Why I Love Teaching Carbon Democracy

12 Min Read

April 4, 2022

Cara Daggett researches the politics and history of energy, with a focus upon interrogating Global North attachments to productivity and intensive energy use. Her book, The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work (Duke, 2019), was awarded the Clay Morgan Award for best book in environmental political theory and the Yale H. Ferguson Book Award from the International Association Northeast.


Not every great book is fun to teach, but Carbon Democracy is both. I teach it often – it may be the book I’ve taught most, from “International Relations” to “Energy and Global Politics.” At the end of every semester, I survey students about their favorite readings, and if I have taught Carbon Democracy, I know it will rank highly. I’ve had students write to me years later, thanking me for the class, and more than once, they reference this book, and remark upon how it shifted their thinking, and in at least one case that I know of, their career path. Many have asked me to recommend other books that are “like” Carbon Democracy, and while I always give them other favorites of mine, the truth is that there are not many books like it – a book that makes inroads in history, foreign policy, political theory, and ecological thought all at once. A book that makes you think differently not only about energy, but about democracy and economics.

Carbon Democracy has had a significant influence in my own work on energy politics, and it has also helped to guide me toward research in areas that are under-emphasized in the book: how reproductive labor relates to carbon democracy; how racist, sexist, and affective dimensions work alongside the materialist-capitalist interests that animate Western foreign policy; and the precise relationship between the state and capital, whose interests are sometimes collapsed in the book. 

However, instead of discussing the book’s impact upon my own scholarship, I want to take this opportunity to reflect upon this book as a teacher and writer. I’d like to explore the book’s pedagogical value, and what it might teach us more broadly about how to write books that shine in the classroom (no small feat). I cannot ignore that, at least in part, the students are likely grooving to my own passion for the book; All teachers know the contagious nature of their enthusiasm. I have my favorite parts – a ‘greatest hits,’ if you will – that I am sure to emphasize to students (the ‘machinic’ reading of democracy, the undermining of the oil scarcity and energy security arguments, the withering catalogue of U.S. foreign policy injustices in the Middle East). Still, there must be more to it. As teachers, we have all had the experience of sharing books that we love with students, and feeling disheartened when they respond with frustration, displeasure or, what is worse, indifference. Why do students enjoy Carbon Democracy, sometimes as much as I do?

Below, I’ll offer a few reasons why I think this book works in the classroom, and what this might teach us as writers. But to start with, let me rule out one reason: the book is not “easy” to read and digest in terms of the complexity of its ideas and its scope. It is well written and engaging – those elusive characteristics of any popular book – but it is not easy. When students dislike a book, they often say that it is too hard, but I don’t buy that. Easy books can be boring, and students enjoy being intellectually challenged. When students say a book is too hard, I think they mean that it is engaged in a conversation that doesn’t interest them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; we need books that pave the way through highly specialized discussions. And students may come back to a book with new insights based on further education or different life experiences. Not every book has to speak to everyone.

But Carbon Democracy manages to both push forward specialized academic debates – some of which students may not understand – while still making the case of its significance to a broader group of readers. I’ve seen students who have little background in modern world history, Middle Eastern Studies, or U.S. foreign policy, and who are flummoxed by the density and unfamiliarity of its details, and yet who nevertheless enjoy Carbon Democracy, and want to struggle over its meaning – I think because the text provides them enough breadcrumbs to find their way through.

As writers, and especially transdisciplinary writers, we might think of this as layered writing; delving into complex and intricate analyses, but periodically surfacing to connect those details to broader themes. A trail of breadcrumbs guides the reader through a thicket of complicated history. The danger, of course, is that the reduction of complex events into broader themes, as when Mitchell argues that coal systems offered more democratic opportunities than did oil, always risks over-simplification. Indeed, some critical engagements with the book have complicated these broad assertions (see for instance Peyman Jafari’s analysis of oil strikes and the Iranian revolution).

It’s something I’ve grappled with as a writer and theorist; wanting to tell a compelling story and capture key themes while also honoring the complexity of life. While Mitchell’s assertions are open to challenge, the book’s ability to provide a terrain upon which to analyze the politics of fuel systems and, perhaps more important, to figure out how to organize against unjust power, remains invaluable. Fortunately, I don’t see students leaving the book with fixed certainties about oil or coal, but rather with a new sense of the pluripotentiality of sociotechnical systems.

After much reflection, I think Carbon Democracy is a hit among students because it disrupts key facets of American mythology that many of them bring into the classroom (and which much of the American public holds as common sense). If we think about our own favorite texts, I suspect many share this trait: they make us see that what we took to be natural fact is indeed contingent and contestable. Students find these moments just as intellectually invigorating as their professors do.

I don’t see students leaving the book with fixed certainties about oil or coal, but rather with a new sense of the pluripotentiality of sociotechnical systems.

Below are three pieces of American common sense that Carbon Democracy successfully overturns. I should note that my classrooms are not representative of the world. They are spaces where these American mythologies remain influential. I’ve taught mostly in public universities in the U.S., to a student body that includes those from diverse, first-generation, or working class backgrounds, and also from predominantly white, Washington, D.C. Beltway- and military-oriented families, but overall with fewer elite and international students than I encountered in private university classrooms.

