Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity
David McDermott Hughes is Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and the author of Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging and From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier.
Plantation Slaves, the First Fuel
Trinidad’s eighteenth-century plantations provoked the most profound energy transition yet seen. The Spanish colonial governor, Josef Chacón, invented fuel. A fuel stores energy in a measurable, countable, transportable, and salable form. Fuel is intrinsically disenchanted and deracinated. Laborers, even slaves, did not automatically assume this commodity form either. Some served the master and his family over a lifetime, acting as acknowledged persons in a social field. Other slaves—particularly in the context of plantations—performed the tasks assigned day in and day out with no personal recognition from above. Plantation hands became liquid, one might say. Traders transported labor power over far greater distances than they had done for wood, the Caribbean’s closest contemporary approximation to a modern fuel. Cane cutters, in short, helped Chacón and his successors to imagine energy for the first time as a commodity and as a flow. But, by running away and even killing their masters, they also constantly challenged that understanding. At moments like these, Chacón had to consider them as individuals: a prick of conscience. The first fuel, thus, flowed imperfectly, slowed by the friction of moral scruple. It flowed well enough, nonetheless, to establish the conventions under which we now extract oil and ship it across oceans by the boatload. Without intending to do so, Chacón and other sugar revolutionaries imagined the true energy without conscience that waited in the wings.