S1E12. Cara Daggett on the Science and Politics of Thermodynamics
Play • 1 hr 7 min
On this episode of Free Range, Mike Livermore speaks with Cara Daggett, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Virginia Tech, about her new book The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work. Daggett begins by speaking about her path to studying energy via her background in biochemistry and politics. Daggett explains that her interest in carbon — the basis of life in a scientific context but a hot-button issue in the political sphere — led to a broader awareness of how politics treat the concept of energy as fuel. This, in turn, inspired an examination of how various terms such as power and, particularly, work are thought about. (:55 – 7:45) Livermore and Daggett discuss the relationship between politics and science. Daggett voices concerns about the treatment of policy issues as purely empirical. Using the example of the opioid crisis, Daggett argues that many people have legitimate questions about how scientific knowledge is created, and for whose benefit – failing to acknowledge and address those questions is unlikely to build trust in cases such as climate change or vaccination. (7:50 – 12:34) Livermore asks about the interaction between scientific concepts and socio-political discourse, specifically within the context of her study of thermodynamics. Daggett explains that some of the key sites of this interaction are in areas like politics and workplace management, where life itself is governed. This leads to a close reading of a paragraph from the book, in which Daggett describes what energy is and how it fits within the context of the Western understandings of work. (12:44 – 27:15) Daggett then explains how this understanding has led to a valuation of dynamism and energy in a range of areas, including modern conceptions of masculinity. (27:20 – 33:03) The conversation then expands to include a long discussion of the relationship between thermodynamics and economic theory, particular in relation to the shared concepts of waste and work. This part of the talk touches on a range of ideas, including the natural tensions of a society that is experiencing increased automation while still valuing the concept of work itself, and whether Jeff Bezos’ flights to space are wasteful. (33:10 – 59:10) The podcast concludes with a discussion of the “post-work perspective” in relation to environmental regulation and climate politics. (59:20 – 1:06:35)
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