Timothy Mitchell on “Carbon Democracy: Why does an Oil Company View the Future Differently?”

On Friday April 17, Timothy Mitchell, father of Purple Bike Coalition co-chair Adie Mitchell ’15, came to Log Lunch to speak about fossil fuels, democracy, and capitalization. Mitchell is a political theorist and historian, focusing on the Middle East, who has been a professor at Colombia University since 2008. He is originally from England and studied at Queen’s College, Cambridge, graduating with first-class honors. He then received a Ph. D. in Politics and Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, University. Previously, he taught at the University of New York for twenty-five years where he was director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Mitchell latest book, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, concerns how energy networks influence the advancement of democracy.

In his Log Lunch address, endearingly introduced by Adie, Mitchell began by introducing Carbon Democracy. He explained how oil reserves and democracy are usually not found in the same countries. Oil-rich nations are unusually undemocratic. However as opposed to oil, coal, with the rise of steam power and the industrial revolution, created the possibility of mass democracy. Many often think of the origin of democracy is rooted in the rise of cities and mass movement, but in fact, Mitchell argues, coal was a major factor. In coal-based industries, workers now had the power to shut down the system with the turn of a switch.

Yet with oil the same is not true as the production and distribution pipeline is not accessible to workers in the same way. Oil could in fact subdue these empowered individuals as it deprived them of the coal-based power to shut down an operation. Industry and governments recognized this the impotency in oil and took action to reduce their previous vulnerability; railroads changed from coal to oil, and Winston Churchill famously switched the British navy fuel to oil. Coal provoked democracy while oil curtailed it. In Mitchell’s perspective, achieving democracy is thus about locating points of vulnerability within technical systems and exploiting them. Fundamentally, sabotage propels liberalization.

Mitchell launched from this idea, rooted in the book, to unpublished others that have sprung from it concerning climate and capitalization. Some believe that in capitalist societies of endless accumulation, residents focus on the present and present forms of consumption that disconnect them from the future. Mitchell disagrees and asserts that such economies do not foster such disconnection but rather a peculiar relationship to the future. Here, one must not think of capitalism but of capitalization. The climate should not be set in opposition to the economic system but to the infrastructure.

Capitalism (the money machine as opposed to the democracy machine) concerns an intergenerational transfer of wealth, a movement of the future into the present. Mitchell states that indeed we can think about the future because our entire lives are organized around it. In essence, capitalist societies often sell the future, discounted by the present.

Mitchell’s talk and insights on democracy, capitalism, capitalization, and climate were enlightening and provided a compelling academic lens with which to view environmental issues.

By Sara Clark ‘15


The Mitchell Family in Dodd
The Mitchell Family in Dodd










To learn more about Mitchell and his work, please visit http://www.columbia.edu/cu/mesaas/faculty/directory/mitchell.html.