- Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture by Bob Johnson
It is both an exciting and a frustrating time for the environmental humanities in the United States. On the one hand, the field is more diverse and more vibrant than ever, as scholars seek to analyze and interpret the reverberations that the issues surrounding climate change, fossil-fuel consumption, and waste have sent through the culture. On the other hand, despite all that we know about climate change and the disasters perpetually generated by the fossil-fuel industry, we have yet to devise viable alternatives to our violent, unsustainable ways of life, let alone to halt the seemingly inevitable expansion of the fossil-fuel industry into ever-more dangerous and disaster-prone regions and modes of extraction. Johnson’s Carbon Nation is a concise, compelling account of a paradox—how today’s knowledge of ecology and energy bring positive environmental change well within the range of possibility, and how at the same time modern culture evinces an intractable resistance to letting go of fossil fuels. On these terms, Carbon Nation makes a remarkable contribution to the growing field of energy studies in history and elsewhere in the humanities.
The book is divided into two parts, each of which takes a different approach to fossil fuels in the modern United States. The first section, “Divergence,” draws from environmental science and social history to sketch the ways in which modern fossil fuels radically altered American culture and society. The advance to modernity—the move from a somatic [End Page 468] regime, in which energy derived largely from human and animal bodies, to a carbon regime, in which energy increasingly transferred to carbon-based fuel sources (beginning with coal and steam power and culminating in electricity and petroleum)—was, in Johnson’s words, “a Faustian bargain” (23). The “orgy of production and reproduction” that fossil fuels enabled often took place “without regard to organic limits” (40).
The second section of the book, “Submergence,” characterizes our relation to fossil fuels as traumatic, given our inability to appreciate the costs of fossil fuels to ourselves, to our society, and to the world. This second section dwells on the energy released by coal, electricity, and petroleum, which carries not only distinct associations with celebrations of power, freedom, and individuality but also with traumatic traces of death, depravity, and violence that are often left in the dark. Modern fossil fuels “[bury] their social and ecological costs,” thus making it difficult to imagine an alternative to our current energy regime (162).
Carbon Nation distills an impressive array of work in the environmental sciences, environmental history, and environmental humanities; each chapter extends its range of evidence provocatively from industry histories to literary texts, fine art, and film. Johnson makes it clear that focusing on fossil fuels requires an interdisciplinary methodology that devotes as much attention to such well-known cultural landmarks as John Ford’s film How Green Was My Valley (1941) as to the Smithsonian’s report Power: Its Significance and Needs (1918). An elegant synthesis of a wide array of cultural artifacts, Johnson’s Carbon Nation convincingly argues that finding an alternative to our unsustainable energy system requires an understanding of its origins. Fortunately, Carbon Nation provides a revision of the “American century” that captures how fossil fuels became fixtures in our lives that we can no longer afford.