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.
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.
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- Studies by energy source and sector.
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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.
Energy transitions were the subject of a conference in December under the leadership of these historians, a conference whose communications will serve as the material for a future issue of the same journal. We can only offer praise for the creation of such a collection, although practically all of the works that make it up are devoted to the history of electricity. The Fondation EDF has also co-financed the doctoral allocation for Sophie Pehlivanian, who in defended a doctoral thesis on the history of solar energy in France. The Humanities and social sciences are represented within the unit in the same way as biology and physics, and one may believe that multidisciplinarity is not just a facade, because the research unit is directed by the historian Mathieu Arnoux.
It is not common for a research centre to associate the natural and social sciences, and it is even less common for it to be directed by a researcher from the latter group.
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The publication of these communications will be of great interest. Beyond the places and institutions that take a specific interest in the question of energy, we can see the emergence among some economic historians of an intention to rethink their knowledge in light of new environmental questions. This research is sometimes still in gestation, although that fact that it is rooted in a deep knowledge of a specific area makes it particularly interesting. One example is the ongoing research of Xavier Daumalin and Olivier Raveux on how the energy transition of the first half of the 19th c.
This transition is a good example of non-linearity, of a transition that did not include the addition of a previously unknown energy source, one marked instead by the adoption of a new converter steam engine , and consequently by a new hierarchy within the existing energy mix. In Marseille, steam engines were slow to replace watermills not because they were unknown or inefficient, but because those who made their living from hydraulic power represented a powerful social group, and delayed its adoption, and also because their use required adapting the entire production and merchant system in order to be profitable.
When it occurred, the transition to steam was brutal, but it hardly put an end to hydraulic power, which still had a bright future ahead of it. We should be delighted that a growing number of historians are tackling the subject. I would like to thank the Editions de la Sorbonne for authorizing this translation. Allen Robert C. Andrews Thomas G. Aprile Sylvie et al. Arzul Jean-Yves et al. Barjot Dominique dir. Beltran Alain, Couvreux Jean Paul collab. Beltran Alain ed. Beltran Alain dir.
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