Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia

In this talk, Prof. Seow will introduce his recent book, Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia (Chicago, 2022), which explores that question through the history of what was once the region’s largest coal mine, the Fushun colliery. Across the twentieth century, Fushun changed hands between various Chinese and Japanese states, each of which endeavoured to unearth its purportedly ‘inexhaustible’ carbon resources and employed a range of technoscientific means toward that end. By following the experiences of Chinese and Japanese bureaucrats and planners, geologists and mining engineers, and labour contractors and miners, Victor Seow uncovers the deep links between the raw materiality of the coal face and the corridors of power in Tokyo, Nanjing, Beijing and beyond, and charts how the carbon economy emerged in tandem with the rise of the modern technocratic state. In Fushun’s history, one is further 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 what Prof. Seow refers to as ‘carbon technocracy’ and the wider industrial modern world that it helped create.

Victor Seow is an Assistant Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is a historian of technology, science and industry, specializing in China and Japan and in histories of energy and work. His first book, Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia, was released by the University of Chicago Press earlier this year. He is currently working on a new book that examines how work becomes and functions as an object of scientific inquiry through the history of industrial psychology in China.