New Scholars Energy History Recap

Poplar River Power Station near Coronach, SK. J. Fisher.

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The final NiCHE New Scholars virtual meeting for this year took place on May 2. A huge thanks is owed to Heather Green – soon to be joining the History Department at St. Mary’s University – who has coordinated the New Scholars group this year. Heather’s dedicated energy ensured that this meeting on energy history, which had to be delayed on two occasions, still happened. Currently a first year PhD student with a growing scheme in mind for examining the history of 20th century energy transitions in my home province of Saskatchewan, I had been looking forward to this meeting for some time.

As always, the call offered the opportunity to connect with folks across the country to exchange ideas. Heather and I were joined by Judith Ellen Brunton – PhD candidate in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto – and Josh MacFadyen – Canada Research Chair in Geospatial Humanities at the University of Prince Edward Island. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, from the historiography of energy history to how to incorporate it in our teaching; here I will highlight a few key discussion points and questions that emerged through the meeting.

Each of our work explores energy in significant ways. Heather’s engagement with energy history is shaped by her various studies in mining history, including coal mining in Alberta and most recently among the Navajo in Northeastern Arizona. Josh’s work includes examining energy flows in agro-ecosystems using geospatial analysis, with a particular focus on energy and food transitions. Judith’s work takes an anthropological approach to oil in Alberta culture, elucidating how oil extraction has contributed to conceptions of the ‘good life’ in that province.  For my part, I was inspired to return to academia in part through working on a project examining the social barriers to phasing out coal-fired electricity in Saskatchewan, which has piqued my interest in how the province was (re)shaped by fossil fuels over the last century.

Although not all of us are environmental historians, we did note that environmental historians in particular are increasingly incorporating energy into their field, and that scholars are now even self-identifying as energy historians. We wagered that this trend has really taken hold only over the past ten years or so, although that is not to say that energy history is all new. Scholars, including historians, have been examining energy and energy transitions fairly persistently since at least the 1970s. Josh highlighted the work of Howard Odum and Vaclav Smil as two examples of theorists who focused much attention on energy from an early date, especially Smil, whose work has done much to re-conceptualize human history through the concept of energy transitions. Both Odum and Smil, though, came from scientific backgrounds; their work is not typically considered foundational in environmental history. In the 1980s the work of E.A. Wrigley began to put energy at the center of historical analysis, elucidating how the Industrial Revolution was enabled by the transition between predominantly “organic” and “mineral” energy regimes; this is a thread that has been continued by other scholars, including Kenneth Pomeranz. Indeed, economic historians proved important in demystifying energy in the broader discipline.[1]

Heather pointed to the turn of the 21st century as a time when some prominent environmental historians did begin taking energy seriously, such as Richard White, Rolf Sieferle, Alfred Crosby, and J.R. McNeill in his environmental history of the 20th century.[2] But it would be a few more years before a proliferation of energy studies secured a place for energy history as an innovative and critical sub-discipline – one that we all find ourselves engaging with, if not directly a part of.

This had me reflecting on the generational divide between these earlier and emerging scholars. It is clear to see that I am not alone in approaching the field with renewed motivation stemming from contemporary questions surrounding climate change and discussions about a new energy transition. I am intrigued by how this might change the ways that energy scholars are reading some of the earlier works that first took energy seriously, how this is affecting what questions they are asking in their own work, what fields beyond history they are drawing from, and what conversations they are contributing to.

Josh spoke to the importance of energy historians and humanists being part of the contemporary policy process, asking vital questions that go beyond the technical ones that often dominate policy discourse. For example, when considering an impending energy transition, net-zero emissions is a broad and important goal, but how it is achieved and who benefits from the process demands a nuanced conversation to which historians can contribute meaningfully.

Judith agreed that contemporary questions seem to be drawing scholars towards energy studies. Noting that some are engaging with materiality in intriguing and new ways, she encourages historians to follow developments in fields like anthropology and philosophy. For example, Judith highlighted the work of Zoe Todd and their incorporation of oil into kinship, and the theorization of Reza Negarestani as fertile ground for energy scholars. While environmental history has always had strong interdisciplinary elements, these have tended to focus more on the physical sciences than anything else; clearly, there is good reason to be drawing more from the social sciences as well.

We also spent considerable time discussing where the field could be headed. Recently, important studies have been laying a lot of critical groundwork for the future of the field, such as Ruth Sandwell’s edited collection on Canadian energy history or the multi-authored Power to the People, which examines five centuries of European energy history.[3] Energy history has a firm material basis, and Timothy LeCain has put forward a neo-materialist framework that offers intriguing opportunities to explore energy through human-material partnerships; yet there is also significant room for cultural histories of energy, such as Rebecca Wright’s examination of emotional culture amongst energy consumers, and the work that Judith is pursuing in the Alberta context.[4] As Judith pointed out, with so many intriguing directions, we clearly need more energy historians and energy histories.

We ended our meeting with a brief conversation about teaching energy history, and while a number of ideas about teaching in the classroom were discussed, the emphasis fell on opportunities for getting out of the classroom and for public engagement. Both Heather and Judith talked about the value of taking students to energy sites, whether those are energy heritage sites, which are bound to proliferate through processes such as the phase-out of coal, or sites of current energy production like nuclear power plants. Moreover, with heightened public interest given the ongoing energy conversation around the world, there is an opportunity for historians to communicate their work to a broad audience. In addition to a need for energy historians to participate in policy conversations, as Josh urged, there is a need for them to contribute to the public discourse as well.

The ground we were able to cover in a relatively short discussion highlights the richness of this field, its contemporary relevance, and the energy that scholars are bringing into the study of energy history. Thanks again to Heather, Josh, and Judith for a fascinating conversation.


[1] Vaclav Smil, Energy in World History (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994); E.A. Wrigley, Continuity, Chance and Change: The Character of the Industrial Revolution in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[2] Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995); Rolf Peter Sieferle, The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution (Winwick: The White Horse Press, 2001); J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000); Alfred W. Crosby, Chilrden of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006).

[3] R.W. Sandwell, ed., Powering Up Canada: The History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016); Astrid Kander, Paolo Malanima, and Paul Warde, Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[4] Timothy J. LeCain, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Rebecca K. Wright, “Mass Observation and the Emotional Energy Consumer,” Canadian Journal of History 53, no. 3 (Winter / hiver 2018): 423–49.

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Justin Fisher

Justin is a PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. His research is examining responses to the 1970s energy crisis in Saskatchewan.


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