Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia

12 Min Read

September 7, 2023

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller is Professor of English at the University of California, Davis where she teaches classes in literature and the environmental humanities and is currently serving as Interim Chair of the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies.

According to an analysis by the Rhodium Group, in 2019, China’s annual greenhouse gas emissions “exceeded those of all other countries combined.”1 China’s turn to coal and the rise of its fossil fuel economy happened later and faster than for Western countries. So how did we get here? This is one of the questions behind Victor Seow’s Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia. Seow offers a study of East Asia’s coal capital, Fushun Colliery–the region’s largest coal-mining operation and the birthplace of the Chinese fossil fuel economy. Carbon Technocracy is a book that traces the history of one mine yet never loses sight of Fushun’s global significance. Grounded in archival research across multiple languages, Seow’s sources range from mining records to novels and newspapers to the papers of key individuals. The book maintains, too, a robust dialogue with contemporary work across the energy and environmental humanities. It is, as Seow puts it, “A genealogy of our current predicament.”2


This predicament is, of course, climate change, and one of the book’s key contributions to discussions of this predicament is its theorization of technocracy, which Seow calls a “distinctive sociotechnical apparatus that presented itself as the epitome of modernity–universal, scientific, inevitable.”3 Seow traces Fushun’s history across several political regimes: Japanese imperialism, Soviet occupation, Chinese Nationalism, and Chinese Communism. A technocratic vision persisted under each system. Indeed, the nature of the surrounding political context mattered far less than one might expect in the approach to mining that was taken over the years at Fushun. The drive for increasing output, for “ever-escalating output targets,” for growth, was the governing force, whether motivated by capitalist profits or communist five-year plans.4 In part this was because subsequent iterations of the mine took shape within the footprint of Japanese imperialism, under which Fushun had first been developed. But it was also because “carbon technocracy” was the guiding principle behind every economic and political regime’s conception of the mine. Seow defines carbon technocracy as a “system grounded in the idealization of extensive fossil fuel exploitation,” equating fossil fuels with progress, and generating a relentless demand for more coal.5

Seow’s book theorizes beyond China to delineate the role of carbon technocracy in the emergence of the modern state. He asks, “What if the fossil fuel economy made possible the modern state and the modern state the fossil fuel economy?”6 Unlike many recent books in the energy humanities, he focuses on state structures of powers rather than corporate powers that often seem to operate outside the state. As Seow says in his introduction: “What appears to have been left in the background” in accounts of the rise of fossil fuels “is the state.”7 Such an approach makes a major contribution to scholarly debate about the history of fossil fuels.

The timeline of Seow’s book is roughly 1900 to 1960, from Fushun’s birth as a large industrial enterprise under Japanese imperialism to China’s Great Leap Forward. Along the way, Seow traces the impact of two world wars on the rise of carbon technocracy and coins the term “warscape of intensification,” a play on “landscape of intensification,” to describe how warfare in the first half of the twentieth century “drove an escalating demand for energy.”8 Not just wars but their aftermaths and interstitial periods prove crucial to the history of Fushun. When the Soviets occupied Manchuria after Japan’s surrender in World War II, for example, they did long-term damage to the mine with major impacts for later mineworkers and the environment around Fushun. It proved impossible for years afterward to keep the tunnels properly drained and maintained, extending the violence of the war into the mining accidents that would follow.

Seow’s epilogue moves forward beyond 1960 to express the limits of carbon technocracy that are becoming clearer every day. Fushun’s decline is the story of industrial northeast China, but it is also a version of the “global story of coal-mine closure.”9 Looking forward, Seow raises a question that many observers of climate change have asked, whether a strong state like China might be better equipped to respond to climate change and to rapidly decarbonize. I would describe Seow’s response to this question as cautiously pessimistic; he maintains that there are limits to what can be accomplished under the operating assumptions of carbon technocracy. As he puts it, “Technocracy has cultivated habits of mind that have limited our ability to imagine alternatives. And yet we must.”10

Having recently published a book about the rise of industrial extractivism in Britain and the British Empire, I was intrigued to find many continuities between the context that I study (British Empire 1830s-1930s) and the context that Seow studies here (China 1900-1960s), including some direct moments of exchange between those who accelerated coal extraction across our two periods and geographies of study. At the early historical edge of Seow’s study, for example, Fushun’s closest competitor among Chinese coalmines was the Sino-British Kailuan Mining Administration, a joint operation partly owned by British investors. And when Fushun’s mines were initially being developed by the Japanese, British mining experts such as Scottish engineer Henry Dyer were brought over to consult and advise. Osaka, Japan, Seow tells us, was nicknamed the “Manchester of the Orient.”11 All of this suggests that the British Industrial Revolution had laid down a template for energy exploitation that would prove influential elsewhere across the twentieth century. In Seow’s view, “technocratic tendencies around energy resource management can be found in numerous states across the globe and are, in fact, inherent to the modern condition.”12 

Parallels between the Chinese and British histories of coal express shared features of modern extractivism that are evident across states and geographies. For example, there were endless mining accidents in both the settings Seow and I explore, and both our studies are punctuated by horrific mining disasters as well as devastating environmental impacts. In both contexts, too, the rise of coal-mining was closely connected with the development of the railway: Britain’s first railway was built to move coal, and the same is true of China. Another key similarity is the significant role of imperialism in both contexts. The Fushun Colliery was born of Japanese and Russian imperialism in Manchuria, and in many ways, the mine would remain tied to this instigating vision. Japan justified its imperial activities by making “charges of [underutilization] of lands and their resources,” and such charges can also be found in the British imperial context as well as in Britain’s history of enclosing peasant common lands.13 Racial capitalism is another common feature, apparent, for example, in labour that was differentially waged by race. In Fushun’s mines, Chinese workers were paid less than their Japanese counterparts, much like white and native mineworkers across the British Empire. Both of these mining contexts were shaped, finally, by profound fears of resource exhaustion. As Seow describes, Japanese mining experts read William Stanley Jevons’s 1865 book The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines–a key work of Victorian political economy–and worried, as the British had before them, about “the long-term sustainability of coal-fired growth.”14 Seow’s book and mine are both concerned with the connection between these older anxieties about the available stock of fossil fuel resources and newer existential fears concerning Earth’s capacity to sustain life under accelerating emissions from burning those resources. As Seow puts it, “We are much more likely to destroy ourselves before we run out of the means to do so.”15 

Notes

1. Kate Larsen, Hannah Pitt, Mikhail Grant, and Trevor Houser, “China’s Greenhouse GasEmissions Exceeded the Developed World for the First Time in 2019,” Rhodium Group,  May 6, 2021.

2. Victor Seow, Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia (Chicago,2022), 3.

3. Ibid., 4.

4. Ibid., 9.

5. Ibid., 8.

6. Ibid., 7.

7. Ibid., 11.

8. Ibid., 11; 164-187

9. Ibid., 304.

10. Ibid., 320.

11. Ibid., 5.

12. Ibid., 19.

13. Ibid., 37.

14. Ibid., 130.

15. Ibid., 316.

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