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  • The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work by Cara New Daggett
  • Kameron Sanzo (bio)
The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work
by Cara New Daggett; pp. 280.Duke UP, 2019. $99.95 cloth

As oil and gas companies increasingly brand themselves as “energy” companies rather than fossil fuel extraction companies, it is worthwhile to ask why “energy” signifies an uncontested concept of freedom and better quality of life. Cara New Daggett’s The Birth of Energy approaches this question by undertaking what she calls a “genealogy of energy,” tracing the emergence of a dominant Western energy logic that was first informed by nineteenth-century thermodynamics. Although “energy” may feel timeless and cosmic, it is a term whose modern definition emerged in the Victorian period and whose thermodynamic associations have been used to tether work to fuel and productivity. Daggett argues that industrializing Western empires leveraged the energy–work nexus as natural law to “put the world’s materials to use for human profit” (102). Because energy and work remain coupled, eco-accountability debates often focus on market-based solutions that maintain capitalism’s status quo rather than envision post-carbon futures. Daggett hopes to help shift this mindset by unsettling energy’s largely uncontested and poorly historicized logics.

The Birth of Energy contributes to Victorian studies’ increased interest in eco-criticism. Daggett agrees with scholars such as Allen MacDuffie and Timothy Morton that we can extend the Anthropocene into the Victorian period and that doing so emphasizes the unbalanced culpability for ecological damage between actors in the global north and global south. Indeed, the book’s [End Page 333] focus on exclusively Western energy logics is meant to underscore how dominant and naturalized the Victorian-born energy concept has become. Although Daggett encourages other scholars to research alternative energy concepts, the scope of her project is limited to Western energy’s genealogy: “the Anglo work of Great Britain and the United States, and to a period that ranges from the mid-nineteenth century, from the ‘discovery’ of energy to the peak decades of new imperialism” (7).

The book is organized into two sections. Part 1 narrates the history of classical thermodynamics, covering the etymology of “energy” and the term’s appropriation by North British Presbyterian scientists who connected an emerging “geo-theology” to moral ethics of sin and laziness (54). Daggett delays providing a formal definition of the two laws of thermodynamics until the book’s second chapter, preferring instead a genealogy to emerge through her narration of energy’s “discovery” in the Victorian era. By doing so, she both foregrounds energy’s long history as a humanistic and multi-valent term and resists buttressing preconceived notions of energy with its naturalized position in science. Part 2 applies nineteenth-century energy science to Britain’s logic of domination during the age of new imperialism. The Birth of Energy’s latter chapters will be of interest to global nineteenth-century scholars, especially those whose work examines imperial applications of sciences like biology and organicism.

While Daggett concedes that thermodynamics has received less critical attention as an imperial science than its contemporaries such as evolution, she posits that energy was subsumed into other scientific logics. For instance, organicism’s emphasis on the social body produces political questions of metabolism that involve work/waste exchanges. Similarly, energy was deployed alongside biological metaphors to discuss how certain civilizations achieved developmental success by maximizing work productivity and minimizing waste (110). By viewing the nation as an organism whose growth depended on metabolism and therefore waste production, it was possible to conceive of ways to extend the nation by sending waste “away,” somewhere outside the bounds of the organism. Imperialism therefore collapsed natural growth with increased fossil fuel use, as well as applying the logic of engine efficiency to the humans and non-humans whose work would extend the nation (118).

Growing Western empires encountered labour challenges during the late nineteenth century. The Birth of Energy elegantly sutures the scientific definition of energy as work to colonial labour by arguing that colonial subjects, human and non-human, who resisted dominant energy logics were...


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pp. 333-336
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