I thought this was a really insightful passage from Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. I’m trying to deepen my understanding of the socio-environmental at the moment (not least of all because you can’t understand Covid-19 without it) and conjunctures like this built around a specific causal relationship between the material and the social over time seem like the clearest way of going about this. From pg 73:
The very materiality of coal is such as to enable and promote resistance to established orders. The processes through which it is mined and transported to the surface create an unusual degree of autonomy for miners; as Timothy Mitchell observes, “the militancy that formed in these workplaces was typically an effort to defend this autonomy.” It is no coincidence, then, that coal miners were in the front lines of struggles for the expansion of political rights from the late nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century, and even afterward. It could even be argued that miners, and therefore the economy of coal itself, were largely responsible for the unprecedented expansion of democratic rights that occurred in the West between 1870 and the First World War. The materiality of oil is very different from that of coal: its extraction does not require large numbers of workers, and since it can be piped over great distances, it does not need a vast workforce for its transportation and distribution. This is probably why its effects, politically speaking, have been the opposite of those of coal.