Cleveland, Melosi and Podobnik discuss Energy Transitions at first Sawyer Seminar

Cutler Cleveland, Martin Melosi and Bruce Podobnik speak at the first John E. Sawyer Seminar on "Energy and Society" at Boston University
Cutler Cleveland, Martin Melosi and Bruce Podobnik speak at the first Sawyer Seminar on “Energy and Society” at Boston University

On Monday, September 20, 2010, The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and the Boston University Department of Geography and Environment launched the John Sawyer Seminars on Energy Transitions and Society, with the first session focusing on ‘Overview of Energy Transitions,’ and featuring Prof. Martin Melosi, Prof. Bruce Podobnik, and Prof. Cutler Cleveland.. The seminar series, supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will meet once each month during the Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 semesters. The interdisciplinary seminars will bring together leadings scholars to discuss various aspects of how energy transitions are themselves socially constituted and how they have, and are likely to, impact society.

Cutler Cleveland, Professor of Geography and Environment at Boston University and co-coordinator of the Sawyer Seminar, introduced the series on Energy Transitions and Society. He began the conversation by locating future energy transitions in relation to past shifts in energy over the last two hundred years. He noted that a fundamental issue is the magnitude, nature, and specific conditions under which the energy transition that will occur.

Martin Melosi is Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor and Director of the Center for Public History at University of Houston. His presentation highlighted the need to go beyond predictive energy models that rigidly periodize and order historical periods. He called for the need to contextualize social and cultural differences over time and to address questions of inertia, path dependency and assumptions of scarcity. Historians, he added, might help ask the right questions when thinking about energy futures.

Bruce Podobnik is Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Lewis and Clark College. He drew on the historical record of the coal and oil industries to demonstrate that social movements have repeatedly influenced the energy trajectories that nations, and indeed the world, have followed over the last two centuries. He highlighted that advocates of a clean energy transition can reflect on the lessons that might be learned from past histories of social contention. In thinking of future transitions, he added, we need to more closely examine the social dynamics that might be harnessed to promote clean energy movements.

Following the presentations the audience engaged in a lively discussion with the panelists. Prof. Najam, director of the Pardee Center and co-coordinator of the Energy Transitions Seminar, began the Q&A session by highlighting that energy, as is clear in concepts such as “energy security” is a political issue. He added that the profile of the energy discussion changes when we factor for the growing appetites of China and India. Some of the other issues discussed included the role of government and of corporate power, the politicization of the transition literature and whether breaking down energy into constitutive parts might bring more specific insights into the discussion.

The second seminar, on Energy, Culture, and Society will be held on Friday, October 15.