Matthew Shutzer Puts Climate Change in Context

Matthew Shutzer
Assistant Professor of History Matthew Shutzer joins the Duke faculty this year. (John West/Trinity Communications)

In Matthew Shutzer’s class “Fossil Fuels and Climate History,” students are encouraged to think of climate not only as a contemporary scientific problem, but as a potent agent of historical transformation.

Shutzer, who joined the faculty this Fall as assistant professor of History, asks students to examine the historical connection between climate change and the fossil fuel industry in order to understand why the global use of fossil fuels presents such complicated ethical, political and social problems.

His interest in these questions began before he entered graduate school at New York University, while he was working in India on a land reform project in the early 2000s.

“It was a government and NGO run project in the eastern part of the country, which is the center of India's mining industry,” he said. “At that time India, and Asia more broadly, were undergoing new mineral-intensive, energy-intensive growth. The original project was ethnographic, working with communities on the ground, collecting stories, talking to government officials and local people who were involved in land struggles over mine-rich land.”

Curious about the history behind these issues, Shutzer conducted extensive archival research in graduate school, traveling across the subcontinent to try to situate the issues he’d encountered on the ground within the 200-plus year history of fossil fuel extraction in India. His current book project, and the class he’s teaching at Duke this semester, draw from his findings.

India’s historical association with fossil fuels is important, Shutzer said, because, like China, its role in the global economy has risen dramatically over the last two decades.

“Asia is one of the places doubling down on fossil fuel-intensive growth, especially as countries in Europe and North America begin — more slowly than we’d like — to decarbonize. There's an urgency to understand the energy institutions, energy systems, competitive pressures and social structures that contribute to this.

“A lot of existing historical research about fossil fuels focuses on industrial transformation and the growth of industrial technology in the West: factories, manufacturing-led urbanization, the creation of permanent working classes and all of that. India’s story is quite different.”

Coal is, by far, India’s largest fossil fuel resource. The difficulty of creating infrastructure to transport the coal mined in eastern India throughout the country has had far-reaching political and economic effects.

“Getting the energy out of eastern India to other parts of the country created all sorts of challenges for development after independence from Britain. It compelled the country's national leaders to look for alternative energy strategies like petroleum, wind and solar. In places like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, big capital-intensive cities, so much of the underlying energy supply these cities rely on comes from areas in the eastern part of the country that were once forest or farmland.”

Shutzer realizes it’s a huge challenge for India to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels while continuing its pattern of growth. The solution will have to be a globally coordinated solution, as is the case for many other developmental challenges relating to climate change.

“Wealthy countries will need to create a global policy environment that enables alternative energy pathways. Governments in the global south will need to be accountable to local movements for land protection and conservation that are currently pushed to the margins,” he said.

Before arriving in Durham, Shutzer spent the summer in India pursuing another strand of research.

“I was doing archival work on extractive industry and the rise of environmental movements in the 1970s,” he said. “I'm trying to rethink the history of environmentalism outside of histories of scientists, consumers and the growth of countercultural movements in places like the U.S. and Europe. I’m interested in how environmentalism in the global south came out of trade union and land movements coordinating transnationally in an age of Third World debt and geopolitical restructuring.”

Shutzer was particularly excited by photographs that documented India’s coal mining industry during this period. “I've never written about photography or visual culture before, so this is a departure for me,” he said, “but I'm interested in the problem of picturing extraction, what it means from an aesthetic and historical perspective.”

Just as he challenges himself to think in new ways, Shutzer is committed to teaching Duke students to look at the world differently. In his current class, students keep “alternatives” notebooks where they write on the prospects of post-carbon, sustainable energy systems. In Spring 2024, he’ll be teaching a new gateway seminar titled, “Extraction: Humans and Underground Earth.”

“This course is an approach to thinking about the underground, or the subterranean, as a space for understanding historical change,” he said. “There’s been a lot of environmental history around oceans, forests and mountains as examples of thinking about the specificity of place in shaping ecological transformation, but the underground itself hasn’t been properly understood.”

Shutzer already has evidence that students in both science and history pathways are eager to engage with him. “Students have written to me wanting their involvement in my classes to contribute to their broader environmental education from a historical and interdisciplinary perspective,” he said.

“One of the dialogues within the field of history right now is how to leverage a set of historical perspectives and methods for thinking about energy transitions, as well as the appropriate political, ethical and policy-based orientations to climate change. Having a historical perspective can provide new insights for students to imagine and enact different futures.