The Age of Empire was driven by coal, and the Middle East – as an idea – was made by coal. Coal's imperial infrastructure presaged the geopolitics of oil that wreaks carnage today, as carbonization threatens our very climate. Powering Empire argues that we cannot promote worldwide decarbonization without first understanding the history of the globalization of carbon energy. How did this black rock come to have such long-lasting power over the world economy?
Focusing on the flow of British carbon energy to the Middle East, On Barak excavates the historic nexus between coal and empire to reveal the political and military motives behind what is conventionally seen as a technological innovation. He provocatively recounts the carbon-intensive entanglements of Western and non-Western powers and reveals unfamiliar resources – such as Islamic risk-aversion and Gandhian vegetarianism – for a climate justice that relies on more diverse and ethical solutions worldwide.
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Note on Transliteration
On Barak is a social historian of science and technology in non-Western settings, and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt.
"In rewriting the entangled histories of coal, Powering Empire recasts the history of the Middle East as well as our understanding of empire and the map of our present predicament. Barak has written a brilliant book."
– Timothy Mitchell, author of Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil
"An imaginative, timely intervention in debates on the popular but contested idea of the Anthropocene, Barak's account of coal and the British Empire in the Middle East effectively historicizes many of our contemporary anxieties and concerns. His wide-ranging and impeccable scholarship and his judicious discussion of 'energy transition' in the Middle East will make this book compulsory reading for all historians and students of energy regimes."
– Dipesh Chakrabarty, author of The Crises of Civilization: Exploring Global and Planetary Histories
"We all know that the energy source that made the modern Middle East is oil – wrong! As On Barak shows in this fascinating book, British coal during the nineteenth century – and an archipelago of coaling stations designed to safeguard Britain's seaborne links to India and beyond – triggered enormous changes in everything from high politics to diet, labor, environment, and ideas about the body in Egypt, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Peninsula. But 'coalonialism,' as the author calls it, was not only powered by coal. Water, human and animal muscles, plus abstract notions of energy, work, and risk both made the projection of coal-based power possible and also were transformed by it – often in ways that anticipated and persisted into the so-called 'age of oil' that would follow. This book will stimulate lots of new thinking about how our current relationships to energy sources took shape and what it might mean to transform them."
– Kenneth Pomeranz, author of The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy
"Powering Empire is an extraordinarily original account that unsettles conventional energy histories of the Middle East, which focus to a great degree on oil. What Barak shows is that it was the nineteenth century intersection of British coal exports and colonialism that helped create the infrastructural and social basis for the twentieth century's oil regime. Brilliantly insightful and marvelously written, this book reminds us of how deeply the legacy of coal continues to inform contemporary energy politics."
– Dominic Boyer, author of The Life Informatic: Newsmaking in the Digital Era