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The Chair read for you Sans transition. Une nouvelle histoire de l’énergie by Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

Published on 23 February 2024

With Sans transition. Une nouvelle histoire de l’énergie [1], the historian of science, technology, and the environment Jean-Baptiste Fressoz interrogates first the historicity of the energy transition and then the history of this concept. This questioning of the concept of energy transition and its applicability to past energy production developments arises from the author’s observation of the gap between the current absolute consumption of different energy sources and the place attributed to these sources in the collective imagination. He thus offers the reader a dual history, that of energy facts and possible past transitions, and that of the idea and words of energy transition. The originality and interest of this work, which is also an “habilitation à diriger des recherches”, lies in the connections made between these histories. Drawing on archives dating back to the late 18th century of quantitative estimates, parliamentary commissions, as well as advertisements or political programs, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz places the emergence of energy transition discourses in their political, economic, and energy context. He notably seeks to identify and link organizations and individuals, from pre-war American Technocrats to Working Group III of the IPCC, including early Malthusian nuclear physicists from the Manhattan Project, who contributed to the construction of a certain narrative of the history of energy and integrated long-term forecasting as practiced today. Conversely, he explores the consequences of these discourses on choices initially strictly energy-related and then in terms of climate policies.

Contrary to what the eye-catching banner added to the book suggests, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz does not condemn the decarbonization of our societies nor does he minimize the effort it represents. He precisely offers a materialist reading of energy dynamics that highlights the magnitude of the task and deconstructs fascist historical narratives deemed too simplistic and dangerous for the success of decarbonization if placed at the foundations of our prospective and climate policies.

The book could be divided into three movements: the study of energy consumption by source since the industrial revolution and the identification of the development of symbiosis between these sources over time, the history of historiography by energy ages and the creation of the energy transition, and finally the analysis of the shift of the transitionist discourse from the world of energy to the climate problem and its consequences on the fight against climate change.

First, the author summarizes the usual separation of the history of energy into ages, from the pre-industrial wood age to the current age of atomic or renewable energy, likening it to the mythologies of humanity sung by Hesiod and Ovid. This is to better grasp the discrepancy of this reconstruction with the energy facts of the last three centuries. These facts, covered in the following six chapters, not only show the continuous growth of wood in the age of coal and oil, the continuation of coal’s growth still to this day, and ultimately that of all energy sources supposed to have exited history with the end of ‘their’ age. But more than a simple addition, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz demonstrates through numerous examples the increasing interpenetration of these energy sources: wood provides the props for coal mines and the containers of the early oil days when coal improves the properties of wood and oil, through plastics, merges with wood when it does not allow cuts deeper into forests; coal is necessary for steel, which provides the tools for oil, or for the cement of the roads of the combustion engine car while oil mechanizes mines and increases their yields. These interdependencies and intersections are named by the author as symbiosis of energy sources.

Thus, the domination in relative shares of an energy source hides the transition of a portion of other energy sources into the intermediate resources necessary for the extraction of the dominant source. Therefore, it is this vision in relative shares and of ‘order 1’ of energy sources that leads to seeing past transitions from one energy to another.

Note that to reach this conclusion, the author remodels some usual categories of resource use, counting for example timber used as props in mines or petroleum barrels as wood energy. For an analysis purely focused on energy production, this makes sense by recalling the material dependencies of the sector. If the approach aims to establish the historical understanding of energy to better target the decarbonization of our societies[1], this recomposition is occasionally clumsy – for example, the wood of the props is not burned but abandoned underground in an anaerobic environment, thus storing the carbon captured by the tree; petroleum barrels were reused by winemakers – although allowing for the understanding of unexpected relationships making decarbonization more difficult such as the “petrolization of wood” (p. 186).

In general, we are offered a striking demonstration of the intertwining of value chains from the extraction of our primary energy, convincing us that the phase-based (age-based) history of energy is nothing more than that of the forefront of energy innovations.

In a second stage, the author focuses on the emergence in the mid-20th century and the subsequent generalization of the concept of energy transition despite the facts previously exposed, which Jean-Baptiste Fressoz shows us were well known (for example, it is the forestry economy that is revived first in Europe by American support after World War II because it is perceived as the bottleneck of all other industries, especially coal, p. 86).

From the American Technocratic movement of the 1930s for which “transition” qualifies the political transformations resulting from technology (p. 209) to the Atomic Energy Commission which seeks to make room for civilian nuclear power, presenting breeder reactors as the end of the history of energy, the book reveals the development of the notion of energy transition from its ideological origins to its birth under the pen of Harrison Brown to its dissemination by many former members of the Met Lab and the Manhattan Project, at the heart of American scientific and political circles sensitive to a Malthusian vision of energy. The companionship with the notion of energy crisis and the concomitance of oil shocks will further popularize the idea of past energy transitions and the phase-based vision of energy history as harbingers of new future transitions enabling the end of crises.

This same population of Malthusian system dynamicists and atomic physicists, promoters of energy transitions, doubly armed with a desire to find outlets for civilian nuclear power and new renewables and with the most advanced physical and chemical measurement instruments, also forms the first generation of modern revealers of anthropogenic climate change. Exploring this common paternity of the climate problem and energy transition, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz concludes his study by showing how the transition moves from an explanation of energy history to addressing the climate challenge. He traces the various influences of modelers integrating climate and economy and the political construction of prospective institutions. In particular, he explains how the idea that energy transitions have occurred in the past when certain energy sources matured underpinned the procrastination of climate action despite past energy facts and necessary industrial deployment times. Despite some overcoming of these propositions, the author links the still active influence of this idea to the absence of exploration of scenarios addressing energy sobriety or economic degrowth in the works of the Working Group III of the IPCC.

In conclusion, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz delivers a fresco of energy symbioses that reveals the unprecedented nature of a future decarbonized energy transition and raises the impossibility of facing this radically new future through concepts derived from an invalidated reading of energy history. On the contrary, the author concludes that it is only through an intimate understanding of these symbioses and through profound modification of the economic system that builds and requires them that climate change mitigation will occur or not.

Julien Ancel, PhD research fellow, The economics of power demand response.

[1] Fressoz, J.-B. (2024), Sans transition. Une nouvelle histoire de l’énergie, Ed. Seuil, pp 416.

[1] It seems to be the case here: ‘The approach of this book is exactly the opposite: it is the contemporary challenges of the transition that shed harsh light on the glaring flaws of historical works,’ p. 31 (own translation).