- Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity by David McDermott Hughes
Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity
.Durham: Duke University Press, 2017. x + 191 pp. Maps, photographs, figures, notes, references, index. $89.95 cloth (ISBN: 978–0–8223–6306–4), $23.95 paper (ISBN: 978–0–8223–6298–2).
With his book energy without Conscience (2017) David McDermott Hughes offers us a rich and important ethnographic account of Trinidad that marks the Caribbean nation not only as the site of Christopher Columbus’ third exploration to the Americas, but also as the world’s first petro-extractive geography. Planet Earth’s deepest petroleum reserves occur naturally in the underground reserves below Trinidad, where the first oil well was drilled in the southern part of the island by Walter Darwent in 1866. The historical importance of what we might call Trinidad’s “double discovery” is not lost upon the author as he weaves an account of European territorial expansion in the Caribbean alongside an explanation of the rational science that undergirds petroleum exploration. He also locates the development of commodity capitalism within the ports and geographies of Trinidad and Tobago. Through a textured and expertly written narrative, Hughes describes energy systems as embedded both within the specific concern of hydrocarbon’s atmospheric release, and the ethical responsibility for global warming. Further, by centering the present-day carbon complicity web, the author reveals the hidden energy cycles that power our daily lives as consumptive activities of carbon release that often alienate us from the reality of our own destruction. Even when the author complicates accounts of the apocalypse, it is clear that he pursues passionate arguments for delinking from hydrocarbon dependency as the core of his engagement.
Though there is not a direct discussion of Cedric Robinson’s monumental book Black Marxism or the specific historical naming of the rise of racial capitalism, Hughes locates his study within the historical arc of trans-Atlantic Slavery as well as a foundational critique of Indigenous dispossession. As Hughes recounts, the history of oil dependency is marked by its relation to human power and energy as far back as the sugar plantations, where Afro-diasporic populations were subjugated and enslaved within the matrix of colonial capitalism. Indeed, the monocultural plantation economy of sugar made one of the earliest carbon imprints as it created increased desire and demand for what Sidney Mintz (1985) first elaborated as the relationship between sweetness and power. Focused on energy, Hughes relays that “somatic power,” or what we might term Afro-diasporic somatic power, first fueled the global economic circuits to initiate a planetary drive for carbon energy. He also notes that through the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, settler colonial policies contributed to the ideas of progress and improvement, which mandated the clearing of the land, forest, and planters, and created direct links between the oil histories of Texas and Trinidad. By returning to such narratives a few times in the book, Hughes shows a rare attentiveness to the circuits of capital that organize the logics [End Page 281] of petro-extraction as sites of primitive accumulation and in relation to the project of white settlement.
By thinking with the text, we might also note how the extraction of silver, tin, and other minerals produced a carbon web of interdependent complicity that has accelerated over the past five hundred years. For instance, the economic dependence upon Indigenous and African labor is also expressed by the near collapse of the Cerro Rico mine in Potosí, Bolivia and the history of mineral extraction on the sacred Aymara mountain. By considering regional colonial geographies of power within the Americas, such as the Caribbean sugar industry and the Andean mining industry, an intertwined global system of capitalist production of racialized labor becomes apparent.
Like other anthropological studies of extractive environments, Energy Without Conscience makes visible the invisible web of connections that function to naturalize the oil industry’s rhetoric of geology’s upward flow. Hughes’s treatment of “above ground risk,” “the back stream,” the oil pollution belt, and other terms of petroleum extraction’s abstraction function as a way to...