The Birth of Energy

Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work

Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: 7 illustrations Published: September 2019

Environmental Studies, Politics > Political Theory, Science and Technology Studies

In The Birth of Energy Cara New Daggett traces the genealogy of contemporary notions of energy back to the nineteenth-century science of thermodynamics to challenge the underlying logic that informs today's uses of energy. These early resource-based concepts of power first emerged during the Industrial Revolution and were tightly bound to Western capitalist domination and the politics of industrialized work. As Daggett shows, thermodynamics was deployed as an imperial science to govern fossil fuel use, labor, and colonial expansion, in part through a hierarchical ordering of humans and nonhumans. By systematically excavating the historical connection between energy and work, Daggett argues that only by transforming the politics of work—most notably, the veneration of waged work—will we be able to confront the Anthropocene's energy problem. Substituting one source of energy for another will not ensure a habitable planet; rather, the concepts of energy and work themselves must be decoupled.


“Cara New Daggett's The Birth of Energy is a landmark work in the emergent field of energy humanities. In it, Daggett offers a brilliant genealogy of our modern conception of energy, explaining how Victorian empire, evolutionary theory, Presbyterianism, and thermodynamics helped to refashion the Aristotelian idea of energy as ‘dynamic virtue’ into a phenomenon having to do with the movement of matter and, above all, labor. Now facing a world warmed by burning fossil fuels, Daggett gives us a roadmap to thinking energy beyond the Protestant ethic of perpetual work.” — Dominic Boyer, author of Energopolitics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene

“This complex, ambitious book represents a significant contribution to energy studies, offering an innovative history that situates the scientific discovery of energy within nineteenth-century cultures of imperialism, industrialization, and the governance of work. Cara New Daggett helps reframe the Anthropocene as the most recent realization of our profoundly misguided understanding of energy.” — Stephanie LeMenager, author of Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century

"The Birth of Energy is without doubt a landmark contribution to energy humanities and political theory, and one that greatly enriches and advances conceptual debates about energy and work in the Anthropocene." — James Palmer, Antipode

“The Birth of Energy is a major contribution to the environmental humanities that speaks to the notion of ‘political ecology’ in the most literal sense.”

— Gustav Cederlöf, Journal of Political Ecology

“The book is at its strongest when diagnosing the reverberations of the past in the current moment…. The Birth of Energy has much to offer to scholars engaged in questions of fossil fuels, imperialism, labor, and environmental politics.”

— Jennifer Thomson, Environmental History


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Cara New Daggett is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Virginia Tech.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction: Putting the World to Work  1
Part I. The Birth of Energy
1. The Novelty of Energy  15
2. A Steampunk Production  33
3. A Geo-Theology of Energy  51
4. Work Becomes Energetic  83
Part II. Energy, Race, and Empire
5. Energopolitics  107
6. The Imperial Organism at Work  132
7. Education for Empire  162
Conclusion. A Post-Work Energy Politics  187
Notes  207
Bibliography  239
Index  255
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner of the 2020 Clay Morgan Award for Best Book in Environmental Political Theory

Winner of the 2020  Yale H. Ferguson Book Award, presented by International Studies Association-Northeast

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0632-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0501-8