Nathan Howard ’25
On Nov. 14, 2022, the McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture hosted historian Victor Seow, who gave a lecture titled Coal Capital: Fushun and the Contradictions of Fossil Fuel Extractivism in Rehm Library. Victor Seow is an assistant professor of the history of technology, science, and industry at Harvard University. According to the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, Professor Seow’s research “revolves around questions of how technoscientific developments intersect with economic life and environmental change in the making and unmaking of industrial society.”
Professor Seow’s lecture at Rehm Library primarily centered around his most recent book Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia, which was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2021. According to the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, Professor Seow’s book is “a study of the deep links between energy extraction and technocratic politics through the history of what was once East Asia’s largest coal mine.” Professor Seow’s book also analyzes “the origins of fossil-fueled development in China and Japan” through examining “both the dominant role of the state in energy transitions toward coal and oil and the enduring reliance on human labor power in the carbon age.”
Professor Seow began his lecture at Rehm Library by introducing his audience to the Fushun coal mine, located in Fushun, Liaoning Province, China. The Fushun coal mine was once the largest mining location in the region and is central to Professor Seow’s historical study of the evolution of the modern fossil fuel economy in China and Japan. The remnants of the Fushun coal mine is a large open pit, which Professor Seow notes had expanded for decades since it was first excavated in the early-1900s. Professor Seow credits this expansion to China and Japan’s “endeavor to unearth Fushun’s purportedly inexhaustible carbon resources.” Additionally, Fushun became known as the “coal capital” and Professor Seow described it as an important “origin of our pressing climate crisis.” Because of this, Professor Soew argues that Fushun still holds a valuable lesson and can be looked to in regards to the extreme consumptions of carbon that threaten the planet today.
Professor Seow continued his lecture by discussing an important overarching theme of Coal Capital: Fushun and the Contradictions of Fossil Fuel Extractivism, specifically the interchanging production of energy with political power, which Professor Seow argues is a defining characteristic of the modern industrial age. Specifically, Professor Seow discussed the connection between the expansion of the Fushun coal mine and the rise of technocracy in China and Japan. In explaining this, Professor Seow specifically stated that “Taking coal as an essential feedstock of national wealth and power, Chinese and Japanese bureaucrats, engineers, and industrialists deployed new technologies like open-pit mining and hydraulic stowage in pursuit of intensive energy extraction. But as much as these mine operators idealized the might of fossil fuel–driven machines, their extractive efforts nevertheless relied heavily on the human labor that those devices were expected to displace.”
At the conclusion of his lecture, Professor Seow held a question and answer session in regards to topics discussed in his book and thanked members of the faculty, staff, and students who attended.
Image of Victor Seow’s book cover courtesy of Chicago of University Press
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