and important piece of scholarship that should interest scholars of industrial modernity, regardless of their disciplinary allegiances. . . . Seow takes a single mining site as his focus: Fushun, located in the northeastern region of China known then as Manchuria. This methodological choice enables a highly successful blend of macro- and micro-histories throughout the book.” 
— Journal of Design History

“China, the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels today, has until recently been neglected by energy historians. Carbon Technocracy corrects this injustice with great erudition and depth. Seow, an assistant professor of the history of science at Harvard University, has spent more than a decade studying the Fushun colliery, known for most of the twentieth century as East Asia’s coal capital. The result is a fascinating case study on the history of a fossil fuel hub under different political regimes over more than a century.”
— Environment and History

“Seow’s brilliant new book, Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia, is the latest addition to the scholarship on the history of energy in East Asia. . . . By tracing the rise of carbon technocracy, Seow provides historians of East Asia with a new way of understanding the region; his refreshing approach joins the field’s two predominant narratives, namely empire building and national struggle. More importantly, he is meticulous and thoughtful in evaluating the relationship between colonialism and the industrial modernity that was fostered under the dome of Japan’s empire. While acknowledging the fossil fuel–driven modernity facilitated by the Japanese in Manchuria, he underlines its exploitative and repressive nature. By paying attention to the human cost of coal extraction, done by coerced labor under total war or by organized labor competition in a socialist society, the author takes a humanist approach and compassionate attitude in unpacking the rise of carbon technocracy in East Asia.”
— Asian Review of World Histories

Carbon Technocracy is a beautifully written historical work of both deep erudition and remarkable humanity. . . . Seow’s concept of carbon technocracy offers a promising framework for exploring several critical conceptual and ethical issues in the history of scientifically driven state formation and resource management.”
— Isis

"A brilliant account of energy and empire, industrial hubris, and ecological destruction told through the story of the coal capital of China. Providing an alternative global history of technology, the book argues for a distinctive understanding of the role of fossil fuel energy in shaping the political order of East Asia in the age of carbon."
— Timothy Mitchell, author of Carbon Democracy

"Impressive in scope and significance, Carbon Technocracy offers compelling evidence of the historical relationship between the fossil fuel economy and the rise of the modern nation-state in China and beyond. Readers will gain a fresh understanding of the roots of fossil fuel addiction and its consequences, which encompass not only ecological destruction but also violent exploitation of laborers and increased state capacity for social control. Through a rich historical excavation centered in one Manchurian coal mine, Seow demonstrates in no uncertain terms why we must look beyond technocratic solutions as we struggle to survive the climate crisis."
— Sigrid Schmalzer, author of Red Revolution, Green Revolution

"Seow shows that civilizations built on coal undermine their own foundations with each strike of the shovel. His exploration of carbon technocracy highlights how the desire for technological progress and development runs along a deep seam of violence. Profoundly humane and thoughtful."
— Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival

"Focusing on the history of the Fushun coal mine in Northeast China, this engaging book traces the worlds that coal made across twentieth-century East Asia. Shifting seamlessly from the abstract structures of states and economies to the everyday lives of engineers and workers, Seow tells the story of the big science, big engineering, and big technology that made up the carbon foundation of both Imperial Japan and Communist China. A probing account of the origins and challenges of the climate crisis."
— Louise Young, author of Japan's Total Empire

"Drawing on an impressive range of sources, Seow reveals the intertwined stories of the Fushun colliery and the succession of state regimes that have drawn on Fushun’s material (and even rhetorical) power, from the contestation among Chinese, Russian, and Japanese interests at the turn of the last century through the consolidation of the People’s Republic of China. The clarity of Seow’s thinking, the felicity of his prose, and the significance of his topic will ensure a large audience among modern East Asian historians, energy historians, and the many scholars in environmental studies and environmental humanities who focus on carbon-driven climate change. Clearly written and very thoughtfully conceived."
— Thomas G. Andrews, author of Killing for Coal
Product Details
ISBN: 9780226826554
ISBN-10: 0226826554
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: May 10th, 2023
Pages: 376
Series: Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute