Energy and Scale: Trans-scalar and multi-scalar interactions in energy transitions

German Lignite Coal Mine. Photo Credit: Petra Dolata

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On Christmas Eve, 1968, U.S. astronaut William Anders took a photograph of the Earth from Apollo 8, the first manned spaceflight missionto leave the Earth’s orbit and circle the Moon. His famous shot known as “Earthrise” was the first colour photographic image of the Earth from space. Highlighting both the beauty and fragility of our home planet, it affected people all over the world. It is considered one of the key images that inspired environmental movements in the 20th century, paving the way for research that highlighted the limits of resource extraction and increasing pollution. Arguably, the scaling up and bird’s eye view helped raise awareness of the impact of anthropogenic activity and suggested that planet Earth needed to be conceptualized as a place that transcends political boundaries. “Earthrise” clearly demonstrated that scale is critical when discussing global processes in our contemporary world, especially when considering our environmental and energy futures.

Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthrise#/media/File:NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise.jpg)

The human use and understanding of energy has transformed conceptions of scale. By the time of the Apollo mission, our planet had entered into what has become known in recent years as the “Great Acceleration,” an unprecedented rise in the anthropogenic mobilization of energy and matter. As a result of this increased rate of environmental throughput, it has been argued that we have entered a new geological epoch shaped by human action, the Anthropocene.[1] Scale is central to this idea in so far as myriad individual actions at a local level have resulted in alterations to environmental dynamics at a planetary scale. If energy transitions are understood as social transitions and transformations of socio-technical systems, then views and narratives of what constitutes those systems are important in understanding how we address energy transitions at various temporal and spatial scales.

Energy transition studies has become a thriving field of research in the natural and human sciences.[2] However, bridging different scientific traditions and sharing insights across disciplines has been challenging. Using the concept of scale may be one way of bringing together innovative research in the natural, engineering, and social sciences and the humanities. Scale can simply refer to the object of study or specific chronological and spatial arrangements that range from the microlevel to the planetary. Histories and geographies of energy transitions already include conceptions of timescale and place addressing multiple scales of economic and social activities. But scales are in themselves constructed and can be imagined or are the outcome of practices of scaling. Many scholars point out how our economic system requires the construction of scale in order to support global production, trade and consumption, which are often understood separately.[3] Scales can also be political, in that they can (de)legitimize and (dis)empower different experiences (individual, group, nation, global) and settings (local, regional, planetary). In the natural sciences, scale is critical to modelling future energy transitions; scaling up or scaling down is an integral part of engineering practices, and of testing and operationalizing new energy technologies.

Together with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Energy In Society,[4] an interdisciplinary research group at the Calgary Institute for the Humanities at the University of Calgary is co-hosting a conference at the Banff Centre to address the intersections between energy and scale. This conference brings together scholars who reflect on the meanings of scale and openly address the productive convergence of different approaches, different ends of the scale as well as different dimensions of the problem. Broadly, every contribution will speak to the following two questions:

  • How can concepts of scale facilitate cross-, multi- or interdisciplinary policy-relevant researchon energy transitions?
  • What are the different ways that scale can be understood and inform research on energy transitions?

The interdisciplinary panels at this conference address epistemologies, agencies, cultures, geographies and the human aspect of energy transitions. We have tried to bring together various disciplinary perspectives on each of our panels and organized the conference without any parallel sessions to allow everyone to participate in interdisciplinary discussions of energy and scale. There are two keynotes, one by Peter C. van Wyck, Professor in Communication Studies at Concordia University (“Exposure and Entanglement on the Highway of the Atom”) and Steven Bryant, Professor in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Materials Engineering for Unconventional Oil Reservoirs (“Transforming the Problem into the Solution to Achieve Scalable Negative Emissions Technologies”). 

We will kick off the conference with the screening of Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018), a documentary (87 minutes) by Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky and Nicholas de Pencier, followed by panel a discussion at the Calgary Central Library. This film is using the idea and aesthetics of scale in its creative visualization of the human species’ impacts on the earth system. We invited artists and academics to discuss the film afterwards:  Terrance Houle (interdisciplinary media artist Maria Michails (multi-disciplinary artist), Chris Turner (journalist and writer) and Dr. Cora Voyageur (professor of sociology,). This panel will be moderated by Rebecca Dolgoy, Ph.D., Curator, Natural Resources and Industrial Technologies, Collection and Research, Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation. One of the exmaples used in the film is the lithium production in the the Atacama Desert of Chile and we were able to have one panel at the conference in Spanish with activists and scholars from Chile who address this issue. 

