Translating Energy History in Times of Transition

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By Odinn Melsted, Ute Hasenöhrl and Karena Kalmbach [1]

How can and/or should historians of energy contribute to contemporary debates about energy transition? This was the central question of an open discussion forum at the recent European Society for Environmental History conference in Tallinn, Estonia, in August 2019. Organized by Ute Hasenöhrl, Odinn Melsted, and Karena Kalmbach, the panel explored both the potentials and boundaries of energy history in going beyond historiography and engaging with other disciplines, stakeholders, and the general public in times of transition.

The starting point for organizing this discussion forum was the observation that in recent years, historians of energy have increasingly related their work to contemporary discussions about energy transitions, formulating “insights from history” or “lessons from the past” for the future decarbonization of society. While this research has vastly increased our knowledge on past processes, structures, actors, and mechanisms of energy production and consumption – and at least attempted to introduce this vital information into public debate –, there has been little systematic discussion about how historians should best engage in these topical debates. How can historians go beyond academia, to inform (or even influence) experts, policymakers, education, and the general public? Is energy history even ”useful“ for informing contemporary transitions, and how can it be communicated best? Are (energy) historians qualified to formulate practical lessons from the past, and what is the particular added value of historical research compared to, for example, transition studies from the social and natural sciences? And, last but not least, does energy history need to be useful at all – or do we risk reducing our research agendas by focusing primarily on what appears to be relevant or desirable today? To engage with those questions, the panel assembled seven historians of energy and the environment: Ute Hasenöhrl (Innsbruck), Karena Kalmbach (Eindhoven), Patrick Kupper (Innsbruck), Odinn Melsted (Innsbruck), Timothy Moss (Berlin), Andrew Watson (Saskatchewan) and Verena Winiwarter (Vienna). Given that many ESEH delegates could be expected to be able to provide important insights on the matter, the panel was designed to get as many people involved in the discussion and announced as an open discussion forum instead of a conventional roundtable. To start out, the panelists provided brief opening remarks, but then split up into three different groups to discuss with the audience, before reuniting for a final plenary discussion to compare results.

Tweet from Translating Energy History in Times of Transition panel at ESEH 2019 from James L. Smith (source: https://twitter.com/ScrivenerSmith/status/1164417670143455232)

In the opening round, each panelist shared his/her view on how historians of energy might engage in current energy debates. Their inputs brought to light two key points: First of all, the issue of relevance. Historians should not simply assume that history matters, but need to demonstrate that they can contribute significant insights otherwise lacking from contemporary debates. For instance, by highlighting the power of path dependencies, by uncovering the messiness of past transitions, by focusing on aspects like energy (in)justice and their historical roots, or by providing reality-checks on contemporary assumptions, such as the idea that a green energy transition will almost automatically lead to the merry land of sustainability. Secondly, the challenges historians might face when engaging beyond academia were scrutinized, e.g., when doing commissioned work for public agencies, commenting in the media, or endorsing civil actions. All of these activities bear the risk of our historical expertise being misrepresented or instrumentalized for political agendas and causes not of our own.

To investigate these issues further, the panelists and the audience formed three groups to discuss typical roles, or scenarios, that historians might encounter:

  • Historians as service providers, doing commissioned work for public, or political agencies
  • Historians as agenda-setters, actively introducing their expertise into public and political debates
  • Historians as activists within NGOs, political parties, or as public intellectuals

The first group evaluated opportunities and pitfalls of doing commissioned work for public or political agencies. On the one hand, this provides historians with excellent opportunities to introduce historical expertise directly to policymakers and potentially influence their decision-making processes. On the other hand, the messages that historians transmit are not always received as they are intended, and the instrumentalization of historical research for political agendas remains a serious issue from an academic’s perspective. At the same time, focusing on research topics that rank high on stakeholder agendas might reduce historical research perspectives to “applied research.” Historians’ important contributions to contemporary policy debates often stem indeed from their critical distance and their ability of meta-reflection which allows them to highlight problematic issues and dynamics. Losing this critical distance would take away a key social role of the discipline.  

The second group explored ways to communicate our historical expertise as agenda-setters in public and political debates. By actively engaging with the media, we can help to overcome simplistic representations and dichotomizations on contested issues. But in order to do so, we first need to gain access to the media, which requires us to present “something newsworthy,” crystallizing our findings into compelling narratives, and to acquire media skills to be able to translate our expertise effectively. Communicating via social media, on the other hand, enables us to convey historical expertise without such professional middlemen, but then one has to learn how to deal with a possible multitude of comments – good and bad. 

The third group discussed the challenges of becoming an activist academic. The question of advocacy has long been a difficult one in environmental history, and it remains so particularly for young (non-tenured) academics seeking to raise their voice but also to pursue an academic career. But as some discussants knew from experience, one does not have to choose one or the other. All academics are citizens as well, and being an activist or even an environmentalist does not need to interfere with being an academic. On the contrary – being academic experts on certain matters can even make us better activists, since we can contribute historical expertise and new perspectives to make activist debates more informed.

In the final plenary discussion, the three groups shared their results, concluding that there is no single desirable role for historians of energy to adopt in times of transition. But we do need to be conscious about both the potentials and pitfalls of participating in public discussions and policymaking – and formulate – individually or collectively – clear strategies, targets and goals for our engagement beyond academia. Only by doing so, we can guarantee ourselves the role of independent, critical experts on the past – be it in meetings with stakeholders, when talking to the media, or while protesting out on the street.


Odinn Melsted is the recipient of a DOC Fellowship of the Austrian Academy of the Sciences at the Institute of History and European Ethnology, University of Innsbruck.
Ute Hasenöhrl is Assistant Professor at the Institute of History and European Ethnology, University of Innsbruck.- Karena Kalmbach is Assistant Professor at Eindhoven University of Technology.

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