Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Transitions in Energy Landscapes and Everyday Life in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Leave a comment

27–29 April 2017, Munich, Germany

A report on the workshop sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK), Rachel Carson Center, and the Deutsches Museum (Germany), convened by Heather Chappells (University of British Columbia), Vanessa Taylor (University of Greenwich), Frank Trentmann (Birkbeck College), Helmuth Trischler (Deutsches Museum), and Christof Mauch (Rachel Carson Center).
By Vanessa Taylor and Heather Chappells


The modernizing force of electricity, symbolized by pylons traversing the countryside to transform urban and rural space, is a recurrent theme in narratives of twentieth-century energy transition. This workshop aimed to consider wider interpretations of landscape across scales— from mega-structures to micro-grids, from the home to the hearth— to understand energy landscapes from an everyday perspective. With participants from a wide range of disciplines we explored the symbolic meaning, socio-political construction, and material manifestations of energy transitions across space and time. We wanted to conceptualize consumers and communities as entangled in and shaping energy landscapes, not as bystanders in evolving socio-technical networks. How, we asked, have people engaged with these landscapes over time in their roles as energy users and producers, consumers and citizens in the everyday contexts of home, work, and leisure?

FRANK TRENTMANN introduced the workshop and the Material Cultures of Energy project, which co-sponsored the event. We were then delighted to welcome our keynote speaker, RUTH SANDWELL, who situated the household at the center of energy transitions in Canada. Often represented as a “lag” country because of its relatively slow pace of electrification, Canadian householders, she showed, did not see the need for modern systems when organic fuels sufficed, embedded in established patterns of everyday life. The route to modernity was marked by persistence and resistance, with consumers often seen as impeding progress. Efforts to invent the electric power consumer did not achieve significant successes until after the Second World War, when new hybrid patterns of modern and traditional usage continued to evolve regionally and locally.


HEATHER CHAPPELLS and VANESSA TAYLOR continued the focus on the consumer in twentieth-century Britain and Canada. Rural and urban households here were not passive beneficiaries of grids. Consumers played diverse roles in transition—as activists, agitators and co-providers. And their domestic energy usage was complex, with choices between fuel alternatives structured by politics, geography, and pre-existing material energy cultures. This past complexity is important for understanding future processes of domestic energy transition.

EMILY ROEHL explored the portrayal of households within energy landscapes through Roy Stryker’s evocative photographs of life on the home front in America, commissioned by Standard Oil during and after the Second World War. Living with oil, an omnipresent bystander to traditional and modern family life, was a recurring theme in these images. Oil and nature coincided, presenting an intimate relationship between modern and old ways of life.

NINA MÖLLER examined household exhibitions commissioned in 1920s, 1950s, and 1970s Germany to consider consumer perceptions of the lives depicted in model kitchens and homes. Exhibitions were never neutral but conveyed different ideas of modernity, tied to high-energy use and prosperity. Visitors represented an audience looking in on ideal family lives, but what did they make of these fabricated lives and futures, detached from the messiness of everyday energy landscapes?

These presentations fueled a discussion of how consumers are imagined in energy landscapes. Are they legitimate recipients of specific energy futures or excluded from such visions? Care was needed, it was noted, with the problematic terminology of “user,” “consumer,” “householder,” and “citizen,” each suggesting different relationships to energy and the things it makes possible.

The second session addressed the emergence of energy grids in a range of historical and spatial settings, and the underlying political tensions which carved out different transition pathways. ABBY SPINAK considered the embedded politics of cooperative-led rural electrification in the United States, funded by the “New Deal” Rural Energy Administration (REA), 1935–1950. Did attempts at decentralized control in the past live up to the hype? In reality, few REA members actually voted; many could hardly be considered functioning democracies in their distribution of power and resources. REAs were a form of cooperative capitalism aiming at economic recovery and increased agricultural efficiency. Resulting in larger farms but fewer farmers, they created both new connections and patterns of exclusion with spatial, economic, and racial dimensions. This history demonstrates that energy landscape change is defined, at least in part, by deeply embedded, economically oriented systems.

