- Ecology, Ontology, and Fossil Fuels
On May 10, 1876, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II opened the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia by starting the Corliss steam engine, which powered and illuminated the exhibits.1 The giant engine served as a symbol of the nation’s industrial progress and power, but the coal-burning furnaces that produced the steam that powered the engine were hidden from view in a building behind the main hall. Environmental historian and cultural critic Bob Johnson begins his study with this story to illustrate how American culture has suppressed the dirty reality behind the fossil fuels that have made U.S. power and prosperity possible. While fossil fuels have been central to modern life in the United States, awareness of their social and ecological costs has been hidden, he argues, like the furnaces that powered the Corliss engine.2
One reason the majority of Americans have been able to ignore the dirty realities behind fossil fuel production is that the sites of production—coal and oil fields and electricity generating plants—are often far removed from main population centers. Coal and oil fields and areas adjacent to power stations became “sacrifice zones,” where local land, labor, and the environment suffered so that the larger population might benefit from the energy they produced. While this is true of production, consumption of fossil fuels has also had a tremendous environmental impact—globally, nationally, and locally—an issue Johnson could have explored in greater depth.
Coal miners were not always invisible. Johnson notes that, at the peak, there were almost 750,000 coal miners in the United States, and coal accounted for around three quarters of U.S. energy consumption (pp. 79, 169). Unfortunately, he does not examine the impact of collective action by coal miners on the [End Page 335] development of democracy in the United States or other industrialized countries. In an insightful study that deserves more attention, Bruce Podobnik in his book Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age (2006) linked energy transitions to social conflict as well as geopolitical rivalries and commercial conflicts. Timothy Mitchell’s better-known 2011 work Carbon Democracy began with the statement: “Fossil fuels helped create both the possibility of modern democracy and its limits.”3 Mitchell and Podobnik argue that the central role of coal in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century economy—and the potential for coal miners through collective action to disrupt the economy—played important roles in the development of democracy in the United States and Western Europe. In contrast, oil production generally involved large numbers of workers only in the early stages of exploration and development, so oil workers, while at times influential locally, have not played as large a role in democratic culture as coal miners, at least not in the United States.
Johnson begins his study by summarizing the ways fossil fuels have made modern social and economic life possible. Before fossil fuels, most energy derived from human and animal muscle power. People and draft animals, in turn, drew their energy from food, which required land in order to grow crops and trees and to raise livestock. Shelter and clothing were also products of the land, as was the heat needed to warm homes and transform minerals into metals. Thus there were natural constraints on how much energy a society could mobilize—in particular the amount of arable land.
Fossil fuels removed these constraints in four ways. First, through the steam engine, the dynamo, and the internal combustion engine, fossil fuels converted thermal energy into mechanical energy, providing the energy equivalent of billions of humans and animals without needing to feed, house, or clothe them. Second, fossil fuels replaced wood, charcoal, and other natural sources to provide the heat for homes and to smelt metals, liquefy silica, and...