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Cara N. Daggett, The Birth of Energy. Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work

Antoine Missemer
p. 241-245
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Cara N. Daggett, The Birth of Energy. Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2019, 280 pages, 978-147800632-9

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Crédits : Duke University Press

1While the energy transition now seems to be accelerating, with electric vehicles on the roads and renewables becoming competitive, reducing sustainability challenges to technological improvements would be misleading. Since the Brundtland report, which popularised the notion of sustainable development in the late 1980s, and after three decades of research and experiments, it has been now well established that the conciliation of human desires with environmental viability requires also new political institutions and cultural representations (Kelly, 2019; Charbonnier, 2020). The history of ideas has something to say in this area, to better understand the reasons why we have come to the current situation, and to provide inspiration from alternative worldviews that may have existed, and been lost, in the past.

2Cara N. Daggett’s recent book The Birth of Energy is part of this agenda. Considering energy as “perhaps the problem of the Anthropocene” (187) (i.e. the current geological era following the Holocene and characterised by the tremendous impact of mankind on the Earth-system), Daggett proposes a “genealogy of energy” (3) as a scientific and political idea. Although she reviews the old history of energy, as well as some developments in the 20th century, her main focus is on the 19th century, in particular the period after the 1840s that saw the emergence of the science of thermodynamics. It is the cross-fertilisation between science and industrialist and imperialist discourses that particularly interests her.

3Today, the notion of energy is associated with phenomena such as work and heat. The possibility to have equivalences between these phenomena, and common measurements (e.g. horsepower, BTU), has roots in the early developments of thermodynamics. Daggett explains that scientists started advocating at that moment that different sources of work were commensurable. Before the 1840s, waterfalls, animal-force, and human-force were unlikely considered as contributing to the same reality. The emergence of the notion of energy changed the representations of human work: “if human activity could be conceived of energetically, and energy was a universal unit, then there was nothing fundamentally distinct about human efforts” (86). It is not a coincidence, says Daggett, if the doctrine of industrialism, which considers labour-force as one factor of production among others, developed in the 19th century, in parallel to the new science of energy. One may find some continuity here between Daggett’s argument and other works that explored earlier periods of the relationship between work and physical science (e.g. Vatin, 1993).

4That is one of the connections that Daggett makes between thermodynamics and economic thought. Her starting-point is that the science of thermodynamics had, from the outset, anthropogenic and economic features. The second law of thermodynamics, in particular, rests upon the notion of entropy, which describes the degree of order or dissipation of energy in a (closed or isolated) system. The entropy law establishes that in such a system, entropy irremediably increases, which means that energy constantly degrades, becoming less and less useful to human uses. In other words, the very physical notion of entropy has something to do with the availability of energy for humans; it is an anthropocentric physical law. The notion of entropy also brings into physics the idea of waste (i.e. dissipated energy), also initially related to human daily life. Even if she does not refer to him, Daggett insists here on a point often raised by the most thermodynamicist among economists, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1976, 54), when he talked about the “anthropomorphic” nature of the “distinction between free and bound energy” and described the science of thermodynamics “as a physics of economic value.”

5Daggett’s contribution does not limit itself to a connection between the science of energy and economic thought. Actually, her main point deals rather with political thought and ideologies. Drawing upon Max Weber’s analysis of the “Protestant work ethic” (94), Daggett explains that the 19th century saw the emergence of a “geo-theology of energy” (51) combining a certain form of Protestantism, seeking in work and effort a sign of election, with the laws of thermodynamics. The Earth irremediably goes to its thermodynamic death—solar inputs will stop some day—, so humans have the mission to improve their environment and to work in order to counter, at least slow down, energy dissipation. Especially in Victorian Britain, religion already aimed at defining work as a central pillar of the political, social, and economic life. The science of thermodynamics, says Daggett, provided tools, indicators, and scientific justifications to that project.

6The combination of science, religion, and politics helped to justify not only the centrality of work but also its optimisation. Daggett therefore explains that fighting against entropy was meant to maximise the use of energy sources, and to minimise waste. As soon as the labour-force was considered as a source of energy like any others, it had to be optimised too, by fostering productivity and condemning idle behaviours—a perfect mixing between scientific principles and moral judgements. The science of energy provided the words and tools to measure the quality of work, and so to adapt wages to the productivity of workers. “Energy offered one way to access work quality and to make it visible to managers: by equating work quality with productivity and efficiency” (89). Even social reformers eventually adopted the language of energy to promote their ideas. As Daggett emphasises, workers were more and more considered as having a daily reservoir of power to be managed cautiously. Workers needed breaks, rest, and good meals to recharge their batteries. Social reformers, in parliamentary debates, “were keen to show how improved diet, sleep, and housing could result in tangible gains in productivity” (93). This is where we see how much the middle of the 19th century structured the representations of energy, work, productivity, and even human beings beyond the industrialist ethos.

