It contributed a great deal to our knowledge, but in my eyes poses a major epistemological problem. For instance, the authors took as certitudes ideas that had already been broadly debated and even outmoded at the time the volume was written, such as the unavoidable nature of the permanent rise in the consumption of electricity, and the indisputability of the choices made to provide it—or to prompt it. What is required to make it into history is to connect this source with others and to provide a critique of it, as historical method requires.
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The historians who are committee members, along with their students and a few others , have published such a large number of works that it is impossible to provide a summary here, or even a complete list. During the s, large dams were the subject of research seeking to show the decision-making behind them, the communication policy of the EDF, the reaction of communities affected by their construction, and the consequences of massive expropriations.
The French electronuclear sector has until now prompted only a limited amount of historical research, which is most probably due to the accessibility of sources. The rich documentation assembled by this historian has enabled her to discuss the French nuclear exception with great cogency, as well as to examine the relations between the nuclear industry and national identity, engineers and politicians, and unions and local populations.
These sector-based studies were necessary. Others will come as well, if only because territorial anchoring is necessary for the writing of history, and works of synthesis require more targeted works in order to be written. However, as abundant and useful as these works may be, they cannot replace a reflection on the relations humans have had at different periods with the energy available around them, a history that I believe, as previously stated, takes the form of a study of systems and transitions.
This history, which emerged slowly, is what I would like to speak about presently, by once again pointing out that it is impossible to be exhaustive in the space available here. My objective is therefore not to cite all of the works that discuss energy systems and the transitions between them. I have instead tried to show the terms in which the debate has been framed since the emergence of this type of study, using a few of the works I believe to be the most significant. I will begin by one of the rare French-language works, if not the only one, that can be included in this category of studies taking a global approach to the energy question, before discussing an essentially English-language historiography.
The first edition of a book entitled Les Servitudes de la puissance.
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This statement may seem paradoxical in view of the preceding historiographical panorama, but the paradox is only apparent, with the remark regarding energy as a totally neglected subject being essentially justified. Let us consider, as an illustration of this assertion, the example of a collection of texts on contemporary economic history published by Michel Margairaz in , six years after the publication of Servitudes de la puissance. One looks in vain for energy, both in the twelve sections into which the texts are divided, or within the texts themselves. While energy is the necessary condition for all economic activity to be possible, modern economic historians were still ignoring it as recently as the last decades of the 20 th c.
They conceived of it only as a condition—of course a sine qua non —of what for most of them was central to their reflection: economic growth. The author of the anthology was not the cause, as he could not include what did not exist: his collection presents the areas of interest of economic historians as they stood at the time.
Of course many works on the Industrial Revolution had discussed coal at length, while the ones focusing on the 20 th c. The authors of Servitudes de la puissance were thus correct on this point, for in energy essentially remained a neglected historical subject, although the reason they saw for this is not a convincing one for me:. Not least among these [the limits of history] is the proliferation of empirical research, ever more fragmented and obedient to the current dominant trend in research—the infinite accumulation of findings—with its refusal to look at the totality, to place the energy crisis in historical perspective.
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For a historian, the search for totality, however necessary it may be, is built through the synthesis of information contained in primary sources that are constructed, problematized, analysed, and cross-referenced. The rest of Servitudes de la puissance was in fact based on empirical research, without which the writing of this book would not have been possible.
The fact that historians have been so slow in seizing upon the subject is another illustration, as though one were necessary, of the fact that they ask of the past only questions of their time and in this case their future. But they manage to do so only in the best cases, and can be late in seizing upon key questions, or can simply not see them or even want to not see them—neglected subjects are nothing new in history, and various historians have shown how certain disturbing questions have taken a while to be raised.
It took the discovery of global warming and the role that human activity has played and continues to play in its arrival for it to emerge, and for us to begin to worry.
The revelation that human activity is responsible for a change in climate served as an still insufficient incentive to explore a new aspect of history. The German historian Rolph Peter Sieferle, whose contribution I will discuss below and who noted the importance of energy in the Industrial Revolution, also wondered why it was so slow in coming to centre stage. He believed this blind spot goes back to classical economists, who understood questions of natural resources only as agricultural questions.
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Yet this sector, which brought spectacular changes to work organization, was initially not based on the use of fossil energy but on hydraulic and human power. Sieferle believes that this prevented Marx from assessing the problem. The question calls for further exploration. Whatever the reasons for this difficulty, it is necessary to give the authors of Servitudes de la puissance credit: theirs was the first French-language book to stress that the history of energy had not received necessary attention, and to propose an approach.
Beyond the global outline it endeavoured to sketch out, some aspects of which can be debated, and the fact that the republication hardly took into account the evolution of the historiography since the s, it drew attention to a number of important elements. The first is that relations between human societies and nature are not limited to their economic and social aspects.
Regardless of how it is formulated, this is the credo of environmental history : as an integral part of nature, humans and the societies they form cannot be understood without their relation to the environment being taken into consideration. This remark has not lost any of its relevance.
A third essential point is the notion that the history of the relations between societies and the energy surrounding them takes place via the study of energy systems. The German historian Rolph Peter Sieferle, who died prematurely in , had proposed a new vision of energy questions four years before the appearance of Servitudes de la puissance. Probably because its original version was in German and its English translation came late, before finally being republished in paperback nearly thirty years after the first edition, the work was little-known for a long time, with the original ideas developed by Sieferle sometimes being attributed to others, who in reality only repeated or reinterpreted them.
Der unterirdische Wald is not, strictly speaking, a general history of energy.