Myth 1: The Friendship of Democracy and Capitalism

Most Americans arrive at university woefully ignorant of political economy, having been steeped in the ideological anti-communism of the Cold War, which still pervades K-12 curricula in the U.S. While never citing Marx, Carbon Democracy can function like a crash course in applied Marxist thought and anti-capitalist democratic politics. It does so through an engaging story (coal) that shows materialism in action, rather than through dense theory. I say this as a lover and writer of critical theory myself. I’ve seen firsthand how the history Mitchell curates, of people gaining power to get their demands heard, resonates strongly with students. 

The concept of Carbon Democracy seems to make intuitive sense to students, even to those with little political theory background. They understand the notion that machinic assemblages can have chokepoints that present popular movements with opportunities for sabotage, and that it is through this kind of strategic sabotage that mass democracy has emerged. Not only do they understand the historical events – I’ve watched as students effortlessly translate the concept of chokepoints and sabotage onto other sociotechnical systems that structure their lives, from social media (so decentralized, and so seductive, as to present few opportunities for democratic sabotage) to Big Ag (where migrant and transnational labor at great distance from consumers poses another obstacle to democratic organization). In short, students generally embrace Mitchell’s notion of democracy, which effectively upends the liberal, rights-based, capital-friendly idea of democracy that many of them held (consciously or not) at the start of the semester. They leave with a much better understanding of how power really works. 

Myth 2: Technology Is Our Apolitical Savior

I teach and write about sociotechnical systems, drawing upon scholars who show how the more-than-human world can matter to politics. Things can have creative and productive agency, and are never totally under human control. But these concepts can be difficult to explain, and they demand illustration. Carbon Democracy provides a rich set of phenomena that are incredibly helpful in demonstrating to students how technologies and materials can intersect with power. I think the book’s examples are so valuable in the classroom because they are satisfyingly complicated. Mitchell’s materialism is not a brute determinism, where fuels necessarily cause particular political outcomes. Industrial, fossil-fueled systems are treated with ambivalence: mass democratic potential emerges out of exploitation, and neither domination nor liberation are inevitable. If I want students to leave my class understanding that technology and the material world are not dead things that enter the human realm without politics – in other words, to be suspicious of the premises of technocracy – then I put Carbon Democracy in their hands. 

Myth 3: American Exceptionalism

“Is this book anti-American?” One student asked me this in all sincerity. Judging from the confusion in his voice, it seemed like part defiance, and part bewilderment. He intended to join the U.S. military after graduation, and I don’t think he knew what to do with the challenge this book posed to his worldview. On that day, we were discussing the book’s detailed account of how the U.S. helped overthrow democratically elected governments in the Middle East, and variously aided in the round up, torture, and execution of intellectuals, journalists, and other dissidents. These may be familiar events to scholars of the Middle East, but they are not so familiar to many American undergraduates. I first came to this book as a scholar of energy, but as a teacher, the book also offers a rich and unsettling history of U.S. militarism. Come for the energy politics, stay for the murderous history of Western foreign policy. In this sense, the book is at once anti-capitalist and anti-imperial, reading these two dimensions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries together to show the complicity of capital and Western states in global violence. 

File:US Navy 030402-N-5362A-004 U.S. Army Sgt. Mark Phiffer stands guard duty near a burning oil well in the Rumaylah Oil Fields in Southern Iraq.jpg
U.S. soldier on guard duty near a burning oil well in Southern Iraq, April 2003. CC BY 2.0, United States Navy.

Having reflected on why students love Carbon Democracy, what does this teach us as writers, assuming that we want to write books that appeal as much to advanced scholars as they might to undergraduates, or to a wider, informed readership? First, as a scholar who works across disciplines, I’ve been inspired by Mitchell’s layered writing, and how he toggles back and forth between empirical detail, political-economic theory, and thematic analysis. The book is worth studying on a page-by-page level to discern these rhythms. Second, the book animates students by showing them how people can organize through sociotechnical systems to get their voices heard, and how this has succeeded (and failed) in the modern era. In that sense, it is both a critique and a strategic guide. It is both disturbing for students who are facing U.S. imperial history for the first time, but also inspiring in the underlying pragmatism of its concepts, though Mitchell does not strike a particularly hopeful note in the conclusion, which reflects upon the opportunities for post-carbon democracy. Finally, this book reveals the pedagogical impact of history. There is great power in narrating histories that are too often made invisible in the West, quite simply because, as the student I quoted above realized, they undermine the stories Americans tell about their place in the world.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Read More

April 11, 2022

Troy Vettese

In the final installment in our series on the impact of Timothy Mitchell's "Carbon Democracy," historian Troy Vettese explores Mitchell's unique scholarly method. Vettese argues that the power and originality of Mitchell's books, including "Carbon Democracy," stems from his adoption of approaches from postcolonial studies and Actor Network Theory (ANT). Mitchell has avoided ANT’s tendency to conservatism and has instead practised a radical critique of the economic, environmental, and political structures that he studies.

October 26, 2021

Penélope Plaza

Venezuela has a long and complicated relationship with oil marked by cycles of hope and despair. Penélope Plaza of the University of Reading explores how three Venezuelan artists are working to break the spell of oil and help set the country on a new path.

all articles