A Carbon-Based Democracy

Xavier Piccone ’24 studies an energy infrastructure and its impact on political and economic systems

Growing up an hour south of Bethlehem, Xavier Piccone ’24 has always been captivated by Pennsylvania’s nature, as well as its rich history. 

“Lehigh gives me a chance to continue experiencing both of those features, along with the opportunity for interdisciplinary learning and an emphasis on producing impactful research,” he says. “Over the past four years, I’ve been able to make great friends and connections within the faculty and narrow down my academic interests.”

As a philosophy major with a minor in anthropology, Piccone has always been curious about the physical world, the self and the relationship between the two. 

“Anthropology, for me, is an important empirical test ground for theories about how we experience the world and, for this reason, has proved a great combination with philosophy,” he says.

Inspired by living in the Lehigh Valley, Piccone was involved in a research project, as part of the Environment and Culture course titled "The Technopolitics of the Lehigh Valley: Pasts, Presents and Futures of Energy Infrastructures." Under the guidance of Samantha Fox, assistant professor of sociology in the department of sociology and anthropology, he wanted to take the ideas that political theorist Timothy Mitchell laid out in his book, Carbon Democracy, and try to apply them to the microcosm of the Lehigh Valley. Mitchell wrote that coal gave working-class people and their unions new and extraordinary power. Coal became a catalyst for democracy and progress. Mitchell hypothesized that the nature of this energy infrastructure was a—if not the—determining factor in how successful working-class political claims were at affecting legislation. 

To test Mitchell’s theories, Piccone analyzed demographic data related to renewable energy deregulation and its environmental justice implications and conducted an ethnographic historical analysis of the coal and steel industries in the counties surrounding Bethlehem. He discovered that these theories were clearly demonstrated in the past, albeit with Pennsylvania’s unique abundance of carbon resources adding important nuances to general, global claims. Understanding the importance of a material’s connection to energy infrastructure promotes democratic participation and agency, he says. 

“This project allowed me to synthesize many types of research that I enjoy: reading theoretical literature, compiling historical primary sources, engaging with the community and looking at policy and demographic data,” Piccone explains. “It gave me a great deal of freedom in following lines of thought that interested me and to get a much better understanding of where I live and the people that I interact with on a daily basis.”

His goal is to continue the work with Fox, hopefully connecting the findings to larger projects being conducted at Lehigh on consumer choice aggregation. He hopes to propose that an informed return to individual material connection with energy infrastructure, in the transition to renewable energy, will promote a more authentically democratic and less fragmented consumer base, resulting in a published journal article. 

“Results from all of the work in these areas has unique local applications and will hopefully lead to more equitable policy being made by more informed legislators for more informed and empowered citizens,” he says.

Piccone believes that studying philosophy is something that everyone can benefit from, no matter their interests or background. 

“It has given me the ability and confidence to think against the grain and to follow my interests wherever they take me,” he says. “I’ve made great connections with great people in the department—as well as in the anthropology department—which will be crucial to my success in the future and have made my experience here the past three years extremely enriching.” 

by Leslie Feldman
image by Christine Chreschollek
published 1/3/24