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Abstract

This dissertation re-narrates the US energy crisis of the 1970s as a crisis of labor and democracy in the Appalachian coalfields. Viewed from the coalfields, the energy crisis can help us unravel an irony of the late twentieth century: although many believed the energy crisis would radically transform the American relationship to fossil fuels, fostered by a government-led energy transition, the crisis in fact changed very little about the way Americans consumed energy—especially coal-fired electricity. What the crisis did transform, however, was the coal mining workplace. In the post-1945 period, rapidly expanding electricity consumption—both among industry and by ordinary people—offered coal miners a new place in American society, but this new role could be measured in workplace death and disablement. Miners leveraged this growing disparity to force the crises of black lung, workplace death, and environmental destruction into national view, and through collective action, they helped secure the passage of new safety laws and environmental regulations. This same period also saw a short-lived but expansive reimagining of the terms of democratic politics. Yet at the very moment when miners’ power, influence, and collective action should have continued to expand, it instead contracted, and by the end of the 1970s the United Mine Workers, the union which represented a majority of the nation’s coal miners, entered a stage of decline from which it has never recovered. By telling these stories together, this dissertation shows how the long energy crisis exposed a set of social and political relationships which linked the productive and consumptive sides of the energy economy. These relationships, composed of newly imagined rights and obligations gave energy new forms of political power and social meaning, and which, from the coal mining workplace, forced a confrontation with the limits of postwar democracy. This dissertation argues that the energy crisis which defined much of the 1970s was in fact a much broader and deeper crisis that cut to the heart of what citizenship meant in a high-energy society. The crisis was not fundamentally about scarcity, but instead represented a political crisis of the energy relationships that bound energy workers to energy consumers, and which were mediated through government, market, and industrial institutions. In this story, coal figured centrally rather than being pushed to the margins of the international oil economy. It was, from many vantage points, the baseload fuel of democratic aspiration. This dissertation traces the coalfield energy crisis from its origins in the early 1960s through the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1981. Chapter one examines the postwar social contract in the coalfields as the leaders of the United Mine Workers struggled to adapt to the atomic age, in the process instilling new ways of thinking about the acceptable risks of modern energy systems, especially the risks to bodies and landscapes, offering a new context for coal’s resurgence in the early 1960s. Chapter two reframes the aftermath of the deadly mine explosion near Farmington, West Virginia that killed 78 miners as the first major flashpoint of the energy crisis, a moment which shattered the coalfield social contract and gave miners new forms of political leverage over the nation. Chapters three and four examines the effort by union reformers to redefine citizenship and democracy as premised on the rights to jobs, lives, and land. Chapter five examines how the emergence of the modern energy firm offered new strategies to coalfield organizing efforts to secure union recognition and also lent leverage to miners’ wildcat strikes to secure gasoline supplies amid the 1973-74 embargo. The final chapter considers how the uneasy conclusion of the crisis at the end of the 1970s forestalled political efforts at energy transition but reshaped the terrain of energy work and diminished the political expectations of coal miners. This is a dissertation about coal miners, but not as we are used to seeing them—not as relics of the coal-fired past, but as energy citizens. The political economic process by which coal miners became energy citizens illuminates the problem of energy not only as a force shaping political aspirations and possibilities, but rather as the subject of such democratic concern.

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