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Mineral Rites: An Archaeology of the Fossil Economy

Johnson Mineral RitesThis frustrating but often interesting book addresses the converted in the global warming debate in six essays. The overarching theme is the disconnect between and implications of our unthinking acceptance of rising living standards in the West and its impact on the lives, environment and futures of ourselves and unseen ‘subaltern’ classes and economies. Unexplained references, occasional slang and jargon presume an American liberal arts audience. Despite the title, there is no archaeology; sociology would have been more appropriate. The rights/rites pun is catchy, but not pursued explicitly, although each essay deals with capitalists who control and financially benefit from exploitation of carbon resources, and/or with consumers who materially benefit from energy and products derived from fossil fuel. The disconnect begins with a postcard of 1890s picnickers watching a blazing oil well.

Three of Johnson’s six essays take ‘hot yoga’ (an apparently popular activity), a lump of coal from the Titanic, and a 1930s black robot as starting points or metaphors to explore the impact of fossil fuels on lifestyles, to develop the concepts of class structure, fossil capitalism and ‘subaltern’ economies, and to compare historic attitudes to slavery with modern reliance on labour-saving devices.

An informative essay about Lewis and Clark exploring the American West contrasts their detailed awareness of and relationship with nature at a walking pace for 28 months with the obliviousness of modern trans-continental travellers cocooned in cars. The critique of a 2011 US reality television series, Coal, about a small, private West Virginia mine, observes economic risk-taking of investors and the dangers that miners risk daily. It tackles the producer’s approach that relies dramatically on the real dangers and accidents that happen underground to low-wage miners, but venerates the substantial rewards to the investors, and omits any reference to local or global environmental damage. The final essay, on re-reading historic and recent novels to appreciate their environmental context, is anachronistic padding.

The essays stand alone well enough, but the polemical underlining of fossil economies, capitalism and labour, and environmental ‘precarity’ in each and every one is wearing; where was the editor?

The extended epilogue discusses the need for a ‘history of the present’, ‘looking for a new angel (sic) to sort through the debris piling up behind us.’ Three approaches—‘Big History’, Anthropocene and Capitalocene (really!)—are all unsatisfactory explains the author who, concluding with a passing reference to Homo Faber (1991 survival film), asks ‘Where do we begin?’

Not here.

Reviewed by John Henry

MINERAL RITES; AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE FOSSIL ECONOMY by BOB JOHNSON, 2019. Published by: John Hopkins University Press 231pp. (hbk) ISBN: 9781421427560 List Price: £37.00 W: