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Coal Lives

Italians and the Metabolism of Coal in Wallonia, Belgium, 1945-1980

Time: Tue 2020-06-02 13.00

Location: Registrera dig här:, Du som saknar dator/datorvana kan kontakta för information / Use the e-mail address if you need technical assistance, Stockholm (English)

Subject area: History of Science, Technology and Environment

Doctoral student: Daniele Valisena , Historiska studier av teknik, vetenskap och miljö, KTH - Environmental Humanities Laboratory

Opponent: Professor Don Mitchell, Uppsala Universitet, Department of Social and Economic Geography

Supervisor: Universitetslektor Marco Armiero, Historiska studier av teknik, vetenskap och miljö; Professor Sverker Sörlin, Historiska studier av teknik, vetenskap och miljö

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This manuscript focuses on the relationship between coal and the history of the over 300,000 Italian miners who moved to Wallonia, Belgium, from 1946 onwards, in accordance to the State agreement between Italy and Belgium known as “men in exchange for coal.” Notably, I use environmental history of migration to analyze what I define as “the metabolism of coal.” The socio-ecological metabolism of coal still defines Wallonia’s built and natural environment. The three main drivers of the metabolism of coal have been coal extraction, exercised mainly by immigrant labor; the material processing and transformation of coal into energy and other commodities; and the circulation of those coal byproducts within and outside of Belgium.

The technocratic organization of such an ecology –– enacted by the capitalistic rationale behind the metabolism of coal –– permeates in a totalitarian way the socio-ecological ordering of Wallonia, encompassing and traversing wastelands, liminal and semi-rural zones, as well as memories.  This process is still evident today even when coal production has entirely ceased. These now liminal spaces attracted capitals, workers, material cultures, and different living species, which all contributed to co-producing hybrid ecologies that still live, inhabit, and resist on the edges of Belgian industrial metabolism. But what happens when such an all-encompassing order of things crumbles down? How is the geo-history of such a place re-signified in the everyday life of those who inhabit Wallonia? What is the material and historical heritage of post-industrial areas such as Wallonia?

Using environmental history of migration and environmental humanities as methodological and epistemological standpoints I want to stress the ecological continuities and shifts within the metabolism of coal. Using a transdisciplinary approach, I analyze workscapes, post-industrial spaces, heritage sites, as well as memorial and socio-environmental transformation and relationalities through time and space. In doing that, I employ what I define as a geo-historical approach.  Each of the six chapters of my thesis is built around a geo-historical correspondence between a place and a key concept which forms a series of threads stretched within the landscape. Those threads all follow a socio-ecological pattern, linking the three major Walloon rivers (Meuse, Haine, Sambre) and the Walloon coal basins, which are almost perfectly juxtaposing in a geographical, geological and historical meshwork.