Klempay on Barak, 'Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization'

On Barak
Jack Klempay

On Barak. Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020. 344 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-31072-8.

Reviewed by Jack Klempay (Princeton University) Published on H-Environment (January, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55840

Over the past two decades, energy historians have paid close attention to the history of fossil fuels in an effort to discern the origins of the present climate crisis. On Barak’s Powering Empire follows these carbon threads to the edges of empire, focusing on the flow of British coal to the Middle East in order to show how the consumption of fossil fuels was globalized through the process of colonization.

The book is organized in two sections. The first three chapters build on the familiar argument that the adoption of fossil fuels did not fully displace alternative sources of energy like water or the exertion of animal and human muscle, but rather required their reordering within a new energy landscape. Coal was transported over water and fueled the desalination plants that were necessary to provide water for animals and humans in an arid environment, while the salt that was a byproduct of this process sustained a growing population fed on cured fish and meat. In the second half of the book, Barak shifts his attention to the social and physical environments that were shaped by coal in the Middle East. Examples include the “artificial archipelago” of ports and supply depots that supported the extension of British empire, the steamboats that accelerated the flow of migrants and pilgrims throughout the region, and the dense patchwork of Islamic and Ottoman ideas about mineral wealth and human subjectivity that could only partially be absorbed by the profit-seeking drives that animated the nascent carbon economy. Each of these sections contains enough material to stand on its own, but by bringing the two together Barak is able to stage a productive encounter between Islamic thought and the environmental humanities.

The chapters are tied together by several larger themes, resulting in what Barak calls a “tentacular” history of coal and empire (a reference to Donna Haraway, but also to French cartographer Charles Joseph Minard’s famous depiction of British coal exports, which contemporaries likened to a giant octopus stretching its tentacles to the shores of every continent). First, Britain’s industrialization and imperialism were not separate processes but were rather both predicated on the excavation and combustion of coal in massive quantities. Barak coins the term “coalonialism” to capture this entanglement, citing the need to secure a market for Britain’s energetic exports and the role of coal bunkers as footholds for territorial expansion as the most direct examples. At the same time, Barak takes a page out of the recent historiography of empire by highlighting the agency of local actors who repurposed carbon infrastructures for their own ends, such as the Egyptian rulers who took advantage of coal-powered irrigation to solidify their power in the region while also allowing coal to penetrate deep into the Egyptian interior. Attending to the margins also enables the author to examine technological applications of coal power such as irrigation, desalination, and refrigeration that escape more conventional accounts of the fossil fuel revolution, which often limit their scope to the factories and spinning machines that that feature prominently in stories of British industrialization.

The second major theme of the book is Barak’s effort to steer his analysis away from the concept of “energy” itself in favor of a more materialist framework. Powering Empire argues that energy is an abstraction that was useful to nineteenth-century physicists and engineers who made certain assumptions about the convertibility of heat, energy, and work. These assumptions were codified in the science of thermodynamics, which played a supporting role in numerous capitalist and imperialist ventures and has continued to inform most energy histories. Barak resists the abstraction of the thermodynamic perspective by historicizing energy and drawing attention to the material properties of energetic substances, the infrastructures that supported them, and the contexts in which they were deployed. A high point of the book is Barak’s discussion of the technological and environmental problems caused by coal’s physical heft. As steamships consumed coal, they reduced their load, leading to a shortage of ballast. Water had to be pumped into tanks in order to compensate for the lost weight and to prevent the ship from rising in the water. This had profound ecological consequences as aquatic organisms could inadvertently be transported to new zones in the ballast tanks of ocean-going steamers, and ballast requirements determined the emplacement of coal depots throughout the region. By focusing on the weight of coal instead of its energetic potential, Barak draws attention to dimensions of carbonization that are distinct from traditional concerns such as fuel use, emissions, and industrial development.

Finally, Powering Empire aims to understand how the spread of coal interacted with existing cultural and religious forms in the Islamic world. For example, the traffic of pilgrims on their way to Mecca made the passage of steamers through the Gulf of Aden a commercially viable operation, and passengers often paid their way by engaging themselves in debt-bondage to Muslim steamship owners. As Barak puts it, “the hajj and the age of steam were mutually constitutive,” adding a moral dimension to the actions of passengers and steamship owners who also had to concern themselves with more mundane calculations of risk and profit (p. 164). Like other carbon historians, Barak is eager to connect his work to the present day, and he achieves this in part by examining Islamic attitudes toward risk, intergenerational responsibility, and the unity of humans and the natural world. In doing so, he hopes to recover cultural forms that might provide a way out of the impending climate crisis, or at least sketch out an alternative to the spirit of capitalist rationality that is its primary driver.

As a work of historical scholarship, Powering Empire is recommended reading for energy historians and historians of empire. But the book also stages a major theoretical intervention by adopting a staunchly materialist perspective while also taking seriously the humanistic insights of nineteenth-century Islamic scholars, a project that Barak describes as an effort to “reforge the link between materialism and the humanities” (p. 225). As the author is careful to point out, this book is just one step in that direction. But to the extent that the project is successful, Powering Empire offers a way out of what Amitav Ghosh has called “the great derangement,” referring to the cultural crisis that emerges from the lack of narrative forms with which to comprehend the concept of climate change. By bridging the gap between science and humanistic inquiry, by continuously reaching for the more-than-human, by voicing non-Western perspectives, and by foregrounding ethical concerns, Powering Empire is a model for climate scholars and activists alike.

Citation: Jack Klempay. Review of Barak, On, Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55840

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.