Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021)

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About Carbon Technocracy

The coal-mining town of Fushun in China’s Northeast is home to a monstrous open pit, once the largest in East Asia. Early in the twentieth century, Japanese technocrats started excavating this cavity with the goal of accessing the purportedly “inexhaustible” carbon resources that lay underfoot. Today, amid our unfolding climate crisis, it stands as a wondrous and terrifying monument to fantasies of a fossil-fueled future and the technologies mobilized to turn those developmentalist dreams into reality.

Carbon Technocracy charts how modern states became embroiled in such projects of intensive energy extraction, driven as they were by concerns over economic growth, resource scarcity, and national autarky. It follows the experiences of Chinese and Japanese bureaucrats and planners, geologists and mining engineers, and labor contractors and miners to uncover the deep links between the raw materiality of the coal face and the corridors of power in Tokyo, Nanjing, Beijing, and beyond.

In Fushun’s history, one is confronted with hubristic attempts to tame and transform nature through technology, the misplaced valorization of machines over human beings, and productivist pursuits that strained both the environment from which coal was extracted and the many workers on whom that extractive process so deeply depended. These were all defining features of the energy regime of carbon technocracy and the wider industrial modern world that it helped create.


Advance Praise for Carbon Technocracy

"A brilliant account of energy and empire, industrial hubris, and ecological destruction told through the story of the coal capital of China. Providing an alternative global history of technology, the book argues for a distinctive understanding of fossil-fuel energy in shaping the political order of East Asia in the age of carbon." — Timothy Mitchell, author of Carbon Democracy

"Impressive in scope and significance, Carbon Technocracy offers compelling evidence of the historical relationship between the fossil fuel economy and the rise of the modern nation-state in China and beyond. Readers will gain a fresh understanding of the roots of fossil fuel addiction and its consequences, which encompasses not only ecological destruction but also violent exploitation of laborers and increased state capacity for social control. Through a rich historical excavation centered in one Manchurian coal mine, Seow demonstrates in no uncertain terms why we must look beyond technocratic solutions as we struggle to survive the climate crisis." — Sigrid Schmalzer, author of Red Revolution, Green Revolution

"Seow shows that civilizations built on coal undermine their own foundations with each strike of the shovel. His exploration of carbon technocracy highlights how the desire for technological progress and development runs along a deep seam of violence. Profoundly humane and thoughtful." — Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival

"Focusing on the history of the Fushun coal mine in Northeast China, this engaging book traces the worlds that coal made across twentieth-century East Asia. Shifting seamlessly from the abstract structures of states and economies to the everyday lives of engineers and workers, Seow tells the story of the big science, big engineering, and big technology that made up the carbon foundation of both Imperial Japan and Communist China. A probing account of the origins and challenges of the climate crisis." — Louise Young, author of Japan's Total Empire

"Drawing on an impressive range of sources, Seow reveals the intertwined stories of the Fushun colliery and the succession of state regions that have drawn on Fushun's material (and even rhetorical) power, from the contestation among Chinese, Russian, and Japanese interests at the turn of the last century through the consoldation of the People's Republic of China. The clarity of Seow's thinking, the felicity of his prose, and the significance of his topic will ensure a large audience among modern East Asian historians, energy historians, and the many scholars in environmental studies and environmental humanities who focus on carbon-driven climate change. Clearly written and very thoughtfully conceived." — Thomas G. Andrews, author of Killing for Coal

To Pick Up a Copy of Carbon Technocracy 

Carbon Technocracy is available directly from the University of Chicago Press. Please enter promo code CARBONTECH at checkout to get it for $28 (a 30% discount).
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If you pick up a copy or recommend that your library does so, thank you. I am truly grateful for your interest in my work.