Energy transitions and social revolutions

Fischer-Kowalski, M., Rovenskaya, E. ORCID:, Krausmann, F., Pallua, I., & Mc Neill, J.R. (2019). Energy transitions and social revolutions. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 138 69-77. 10.1016/j.techfore.2018.08.010.

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Project: Welfare, Wealth and Work for Europe (WWWFOREUROPE, FP7 290647)


The transition from a traditional agrarian to a fossil fuel based energy regime began before the industrial revolution and is still ongoing. This paper explores the relation of this transition process and social revolutions. Using statistical analysis, we find that at the very beginning of countries' energy transition, a critical phase can be identified, within which social revolutions are most likely to happen. This applies to the grand revolutions across the past five centuries investigated for a core set of industrial and emerging economies, as well as to supplementary samples of Latin American and post-World War II developing countries. No statistically significant relation between the historical time and the pace of transition towards modern fuels is found, which means that the energy transition does not accelerate. Among the sample of developing countries with revolutions after World War II we find an even slower pace of transition to an industrial energy regime. Apparently, transitions in primary energy source and energy abundance are not just a matter of technological change, but strongly interact with the social, institutional and political fabric of societies.
Significance statement

Revolutions are not randomly scattered in space and time, nor are they confined to a certain historical epoch. They are likelier under certain conditions, the early stages of a transition from an agrarian energy regime to a fossil-fuel-based energy regime. Seemingly, unique historical events like social revolutions followed a pattern linked to the specific mode societies exploit natural resources. Not just human inventiveness and technology matters, but also a gift from nature – fossil energy carriers – is found to be at the roots of the industrial transformation. Their superior energy return on investment (EROI) over traditional biomass, and their sheer quantity, permit a fundamental transformation; these benefits can only be harvested if accompanied by an equally fundamental socio-political transformation. Such insights link the study of politics and history to the study of social metabolism in a systematic way.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: Energy transition; Energy regime; Fossil fuel use; Social revolutions; Energy return on investment (EROI)
Research Programs: Advanced Systems Analysis (ASA)
Depositing User: Luke Kirwan
Date Deposited: 17 Sep 2018 09:54
Last Modified: 27 Aug 2021 17:30

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