Consisting of five relatively independent sections, the book offers a series of avenues for reflection that are both pioneering and stimulating. The first section sketches out a panorama of successive energy systems since the Neolithic; two others discuss questions connected to German forests during the early modern period; and a final section explores perceptions of energy. I will summarize here only one or two arguments developed in the third section, which pertain to coal and the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Sieferle argued that the use of coal as a replacement for wood had enabled the export of British textiles by freeing up land that no longer had to be reserved for forests.
In other words, the use of fossil energy allowed Great Britain to gain space. The use of fossil energy also meant that the country could transition to the stage of both territorial expansion use of natural resources outside its territory and temporal expansion use of fossil resources accumulated underground during the Palaeozoic era.
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This was undeniably a new and stimulating way of considering things. In an article from , the English historian Tony Wrigley, a pioneer of historical demographics along with Peter Laslett, formulated a general interpretation of the change that had taken place with the Industrial Revolution. He introduced the notions of an advanced organic economy to refer to the pre-Industrial Revolution economy, and the mineral economy for the one that succeeded it. While recognizing that it is always difficult in the social sciences to identify the determining factor in a change, he again argued that the transition from the old economy and therefore, in his mind, the end of poverty and misery for many would not have been possible without access to a form of energy that was not subject to the limitations of the annual cycle of sunshine and photosynthesis.
The American historian Robert C.
Allen has sought to show why Great Britain during the Elizabethan period developed an economy that was at least partially based on coal. The existence of coal underground is not reason enough to undertake its use: Germany and China also had large reserves of coal, but only began to extract it much later.
A wood shortage should have led to a price rise, yet Allen shows that the rising price of wood was neither clear nor uniform. The price varied from one British region to another, and from one period to another. The respective prices of wood and coal were of course not the only criterion in play. The respective properties of these two sources of energy also came under consideration: coal was greatly superior for lime kilns and forges, while wood or charcoal were in principle favoured for other uses. The price of fuels was nevertheless a key argument, as in London wood had become exceptionally expensive compared to the coal imported from the north of the country by waterway.
According to Allen, coal gradually became a backstop technology, that is to say an energy source that could provide very large quantities of energy at a low price, with this price becoming the price of reference. Yet important transformations had to take place for this to be possible, and not just with industry and among artisans. During the 17th c. Yet it was impossible to heat homes with coal without completely transforming how they were built.
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The use of coal required them to be equipped with a chimney which was not the case before that period , a stone wall to support it, a firebox lined with metal that could accommodate a fire with sufficient draft, etc. The book Power to the People, by Astrid Kander, Paolo Malanima, and Paul Warde, three European historians who have greatly contributed to this field of research in their previous publications, appeared in They present their work as a history of the European economy seen through the question of energy.
They briefly discuss the various theories that have succeeded one another to explain why the Industrial Revolution initially took place in England arguments that are economic and energy-based but also institutional, cultural, etc. They nevertheless point out that one of the central arguments that emerged from this debate was the existence in Great Britain of an abundant and relatively affordable fuel. The data they have constructed shows the succession, since the late Middle Ages, of three phases of consumption: three centuries of stagnation in energy consumption were followed by an explosion in consumption , interrupted by the two world wars, with the period between date at which their data breaks off being one of stabilization.
Kander, Malanima, and Warde conclude that Europe before the Industrial Revolution indeed suffered from energy restrictions of two kinds: the lack of productivity of its lands compared for instance to certain parts of Asia , and the low energy efficiency of its converters.
These restrictions were obstacles to economic growth. The use of fossil energies was both the condition and the determining factor of the growth it subsequently experienced. The transition seemingly took place during the 19 th c. The latter created the conditions for developing steam engine use which they consider to be one of the most important inventions in the history of humanity , which was itself at the origin of modern growth. Low coal prices and high salaries combined to make Great Britain the origin of the revolution instead of elsewhere.
The authors also insist on the fact that they believe the energy factor to be more important for economic growth than economist generally think. In order to show how this transition took place, they also set out the functioning of what they call development blocks for example the steam-coal-steel block. For example Alfred W. Marxist historians, who are critical of the concept of the anthropocene, which they believe obscures the responsibility of the capitalist bourgeoisie in a hypothetical anthropos , propose giving the former its due by replacing the term anthropocene with that of capitalocene.
Let us note in passing that the term anthropocene raises many other fully real problems than the identity of the anthropos in question , notably knowing how and according to what time and spatial scales history is written, as well as the relation between the Earth and nature sciences on the one hand, and the Humanities and social sciences on the other. Developing this point is beyond the scope of my objective here, although not considering the anthropocene a useful framework for my reflection is an assumed choice.
Marxist historians therefore do not deny the existence of transitions, but endeavour to show how the most remarked of these transitions took place, namely the introduction of the mass use of coal. This is how Capital Fossil proceeds, a book published in and based on the doctoral thesis of Andreas Malm, a human ecology teacher at Lund University in Sweden. I would like to conclude with a few brief remarks about the nature of the contributions and debate in the field of the history of energy.
The first is that the debate over the interpretation of transitions is not complete. To move forward, we need new contributions based on studies that are both territorialized and reflected on according to a global perspective. Finally, it is important to note that while French historians have contributed a great deal to research on various energy sectors, to date they have not made major contributions to the history of energy systems and transitions.
Various signs nevertheless suggest that a shift is underway. And in town and villages along the way thunderstruck groups watch the deadweight cortege of death grind past, the squat carriages, bolt-stubbed muscles bulging, and, mute, menacing, brutal, the black barrels, muzzled and bound like lunatics. The Mortars , Par les villages pitoyables,. Round the pitiful villages,.
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