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As it happens, the substitution of one system for another has rarely meant the disappearance of earlier energy sources. Often a new hierarchy of energy sources emerged, with some intensifying and other seeing their role reduced, but without disappearing altogether. While the role of energy is crucial to the economy, the latter should not be the exclusive focus of our attention. Transitions have never been linear or identical, and have sometimes included abandoned and even sabotaged experimentations, and have sometimes taken the form of cycles.

What matters is to understand how and why the past choices were made, choices that have brought us to where we are today, in a system that we must abandon if we do not want to leave future generations an increasingly unmanageable legacy. It is precisely because these past choices weigh on the present and the future that we believe it is crucial to define them.

Économie et bibliothèques

This task falls to historians, who are the best equipped to carry it out. The work has just begun, and as we shall see, there is no consensus today among historians on how we entered our current energy system, or on the value of studying it, for some believe that the research has already been conducted, while others believe that transitions do not and have never existed.

Writing the history of energy is hardly something new, and this historiographical essay aims to show the forms this writing has taken over the last century. The objective is not to praise or stigmatize a particular approach to the subject, but rather to evaluate what we have at our disposal, to understand the nature of the views taken until present, and to better identify the direction in which we must now move.

I will first discuss the initial research conducted in the history of energy, which was written during the 19 th c. During this last period, historians have generally focused on a particular energy source or sector. This is why I will also present them in this way. The scope of this historiography is such that it is impossible to include in this second part works outside the French bibliography, aside from exceptions justified by the particular interest of a specific work.

This choice naturally raises problems, for there is no subject more global than energy, and as the historiography advances through both national and international exchange, it is difficult to isolate individual works from those that respond to and complement one another. It is easily comprehensible why I had to make choices, given that the library created by the Forest History Society—to cite just one example—alone includes 45, references, a collection that, for the most part, naturally involves the energy uses of wood.

This is not out of ignorance of the aspects that other disciplines physics as well as philosophy, economics, ecology, etc. Finally, in the third part I will show that other ways of conceiving and writing the history of energy gradually emerged, along with the types of questions they raise. Contrary to the preceding section, this part will make room for foreign research, as well as research from other disciplines.


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We will see that the writing of the history of energy has tended to become more comprehensive, and recently the most stimulating ideas have not come from France, or always from historians. Beginning in the 18 th c. I will not linger on this research, although we will see that the historians of energy about whom I will speak in the third part of this text were all interested in the perspective of classical, neoclassical, or Marxist economists. During the first decades of the 20 th c. Hammersley and Michael W. Flinn, and more recently by Robert C. The interwar period also produced an important text in Technics and Civilization by Lewis Mumford, a philosopher and historian of sciences who is today considered one of the precursors of the theory of degrowth.

Emphasizing how energy was the basis of all human activity, Mumford recommended using it economically, and limiting the use of mechanical energy, subsistence crops, and raw material extraction. His reflections on transitions, which concern us today, remain worthy of interest. In this digression beyond strictly historical confines, I would also like to mention the original thought of the geographer Jean Brunhes.

We will see that this theory was revived and developed both 20 years later as well as today, although it is now the subject of criticism. Research began to increase during the s.

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Various aspects of the economic, political, and intellectual context most certainly explain this historiographical shift: oil crises, coal crisis, appearance of the history of companies… The French historiography of the time took the form of studies focusing on primary energy sources or sectors. The panorama that I will present here will therefore be classified in this way. It is with regret that I had to neglect the energy source of food, a very important aspect of the energy question, one that for a long time was approached in terms of subsistence capacity rather than in strictly energy terms.

The birth of agriculture, a new human know-how that enabled the recovery—much more efficiently than gathering—of the energy produced by photosynthesis, was undeniably a major energy transition. Taking food production into account would nevertheless have led me to consider the entire history of agriculture and land use, which was quite simply impossible given the space available here.

I will now mention, once and for all, an invaluable collection that has played a role across all sections of this article, for it involves diverse sources of energy: the proceedings of the study week held in Prato in , published under the title Economia e Energia, Sec. Sieferle, whose work I will discuss below. Allen, and Paul Warde, whose role in changing the historiography I will also discuss below. Most publications exploring watermills are naturally the work of archaeologists or historians of Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Modern historians often devoted their research on water to river management deepening, straightening, diking up and the conflicts these works led to, rather than energy production. Floating, a mode of transport that played a major role because water power could transport the highly important fuel and raw material of wood over long distances, was also the subject of research. Most likely because the wind energy that powered them was intermittent, windmills never had more than a relatively secondary economic role, and have garnered less research attention than watermills.