Panel 1: Thinking Scale

This opening panel will discuss interconnections between energy and scale. Since the industrial revolution, the human use and understanding of energy has transformed conceptions of scale. Scale is central to the “Great Acceleration,” and its associated increases in throughputs of energy and matter; myriad individual actions at a local level have resulted in alterations to planetary dynamics. If energy transitions are understood as social transitions and socio-technical transformations, then what those systems consist of are important in understanding how we address energy transitions at various temporal and spatial scales. Presentations in this panel will focus on how history and the history of science have incorporated ideas of scale in order to understand energy transitions as historical processes. It will also include Indigenous perspectives on the intersections of energy and scale.

  • Petra Dolata (University of Calgary, Energy In Society): Energy History and Scale
  • Jürgen Renn (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin Germany): History of Science in the Anthropocene
  • Daryl Kootenay (Stoney Nakoda Youth Council)

Panel 2 – Catalysts for Change

This panel examines agency within energy transitions. An intentional energy transition away from fossil fuels is often premised on the conscious participation and mobilization of individual actors, objects and communities. The papers on this panel therefore explore the role of catalysts for change. Who and what are the catalysts of the next energy transition? What is their political agency? The panelists address the tensions between upstream and downstream technologies, national priorities and local opposition, and human and non-human perspectives. They also focus on the relationship between scale and power by asking how scales (de)legitimize and (dis)empower different experiences (individual, group, national, and international), actors and settings (local, regional, and planetary). Will a better understanding of catalysts for change helps us envision a more sustainable energy future?

  • Joshua DiCaglio (Texas A&M University): Rhetoric as Energy, Scale as Effect: Moving Humans to Respond to Energy Flows
  • Benjamin Steininger (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin Germany): Molecular planetary technology: Industrial catalysis as a model case for questions of scale in the Anthropocene
  • John R. Parkins (University of Alberta): Landowner Acceptance of Wind Power Development in Alberta

Panel 3: Planet-Thinking

This panel uses the contemporary concept of the Anthropocene to discuss older and broader forms of planetary thinking. The term Anthropocene, first proposed by Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen in 2000, has opened up a flurry of questions from scholars and the broader public about the concrete ways in which human behavior and industrial practices have actually inserted themselves into Earth’s processes. The Anthropocene therefore requires new forms of planetary thought. A territorialized planet dominated by states and nations should  be replaced with the realization that we are all one planet, acting as one. But thinking on a planetary scale is not new. This panel critically interrogates the planetary scale as an historical and contemporary category, asking how it comes into being and how relations (economic, social, cultural and literary, amongst others) are formed at this scale. What does thinking at a planetary scale entail? Does it automatically produce effects that are environmentally sound and promise new energy futures?

  • Sabrina Perić (University of Calgary, Energy In Society): Whence Came the Hydrocarbons?
  • Giulia Rispoli (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin Germany): Energy, History and Scale in the Work of Serghey Podolinsky and Alexander Chizhevsky
  • Joseph Keith (Binghamton University, SUNY): The Novel and the Planetary

Panel 4: The Human Body Scale

This panel examines the interrelation of the human body – through quotidian energy practices and mobilizations – with the global energy regimes that emerge at key historical moments. Individual human action is often portrayed as small and vulnerable in contrast to the field of politics and broader industrialization processes. The daily sphere of human action appears to occupy an entirely different scale from the broader world-making forces that shape our existence. Yet, the participants on this panel also see energy transition as highly dependent on human action and organization of human bodies. While each of the papers describes actors in different energy regimes (from the fur traders of the 18th century, to the household operations of the early 20th century, to fictional protagonists in a post-industrial world), they all emphasize the intertwining of scales and the key roles that human energy needs have had in the creation of global energy systems.

