Histories of Energy

Nandita Badami

Department of Anthropology

University of California, Irvine

January 2020

Over the past decade, a growing number of social theorists have pointed to the urgent need to theorize energy in the context of dwindling reserves of coal and oil. Within anthropology, Dominic Boyer has stressed “the staggering significance of energy as the undercurrent and integrating force for all other modes and institutions of modern power” (2011, 5). Literary theorist Imre Szeman informed us that “(e)nergy has emerged as a problem, in part, because despite its now apparent importance and significance to almost everyone, it has not been typically factored into social theory – into broad understandings and conceptualizations of the operation and function of social systems and the subjects who inhabit them” (2014, 453). Similar sentiments were echoed by sociologist John Urry, whose essay “The Problem of Energy” aimed to address the lacunae in social theory born from “insufficiently [exploring] … systems that energize societies and engender different habits and practices” (2014, 3). For Urry, a marker of just how much of a blind-spot energy had become, was evidenced in Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity (2000). Although published relatively recently, Bauman did not once think to mention that a literal liquid—oil—was powering the social formations he was theorizing as a condition of late capitalism (6). It is an oversight almost unthinkable today.

The following collection of readings have less to do with the politics of how we have historically consumed energy than with how we have conceived of it to begin with. Some of the readings are intellectual histories that help us navigate the multiple meanings we associate with energy, reconstructing how its spiritual registers got enfolded into the scientific. Others take the scientific as a starting point to consider how it patterned the social. Together, they help us to locate energy an anthropological object, and to think politically with it at the intersection of its multiplicities.

Smith, Crosbie. 1998. The science of energy: A cultural history of energy physics in Victorian Britain.

Smith writes a history of how our present colloquial use of energy is steeped in an epistemology that developed in nineteenth century Europe, when it was first cast as measurable, calculable and quantifiable in the guise of a newly formulated “science of energy.” The book follows the lives eight men—famous scientists and engineers—who worked to develop and popularize the modern epistemic we now associate with energy. Smith’s argument underlines the significance of the protestant belief in the perfection of nature to the conceptual development of thermodynamics—we learn, for instance, that James Joule, one of the scientists credited with discovering that relationship between heat and mechanical energy, based at least part of his theory of energy conservation on the theological belief that “the power to destroy belongs to the creator alone” (298).

Illich, Ivan. 2010. “The social construction of energy.” New Geographies 

Illich’s short, polemical essay[1] similarly reminds us that “e” is a social construct, a notational device developed by physicists to express equations with greater elegance.  Because it is not natural, but rather, socially constructed, energy has a history as well as social effects—specifically, the quantification of energy created the conceptual conditions that naturalized scarcity as an epistemic framework. His somewhat energetic (pun intended) writing sums it up best: “Once famous physicists had lent their prestige to the interpretation of energy as nature’s ultimate Kapital, the principle of ‘the conservation of energy’ became the cosmological confirmation of the postulate of scarcity. The principle of contradiction was ‘operationalized’; it was restated in the formula that ‘you can’t get a free lunch.’ By a cosmic extension of the assumption of scarcity, the world visible and invisible was turned into a zero-sum game, as if Jehovah, with a big bang, had created das Kapital” (15).

Rabinbach, Anson. 1992. The human motor: Energy, fatigue, and the origins of modernity.

Rabinbach’s is an intellectual history of the metaphor in his title. He reconstructs how energetics  (born from the scientific discovery of thermodynamics) led to the idea of the human body as motor, and fueled visions of modernity based on the physical ability of the human body to convert energy into work. Rabinbach is concerned with the same scientific developments as Smith, but follows them through their impacts on the social. His book explores the theories that fueled the metaphor as well as the politics that resulted from it.

Mirowski, Philip. 1992. More heat than light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics.

Mirowski’s intellectual history is also built around an attention to the scientific concept of energy as it developed in nineteenth century Britain, and has an excellent second chapter titled “Everything an Economist Needs to Know About Physics But Was Probably Too Afraid to Ask: A History of the Energy Concept.” However, this is only Mirwoski’s starting point. He goes on to critique the fundamentally flawed assumptions of neoclassical economics that were based on a weak analogy, if not a misunderstanding, of energetics.

Barry, Andrew. 2015. “Thermodynamics, matter, politics.” Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory

Barry’s essay critiques the under-theorized, vitalist mobilization of energy within the new-materialism literature. In its place, he calls for greater engagement with how thermodynamic frameworks continue to shape the political. He demonstrates how this might be possible through a reading of Isabelle Stenger’s Cosmopolitics (2010).

Daggett, Cara New. 2019. The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work.

Daggett’s book, the most recent in this genre, offers a “genealogy of energy” alongside a prescriptive politics, outlining how we might imagine a different energy epistemology than the one we inherited from nineteenth century physics. She theorizes thermodynamics as an imperial science that colonized the energy episteme and therefore shaped the modern productive economic subject in both the metropolis and the colony. Pitching the logics of energy efficiency enfolded into waged labour as “the bogeyman that stymies environmental politics” (11), she advocates “energy freedom” in its place, defining it as “the attempt to free more energy from the structures of waged, productive work” (204).

Boyer, Dominic.  2014. “Energopower: An Introduction.” Anthropological Quarterly.

Finally, a resource from within anthropology, and an intellectual history of its own kind. In this discussion of the history of energy within the discipline, Boyer outlines three “generations” of engagement with energy in anthropology and allied disciplines that (unsurprisingly) coincide with historical moments when energy became a widespread matter of concern.  The first generation, Leslie White’s universalist energetic model of social evolution, developed in the decade between the late 1940s and late 1950s, emerged in conjunction with the successful experiments in nuclear fission as well as the Manhattan Project. The second generation dates to the 1970s and 1980s, and, with one exception, consisted mostly of applied work that addressed the impact of energy infrastructures on social groups. This resurgence of interest took place against the backdrop of the oil shock, and, as Boyer points out, waned in direct proportion to the political resolution of the crises. We are in Boyer’s third generation – a growing disillusionment with the assumed infinitude of energy supply, and the slow accumulation of the theoretical weight of actor-network theory, the Foucauldian power/knowledge division, posthumanism, new materialism and speculative realism inform the direction of contemporary theorization.

Works cited in introductory paragraph:

Boyer, Dominic. “Energopolitics and the Anthropology of Energy.” Anthropology News 52, no. 5 (May 1, 2011): 5–7.

Szeman, Imre. “Conclusion: On Energopolitics.” Anthropological Quarterly 87, no. 2 (2014): 453–64.

Urry, John. “The Problem of Energy.” Theory, Culture & Society 31, no. 5 (September 1, (2014): 3–20.



[1] More accurately, the text is a previously unpublished lecture delivered in 1983 at a seminar titled “The Basic Option Within Any Future Low-Energy Society” at El Colegio de Mexico.