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The various kinds of fossil energies have not prompted as many studies in proportion to their genuine importance in history. The historian of technology Paul Benoit made a major contribution to our understanding of mines, coalmines in particular. It notably informs us that the Romans, whose country did not have mineral coal, nevertheless used it where it was available in their empire.

Its use and consumption expanded during the 16 th and 17 th c.. The social and environmental impact of its use was, like that of peat, considerable. During the 18 th c. However, as pointed out by the many works on the Industrial Revolution, it was only during the second half of the 19 th c. The leading branch of industrialization, textiles, initially developed thanks to animal 56 , human, or hydraulic power, with the latter playing an important role for a long time thanks to the substitution of turbines, whose energy efficiency was greatly superior to waterwheels. The bulk of studies on coal were still to come, but a generation of young historians had clearly seized upon the subject.

Beginning in the s, a number of orientations can schematically be distinguished in the history of coal and coalmines. A second orientation is in line with the history of the labour movement, and later that of the miners themselves. A third category of publications, generally more recent and focusing on longer periods, has presented the temporary nature of coal extraction, and revisits the history of coal mines by emphasizing new aspects: relation to the land, the myth of the Gueules noires [Black faces], the end of coal-producing activity, and strategies of reconversion.

A final research category renews the history of mines through its focus on the health and environmental impact of the extractive industry. From the standpoint of the history of energy that I espouse, the implementation of this potential coal energy should also be added to this historiography of coalmining. For the 19 th c. Berlanstein, and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz on gas lighting.


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Most likely because its role in our societies, which albeit important did not truly become so until the second half of the 20 th c. Electricity, an energy whose industrial production still relies on the use of another energy source, has a prominent place in the historiography.

It took its place within a tradition of a liberal history of companies, and prized innovation and technological progress. It contributed a great deal to our knowledge, but in my eyes poses a major epistemological problem. For instance, the authors took as certitudes ideas that had already been broadly debated and even outmoded at the time the volume was written, such as the unavoidable nature of the permanent rise in the consumption of electricity, and the indisputability of the choices made to provide it—or to prompt it.

What is required to make it into history is to connect this source with others and to provide a critique of it, as historical method requires. The historians who are committee members, along with their students and a few others , have published such a large number of works that it is impossible to provide a summary here, or even a complete list. During the s, large dams were the subject of research seeking to show the decision-making behind them, the communication policy of the EDF, the reaction of communities affected by their construction, and the consequences of massive expropriations.

The French electronuclear sector has until now prompted only a limited amount of historical research, which is most probably due to the accessibility of sources. The rich documentation assembled by this historian has enabled her to discuss the French nuclear exception with great cogency, as well as to examine the relations between the nuclear industry and national identity, engineers and politicians, and unions and local populations.

These sector-based studies were necessary. Others will come as well, if only because territorial anchoring is necessary for the writing of history, and works of synthesis require more targeted works in order to be written. However, as abundant and useful as these works may be, they cannot replace a reflection on the relations humans have had at different periods with the energy available around them, a history that I believe, as previously stated, takes the form of a study of systems and transitions.

This history, which emerged slowly, is what I would like to speak about presently, by once again pointing out that it is impossible to be exhaustive in the space available here.

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My objective is therefore not to cite all of the works that discuss energy systems and the transitions between them. I have instead tried to show the terms in which the debate has been framed since the emergence of this type of study, using a few of the works I believe to be the most significant.

I will begin by one of the rare French-language works, if not the only one, that can be included in this category of studies taking a global approach to the energy question, before discussing an essentially English-language historiography. The first edition of a book entitled Les Servitudes de la puissance. This statement may seem paradoxical in view of the preceding historiographical panorama, but the paradox is only apparent, with the remark regarding energy as a totally neglected subject being essentially justified.

Corinne Gendron

Let us consider, as an illustration of this assertion, the example of a collection of texts on contemporary economic history published by Michel Margairaz in , six years after the publication of Servitudes de la puissance. One looks in vain for energy, both in the twelve sections into which the texts are divided, or within the texts themselves.

While energy is the necessary condition for all economic activity to be possible, modern economic historians were still ignoring it as recently as the last decades of the 20 th c.