Energy as Politics: Power and U.S. Political Economy, 1820-1930

14 Mar 2012
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Chris Jones
STSC Visiting Scholar

Politics occupies a prominent place in energy studies. Analysts often take one of two approaches to this topic. The most common method is to study the politics of energy. These accounts examine how government actions structure the production and consumption of energy through regulation, corporate privileges, mineral ownership rights, tax policies, and other activities of the state. An alternative approach has been to study the ways that energy systems create particular political outcomes, as embodied in Marx’s famous statement that “the hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord, the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.” Both of these approaches offer numerous insights, but both are limited by focusing on one line of influence: either politics shapes energy or energy shapes politics. I argue that we can get a more satisfying picture of the complex relationships between energy systems and political orders by exploring the mutual shaping of each. I call this approach “energy as politics.”

My paper explores the idea of energy as politics by tracing the interconnections between the rising use of coal, oil, and electricity in America from 1820 to 1930 and the nation’s changing political economy. At the beginning of the period, America was a predominantly commercial and agricultural nation where republican ideals of local authority and limited federal powers held wide sway. Small partnerships and independent proprietorships were the most common forms of economic organization. It was in this context that Americans first turned to new energy sources and republican values shaped these initial pursuits. Over time, the availability of cheap and abundant energy enabled the emergence of an urban and industrial society. By the late nineteenth century, Americans found themselves in a world of booming cities, powerful corporations, and an unpredictable economy. These conditions led to proposals for new forms of governance embodied in the Progressive Era and New Deal that ultimately transformed the relationships between citizens, the state, and the economy. Though new energy sources did not dictate the political choices Americans made, they recast the context in which Americans made decisions. Energy transitions and the modern American state, I seek to demonstrate, were created in tandem.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Berkeley Program in Science and Technology Studies

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