Energy Disruption

Past cases of energy disruptions and shortages reveal people’s potential for flexibility and resilience at times of stress.

The final finding sheet on this theme can be found at the bottom of the page.

This research theme explores energy disruptions and shortages in the twentieth century to understand better how problems of energy supply have affected different groups, and how users and communities lived through them.

Contrary to the popular idea of the 1973 Oil Crisis as a historic watershed, the twentieth century saw a long series of energy shortages. The impact of disruptions became significant and far-reaching, as our lives became dependent on electricity, gas and oil. The increasing frequency of energy disruptions in the last century stemmed from a number of factors: exponential growth of energy demand, the complexity of the modern networked energy system and the growing distance between energy resources and sites of consumption.

Making hats by candlelight during London electricity cut in Oxford Street - 10-February-1947. Image No. 10551583  Planet News / Science & Society Picture Library
Making hats by candlelight during London electricity cut in Oxford Street – 10-February-1947. Image No. 10551583
Planet News / Science & Society Picture Library

Energy disruption and shortages were an integral feature of affluence and growth – not only of deprivation and recession – and they have happened in the global North as well as the global South. Shortages hold clues for how advanced societies lived and coped with having to make do with less, and how ‘normality’ has been reproduced over time.

Past disruptions tell us how unevenly burdens were distributed between different groups of consumers. The course of disruption was often determined by society, based on ideas about who should have more energy and who less, and who should have it at what time of day or night. Culture and society shaped where and when the lights went out – not just nature or technology. Such distributional conflicts affected the rhythm of day and night, as governments and energy providers tried to shift electricity use out of peak hours. Energy cut-offs often triggered a reconfiguration of work and everyday life. Energy users did not just lament when supply was suddenly lost; they also had to devise ways of coping with the difficulty.

Understanding how past shortages worked themselves out provides vital knowledge in thinking about how societies might deal with such situations in the future. Today, there is once again talk among politicians and energy providers across the world about future blackouts and a more precarious allocation of energy. Even a significant boost in the world’s energy reserves would not guarantee a fair distribution of energy. Shortages, and how societies deal with them, involve politics and culture. What people did when the lights went out in the past can tell us something about our flexibility and resilience in the future.

For more details, please see MCE Disruption Finding Sheet.

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