7A large part of Daggett’s book deals with the extension of the rhetoric of energy and work, not only to industrialism, but also to imperialism and racialist discourses. In the late 19th century, the combination of science and politics allowed colonial advocators to justify their action by the allegedly superiority of European settlers over native populations in “maximizing productive work and minimizing waste, with fossil fuel use as the shining achievement of this goal” (110). Like the indolent populations of European lower classes, the colonized peoples had to be put to (wage-earning) work, in order to avoid any waste. By the way, their lower productivity legitimized lower wages, to fuel the industrial machine at the lowest costs: “industrial capitalism not only needs workers; it needs racialized workers who can be underpaid according to their supposed inferiority” (175). It is clear, says Daggett, that we can find in colonial discourses an amalgam of racial disparagement, considerations about a so-called low productivity of local populations, and hints at energy waste. In a sense, she claims, thermodynamics participated to the constitution of a kind of “energetic racism” (145) that lasted at least until the middle of the 20th century.

8Daggett’s overall argument consists of several building blocks which, once combined, show how much today’s representations of energy, work, and productivity have inherited from the developments of thermodynamics in the 1840s. As she makes clear in her conclusion, “our commitment to growth and productivity has been reinforced by a geo-theology of energy that combines the prestige of physics with the appeal of Protestantism in order to support the interests of an industrial, imperial West” (190). In that context, it seems a long way to go towards a sustainable future. It requires action on our energy imagination, a questioning of the centrality of productivity in the relation of humans with the material world, and the consideration of cultural approaches other than those developed in 19thcentury Victorian Europe. Rather than maximising energy use in the form of productive paid work, should we not, on the contrary, seek a sort of “energy freedom” (199), to mobilize our vitality for other, more ecologically and socially sustainable tasks?

9Daggett’s demonstration is quite convincing regarding the connection between the science of energy and the rhetoric of productivity. Thermodynamics provided arguments to those who searched for the legitimation of a political and moral discourse centred on hard work and the excavation of fossil fuels to make the industrial economy grow, and to preserve the privileges of a few at the top of the social hierarchy. Daggett’s argument about imperialism and colonialism could be perceived as less convincing, in the sense that the line she draws from thermodynamics to racialist discourses is less straightforward. For sure the 19th- and early-20th centuries European rhetoric was embedded with arguments on the so-called improvement of territories made possible by colonial expansion. As Daggett admits (135), however, the origins of these arguments are not to be found in thermodynamics, rather in the centrality of work in the Protestant doctrine, to which we could add the old rhetoric of agricultural and industrial improvements, whose roots go back at least to the time of the Great Navigations (Fressoz and Locher, 2020). In other words, did the science of energy really play a role in the colonial conquests and in the Western representations imposed everywhere in the world? This is not certain; other ideological and scientific claims (evolutionary biology, early climate science) were probably enough to do the trick. Daggett does not overestimate the role of thermodynamics, as she talks about its “contribut[ion] to this broader historical development” (135), not about a decisive or unavoidable role. Yet it seems that her demonstration here could have been more cogent or better supported by archival materials—the assertion that “the absence of energy physics from such texts may point to the degree of its influence” (168) may leave the reader sceptical.

10The Birth of Energy is a book of political theory also touching on the history of science and ideas, on political ecology and on economic thought. It therefore draws on a great deal of knowledge. The author shows remarkable skills that make her work both ambitious and fairly radical. The reader may sometimes be disoriented, navigating between countless concepts such as energy, work, productivity, efficiency, Protestantism, industrialism, imperialism, capitalism, racialism, metabolism, holistic ecology, thermodynamics, Newtonian science, evolution, biology, organicism, and so on. But the effort of reading is rewarded by new insights in the history of energy and in the history of political and economic ideas.

11The energy transition is not solely a matter of technological improvements. Our behaviours and cultural representations also need to evolve. Reading The Birth of Energy is an important step to better know where we come from and in which direction we should go.

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Charbonnier, Pierre. 2020. Abondance et liberté. Une histoire environnementale des idées politiques. Paris: La Découverte.

Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste, and Fabien Locher. 2020. Les Révoltes du ciel. Une histoire du changement climatique XVe-XXe siècle. Paris: Seuil.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1976. Energy and Economic Myths. Institutional and Analytical Economic Essays. New York: Pergamon Press.

Kelly, Duncan. 2019. Politics and the Anthropocene. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Vatin, François. 1993. Le travail, économie et physique (1780-1830). Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

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Antoine Missemer, « Cara N. Daggett, The Birth of Energy. Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work »Œconomia, 11-1 | 2021, 241-245.

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Antoine Missemer, « Cara N. Daggett, The Birth of Energy. Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work »Œconomia [En ligne], 11-1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2021, consulté le 24 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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