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How Solar Became “Alternative”: Slavery and the Making of Modern Energy
Thursday, February 27, 2014

Experts who describe solar energy as an “alternative” – that contributes only a small fraction to our oil-driven economy – are measuring the wrong thing. Every day, the sun gives us thousands of times the wattage we consume in oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power. Bizarrely, the entire conventional calculus of energy omits the overwhelming bulk of it, the elephant in a small room.  This paper examines an instance of such forgetting: the transition from solar energy to something like oil in the Orinoco Basin of colonial South America. In the 1740s, the Jesuit missionary and geographer, Josef Gumilla marveled in the God-given fertility of the tropics. Solar rays and Spanish settlers, he hoped, would turn the Orinoco into a breadbasket for cacao. Forty years later, the governor of Trinidad, Josef María Chacón proposed a second plan for colonization. On this island of the Orinoco delta, he identified tropical fertility with disease and overly dense vegetation. Instead of solar rays, Chacón’s promotion of sugar required enslaved Africans, and lots of them. The governor calculated employment rates per land area, death rates, and replacement rates through imports. In so doing, he helped create the modern, narrow concept of energy: a transportable, storable commodity unrelated to either the landscape or to God. One could almost squeeze exploited labor into barrels and sell it by the gallon. When geologists discovered oil – on Trinidad, in fact, in 1859 – the energy experts were ready for it. In cultural terms, slaves served as the bridge fuel from solar energy to petroleum. Remembering this history adds a span to the bridge back in the other direction.

Time: 4:45 pm
Location: Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium
Sponsor: Africana Studies Program; Anthropology Program; Environmental and Urban Studies Program
Contact: Yuka Suzuki.
E-mail: ysuzuki@bard.edu
Phone: 845-758-7219

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