Energy Futures

Today’s Energy was Yesterday’s Future. Visions and projections of future energy consumption have a history.

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

This research strand looks at the evolution of energy forecasts and visions of future demand. Contrary to popular wisdom, concerns over long-term energy shortages did not emerge with the 1973 oil crisis but had a long history. These reach back to concerns over a wood shortage in the seventeenth century and over peak coal in the Victorian era. The First World War revived debates over the longevity of coal supplies. After the Second World War, there were fears over stability, price controls and unhealthy dependence. In the half-century leading up to the ‘oil crisis’ national governments, international organizations, experts and consumers developed competing visions of what an energy future ‘might’ look like. These futures reflected current anxieties, imagining nebulous rates of change and acceleration that fluctuated between ideal and dystopian scenarios.

1956 Energy Supply Projection up to 1975 in the OEEC Area. Organisation for European Economic Co-Operation, Europe’s Growing Needs of Energy: How Can They Be Met? (1958)
1956 Energy Supply Projection up to 1975 in the OEEC Area. Organisation for European Economic Co-Operation, Europe’s Growing Needs of Energy: How Can They Be Met? (1958)

Our research places the creation of these ‘futures’ in their historical context. Who had the legitimacy and power to predict the future and shape energy policy for the next generation? How were questions of social and political order reflected within energy forecasts, as future visions came to embody larger political ideologies? This strand also examines the shifting body of ‘expertise’ and the changing place of more popular non-technical voices, including social movements and consumers, in authorised and unauthorised predictions of the future.

Time plays a critical role in energy consumption, because short- and long-term responses to energy were positioned within expanded temporal horizons. Not only will research consider how long-term projections affected everyday interactions with energy, it will also ask how short-term concerns manufactured long-term expectations. How stable were visions of the future in times of stress? During periods of shortage, when consumption habits were strongly moralized, were people more willing to challenge growth narratives incorporating alternative values for the future? Or does the twentieth century reveal a more uniform story, driven by acceleration and progress? Since semi-permanent structures (infrastructures, appliances and houses) installed patterns of usage for future generations, and often beyond the duration projected by the forecasts, we also need to investigate how future expectations of energy consumption were built into contemporary social spaces.

As part of its activity, the MCE project has contributed to the blog series ‘Experts: Past, Present and Future’, launched as a collaborative initiative by the MCE project, the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC). The blog series includes a contribution by Frank Trentmann and Rebecca Wright ‘Energy Futures: Through the Looking Glass of “Experts”‘.

For more details, please see MCE Energy Future Finding Sheet.

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