Experts discuss Energy, Culture, and Society at second Sawyer Seminar

in 2010, Events, News
October 15th, 2010

On Friday October 15, 2010, the Sawyer Seminar on Energy Transitions and Society convened for its second meeting. The session entitled Energy, Culture, and Society featured Laura Nader and Peter Shulman. It was moderated by Adil Najam, Director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and coordinator of the Sawyer Seminar.

Prof. Peter Shulman speaks at Sawyer Seminar.

Prof. Peter Shulman speaks at Sawyer Seminar.

Peter Shulman is Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University. His presentation highlighted that our narratives of the future of energy invariably raise questions of energy transitions. He drew in particular on two important figures and their ideas. He called John Adolphus Etzler the prophet, a utopian visionary in the 1830s who sought to harness the vast stores of power in Nature to reform humanity. He identified the pessimist as William Stanley Jevons, a central figure in the development of modern economics, and whose 1865 The Coal Question helped spark continuing debates over national energy self-sufficiency, economic power, and the value of conservation. In thinking of future transitions, he added, the missing piece is values. We do indeed face energy challenges in the future, but relying on technology, the market, or even the state to fix these problems probably won’t work in the absence of a global population that chooses to consume less.

Prof. Laura Nader discusses the interconnectedness of energy, culture and society.

Prof. Laura Nader discusses the interconnectedness of energy, culture and society.

Laura Nader is Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley and editor of the recently published Energy Reader. She began the conversation by problematizing the interconnectedness of energy, culture, and society and inquiring into the possible contributions of anthropological methods, such as ethnography and historical inquiry. In trying to understand the energy stall as se calls it, she recognized three different models of change: the crisis model, the incremental model (bricolage), and the linear model. She highlighted that the specialization of energy knowledge and its fragmentation across disciplines calls can only be overcome by for what she refers to as a generalist perspective. She ended her remarks with two questions that she usually poses to her students: How would you explain to an anthropologist from Mars that “in the 20th century more of nature has been destroyed than in all prior history”? And how would you explain why the United States has not been a world leader in renewables?”

Prof Nader and Shulman engage audience at Sawyer seminar.

Prof Nader and Shulman engage audience at Sawyer seminar.

Following the presentations the audience engaged in a lively discussion. Adil Najam emphasized the need to disentangle assumptions embedded in our energy narratives. Participants discussed whether some technological systems and scales had more likely political implications, and particularly whether nuclear energy and democracy were reconcilable. Some of the other issues discussed included the necessity for the price of energy to reflect its actual cost, and the dissociation of increased energy consumption from notions of progress and happiness, and the potential role of artists and the media in shaping energy futures.

The seminar series, supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, meets once each month during the Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 semesters. The interdisciplinary seminars bring together leading scholars to discuss various aspects of how energy transitions are themselves socially constituted and how they have, and are likely to, impact society. The first session, entitled Overview of Energy Transitions, had featured Martin Melosi, Bruce Podobnik, and Cutler Cleveland. The forthcoming seminar, on Energy and Development will be held on Monday, November 8, speakers will include Joan Martinez-Alier (Economics and Economic History, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona) and Paul Epstein (Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard University Medical School) and it will be moderated by James McCann (History, Boston University). All seminars are open to public but require RSVP at pardee@bu.edu.