The Energy Challenge in Historical Perspective


Ute Hasenöhrl (University of Innsbruck)

Odinn Melsted (Maastricht University)

Jan-Henrik Meyer (Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory)


Special issue of History and Technology (37.4, 2021): Historicizing Renewables


Providing energy has been an ongoing challenge for societies – from the provision of basic foodstuffs to the complex networked economies of the present. Today, we are facing three major energy challenges: transforming our present fossil- and nuclear based energy systems towards sustainable forms of energy (“low-carbon energy transition”); developing resilient infrastructures that flexibly and efficiently react to energy dependencies and vulnerabilities; and finding ways to ensure greater energy justice, both within societies and across regions. These present-day challenges have historical roots dating back as far as the (early) modern period, resulting from and in processes of industrialization, colonization, and the “fossilization” of society. Unpacking the entangled history of energy and society has been one of the most dynamic issues in environmental history, economic history and, increasingly, history of technology over the past two decades. While some aspects – e.g., the rise of fossil energy systems or the history of electricity (particularly nuclear and hydropower) – have been investigated in depth, there is still much to be learned about the mechanisms, functions, and imaginaries of past energy transitions and futures: What were the drivers and consequences of these energy transitions? How did different geographies of energy provision, distribution, and consumption evolve and change, but also persist over time? How did energy shape society (and vice versa)? Who lost and who benefited? And, last but not least, how global were these processes?

To investigate these important questions from a history of technology perspective, we propose to focus on three central – and interrelated – aspects of energy history:

(1) actors, networks, and institutions (both formal and informal), thus highlighting the importance of human and non-human agency, transnational entanglements and tensions, as well as uneven power relations and questions of energy justice;

(2) environmental issues, emphasizing questions of resource scarcity, the material side of energy landscapes, as well as the ecological consequences of energy production, transport, and use; and

(3) issues of culture, notably discourses and perceptions of energy, including societal imaginaries, meanings and temporalities, cultural and symbolic encodings, as well as the construction of different energy futures.

Focusing on these multiple and complex interrelations between actors/networks, environment issues, and culture/perceptions, this medium-range approach might not only offer an integrated avenue for studying energy transitions – and for energy history in general –, but also contribute to ongoing public debates on the “grand societal challenges” that currently preoccupy (inter)national politics.

In our ongoing research, Tensions of Europe’s energy group’s participants investigate in particular past and present energy transitions, the contentious past of renewable energies, Europe’s manifold nuclear experiences, as well as cross-border energy conflicts and (post)colonial dimensions of energy history.

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