REAs Play

The historical constraints of industrial landscapes were a central theme in KAYT BUTTON’s exploration of spatial change in electricity networks in the Lea Valley, Greater London, 1880s–1960s. Her study situated externally networked energy landscapes alongside those of water, an earlier source of self-generated power. While the National Grid was a powerful factor in the decentralization of British industry, the timing and extent of this shift was determined at a local and industry-by-industry scale as specialized activities had different energy and water needs.

Historical inconsistencies of urban electrified space were addressed by DIETER BRUGGEMAN, outlining the planned power outage procedures in Belgian cities during a period of nuclear power system maintenance in 2014. Plans for disconnecting urban zones appeared orderly to system operators but arbitrary to the public. Why were consumers in some cities left unaffected by rotational power cuts while important industrial centers were disconnected? Answers lay in the distinctive evolution of industrialized landscapes: a product of dispersed territorial development. This seemingly haphazard energy landscape might be viewed as a problem: past utility patterns shaped present and future “lifeworlds.” But might this also be an opportunity, with dispersed networks evolving into convenient platforms for energy decentralization?

Commenting on this session, CHRISTOF MAUCH invoked images of nodes and constellations to consider the intersection of different networks to produce landscapes. Observing that networked technologies represent powerways of agency, colonization, and control, he raised the question of who or what has driven energy transitions and exclusions in the past. The politics of corporate, municipal, or community models of energy provision must be disentangled as we enter a new era of hybrid provisioning.

The final Friday session explored how distribution and storage have mediated consumer interactions with material energies and redefined energy landscapes. SEAN PATRICK ADAMS reflected on the hearth as the traditional center of the home and a significant site in the organic to mineral fuel transition. The rise of the American coal industry from the 1840s to 1900 was associated with the development of coal stoves and fireplace grates, but created an unintended storage problem. While the affluent stored bulk purchases in coal cellars, the urban poor had to buy in small amounts on unfavorable terms. The twentieth-century networked city did not diminish the importance of spatial capacity in facilitating energy transitions. Storage and distribution bottlenecks remain important. As batteries of various sources are touted as off-grid storage solutions, we should consider their possible unintended consequences.

BRIAN BLACK considered what needed to be in place for a transition to happen. The Tokheim dome oil pump was examined for its role in defining peoples’ relationship to a new energy source. Pumps and filling stations represented part of a vast infrastructure, a “hidden hand”— disguised as a basic part of everyday landscape—securing dependence on crude oil. This prompted consideration of the role of emergent ancillary technologies, such as electric car charging stations, as junctures for renewable energy transition today. How will these redefine our interactions with personal transportation, and what are the hidden politics underlying sustainable electric streetscapes?

Reflecting on these localized case studies and on the day as a whole, HELMUT TRISCHLER asked how we might conceptualize the vastly different arrangements and network scales described. How do coal bins and oil pumps relate to the more expansive energy landscapes invoked in the conceptualization of large technical systems or socio-technical networks and regimes? Are these evolving landscapes, networks, and systems place-specific or system-dependent?

We ended the first day with a trip to the fascinating energie.wenden exhibition at the DEUTSCHES MUSEUM, led by SARAH KELLBERG and HELMUTH TRISCHLER. At the center of the exhibition is a simulation game. Here, on a “political dancefloor” amid displays on different energy scenarios and relating campaigns by competing stakeholders, visitors are invited to act as decision-makers in the current age of energy transitions. Led through the pros and cons of various sustainable energy modes, the participants choices were recorded on a punch card. energie.wenden runs until August 2018.

Exhibit 3

The first session of day two looked at energy transitions in India through three distinctive disciplinary lenses, and diverse spatial and temporal scales. UTE HASENÖHRL explored transitions in nineteenth and twentieth-century India, considering infrastructures as “tools of empire.” India’s energy transition was uneven and incomplete. Electricity remained an ancillary infrastructure well into the twentieth century, partly through Britain’s lack of interest in developing its colonies. Transition pathways reflected the spatial diversity of the Indian subcontinent; mainly northern hydro-sites were distant from major load centers. Post-independence, modernizing nationalist visions of electrification met resistance from independents, favoring traditional village-level manual labor and decentralization. India today can be seen as a hybrid energy society. The urban-rural divide persists; biomass remains an important rural fuel. Many rely on ingenuity to gain access to energy, fusing old and new technologies or circumventing electricity connections. What then is India’s future? Can flexibility and ingenuity—and micro-scale and solar facilities—challenge Western and Indian state-backed emphases on large technical systems as the key to modernization?