  • Ruth Sandwell (University of Toronto, History): Energy and Everyday Life: What Households Can Tell Us About Energy Transitions
  • George Colpitts (University of Calgary, History): Investments into Energy Transitions: The Adoption of York Boats over Canoes in the Canadian Fur Trade
  • Sofia Ahlberg (Uppsala University, Literature): Reproduction and Radioactive Decay in J.G Ballard’s Post-Growth Imaginary

Panel 5: New Geographies of Scale

This panel addresses geographical conceptualizations of energy and scale. Based on the already rich literature on energy geographies, these contributions go beyond simple spatial analyses to incorporate volumetric or vertical dimensions, geographies and geologies of fuels and energy infrastructures, subterranean geographies as well as spatial analyses of energy transitions. Geographies of energy transitions include conceptions of place that address multiple scales of economic and social activities. Focusing on agriculture and large-scale energy projects, these panel presentations provide a more nuanced understanding of the spatial consequences of energy use. How are scales imagined and constructed through practices of scaling? In what sense are these spatial perspectives infused with power relations and normative assumptions? What is the interrelationship between history, geography and ecology? 

  • Tom Turnbull (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin Germany): Three Registers for Past and Future Relations between Energy and Scale
  • Jonathan Peyton (University of Manitoba): Vertical Energies: Scalar Inversions in Prairie Resource Transitions
  • Andrew Watson (University of Saskatchewan): Farm Systems Energy Transitions on the Great Plains: Fossil Fuels, Fertilizers, and the Transformation of Industrial Agriculture in the Twentieth Century

Panel 6 – Connecting Scales

This panel (in Spanish) examines ways to connect local, regional and national scales in order to affect energy shifts. The central premise of the papers is that connecting scales is a means to render visible the exercise of power. The panelists focus on the exercise of institutional power, understanding science as the means in which these scales are connected. By visualizing the science of companies, the state and Indigenous communities in the process of conducting Environmental Impact Assessments, whereby various stakeholders are in different measure called to “participate” every time there is a new or modified mining project, the papers on this panel reveal the science of power and the power of science. In adopting a multi-scalar and transdisciplinary approach to the study of energy transitions, this panel raises a number of pressing questions: How can we effectively connect different scales of knowledge and action both within and between countries? Who should participate in decisions over energy transitions? And how can we address the power imbalances between the various stakeholders?  

  • Jorge Vergara-Castro (Fundación Diálogos para la Naturaleza/Dialogues for Nature Foundation, Chile): The Science of Power (or the Power of Science) in the Case of Lithium Energy and Mining in Chile
  • Sergio Cubillos Verasay & Juan Carlos Cayo (Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños/Council of Atacameño Peoples,Chile): Local Environmental Knowledge and Resistance in the Race for Lithium in the Salar de Atacama

The conference concludes with an emerging researchers panel featuring the following papers:

  1. Odinn Melsted (Universität Innsbruck, Austria): Substitution, Diversification and Upscaling in Global Energy Systems: The Multifaceted Transition that Ignited the Great Acceleration
  2. Claire Ravencscroft (Duke University): Fossil Capitalist Realism and the Scales of Critique
  3. Glenn Iceton (University of Saskatchewan): Scaling Back(wards): Energy Development, Land Use, and History in the Canadian North
  4. Philip Wight (Brandeis University): The Weight of a Thread: Interconnection, Inertia, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System
  5. Ana Watson (UCalgary): Natural Gas Extraction, Discourse, and Power in Upper Amazonia: The rise of Camisea
  6. Maria Michails (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute): Small Scale Action, Big Scale Disruption: How Community-based Art Activism Supports Energy Transition

We will tweet from the conference (look out for the hashtag #energyandscale and plan to record podcasts with participants. There will also be a publication. So, look out for those tweets and look forward to the podcasts and the publication!


[1]J.R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio36, 8 (2007): 614-621.
[2]Roger Fouquet and Peter J.G. Pearson (ed.), Past and Prospective Energy Transitions: Insights from HistoryEnergy Policy: Special Issue, 50 (2012).
[3]Anna L. Tsing,Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
[4]EnergyInSociety is co-convened by Petra Dolata (History), Sabrina Perić(Anthropology & Archaeology) and Roberta Rice (Political Science) at the University of Calgary.
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Petra Dolata is an energy historian at the University of Calgary and co-convenor of the Energy In Society working group at the Calgary Institute for the Humanities.

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