Event – Energy History and the World that Carbon Made

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Energy History and the World that Carbon Made

In-person |  September 22, 2023 | 3:00PM – 5:00PM EDT

Room 108N, 1 Devonshire Place, Toronto, ON, M5S 3K7


Energy has witnessed a surge of interest among historians and scholars in adjacent fields in recent years. This might be expected given the growing sense of urgency around our unfolding climate crisis, to which the extravagant burning of fossil fuels has been a leading contributor. Energy has been a compelling subject of study because of how important decisions related to its production and use will be to determining our collective present and future. At the same time, part of the appeal of energy has been its analytical promise. To environmental historian Richard White, it is a “protean and useful concept.” By following energy flows, one is able to weave together social and natural processes that are otherwise more commonly considered as separate threads. But the capaciousness of the energetic perspective presents its own challenge. In this talk, Seow draws on his recently published book, Carbon Technocracy, to offer some reflections on the utility of placing energy at the center of our historical and social analyses.

Cover of Carbon Technocracy by Victor Seow


Left to Right: Victor Seow, Associate Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University; Caleb Wellum, Assistant Professor, Department of Historical Studies, UTM; Tong Lam, Director, Dr. David Chu Program in Asia-Pacific Studies, Asian Institute, Associate Professor, Department of Historical Studies, UTM

Victor Seow is a historian of technology, science, and industry, focusing on China and Japan and on histories of energy and work. He is the author of Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia (University of Chicago Press, 2022), which has received several awards, including the Association for Asian Studies’ John Whitney Hall Book Prize and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations’ Michael H. Hunt Prize for International History. He is currently working on a history of industrial psychology in China from the 1930s to the present.

Discussant: Caleb Wellum s Assistant Professor of US History (CLTA). He writes and teaches about modern US history, politics, and culture. His book about the 1970s energy crisis in the United States—Energizing Neoliberalism—will be out in fall 2023 from Johns Hopkins University Press. Wellum is Editor of Energy Humanities and a member of the Petrocultures Research Group. He contributed to the collectively authored books After Oil and Solarities and is co-organizer of After Oil 3 at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Wellum has published on the history of film, documentary photography, oil futures trading, energy conservation politics, and the future of the humanities, among other topics. He is currently developing three research projects, books about the history of the ‘New Economy’ and the relationship between energy, theory, and the practice of history, and a critical carbon tracking app.

Chair: Tong Lam is an Associate Professor in the Department of Historical Studies and the Graduate Department of History and Director of the Dr. David Chu Program in Asia-Pacific Studies at the Asian Institute. His current book-length study employs lenses of media studies, environmentalism, and science and technology studies (STS) to examine the politics and poetics of mobilization in China’s special zones in the socialist and postsocialist eras. As a visual artist, Lam has utilized his lens-based work to uncover hidden evidence of state- and capital-precipitated violence—both fast and slow—across various contexts. At present, his research-based visual projects particularly delve into the intersection between technology and military violence, as well as the landscapes of industrial and postindustrial ruination.

Sponsor: Dr. David Chu Asia-Pacific Speaker Series, Asian Institute

Feature Image: Two workers checking a petroleum wellhead for Imperial Oil. Credit: Canada. Dept. of Manpower and Immigration / Library and Archives Canada.
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Caleb Wellum

Caleb Wellum is an Assistant Professor (limited term) in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. In addition to teaching courses in modern history, Wellum is the Editor of Energy Humanities and a co-convener of After Oil 3. He is currently at work on several new projects, among them an environmental history of the New Economy and a study of energy in the philosophy of history.

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