The Indian government established fuelwood plantations in the 1970s, anticipating shortages in supply. These plantations have been reclassified as “wastelands” with emerging biofuel programs in recent years. JENNIFER BAKA used this wasteland designation to reflect on the changing political ecology of fuel production in rural southern India. For local rural people, the Prosopis remains immensely popular as a fuelwood, sustaining local economies and rural ways of life. But the Indian government now favors the Jatropha plant for productive biofuel, the benefits of which are reaped by distant urban drivers of biodiesel-propelled cars. The paper raised valuable questions about the politics of landscape and targets of modernization.

In a distinctly different southern Indian “energyscape,” SARAH STRAUSS and CARRICK EGGLESTON visited Auroville—an intentional community founded in 1968 as a place of human unity and spiritual evolution: “the city the earth needs.” Energy defines Auroville’s spaces—from the sunlit central meditation chamber to the electric pumps powering its fountains. Trees have grown in the de-forested landscape, providing shade but creating new problems for its solar arrays. Auroville is an ever-evolving project, its inhabitants adapting to ongoing disruptions by installing battery systems or connecting to the grid. Its energyscape is a patchwork of fossil fuels, biogas, wood, sun, and wind, and of shifting alliances to micro- and macro-grids. Do the central grid connections or increasing use of modern appliances make the experiment a failure? Or do they reflect citizens’ resilience and flexibility? Perhaps Auroville is not a solution to the earth’s needs but a timely lesson in the importance of adaptation.

Connections between current and future renewable energy initiatives and how societies have worked with nature in the past were the subject of the final session. JENNY CARLSON’s ethnographic study addressed responses to localized renewables development in an East Frisian village. Biogas development was potentially lucrative for farmers, with the added benefit of providing cheap local energy. But villagers’ concerns lay elsewhere, with the stench produced by the liquid slurry, the increased traffic, and the risk of a pipeline explosion. This “slurryscape” was seen as a threat to local waterways. It produced a sensory disturbance that impinged on rural ways of life, as people changed routines to avoid the stench. Old antagonisms between farmers and villagers had resurfaced. Renewable biogas sites here were not evidence of community-based transition (Energiewende) but of private enterprise entrenching pre-existing class divides.


ODINN MELSTED considered Iceland’s renewable geothermal resources through a socio-technical transitions lens. Despite a common narrative of geothermal energy as the natural heating source for Iceland, its uptake was presented here as far from effortless or predetermined. “Harnessing the Earth’s Power” began as a niche experiment in Reykjavik in public buildings, being only gradually extended to a centralized, city-wide hot-water grid. Alternatives, such as coal and oil, had first to be discredited as sustainable or clean energy sources. This transition arose from the fortuitous intersection of geographical setting (an extinct volcano), urban renewal (new public building projects), and constructed societal need (Icelanders became convinced of the comfort advantages of water-based heating). Carving a niche for renewables today is also likely to depend on the intersection of social, technological, and geographical elements in specific contexts.

Architecture, climate, and occupant needs come together in buildings to shape future energy pathways. Air-conditioned buildings are one manifestation of a socio-politically defined space built around a particular ideal of thermal comfort. DANIEL BARBER highlighted an alternative approach, based on experiments in Brazil (1930s to 1950s) in managing seasonal climatic changes by architectural means. Central to such strategies were embracing sunlight in interior space, innovations in shading, and experimentation with building facades. The value of this “shaded modernism” lies in its capacity for adaptability to different climates, political regimes, and regimes of behavior. Its connected interior and exterior forms and activities offer an alternative way of thinking about the relationship between renewable energy, the built environment, and everyday life.

KAREN PINKUS explored the concept of the “mega-structure,” starting with the huge solar arrays in Ouarzazate, Morocco. With their promise of renewable energy for a country importing fossil fuels, of serving distant homes and of “fighting global warming in the desert,” this model was compared to Atlantropa, a 1920s dream for the reconfiguration of the Mediterranean. Here a hydroelectric dam across the Strait of Gibraltar was envisaged to bring light to Europe from Africa, connecting the two continents in peace. The consequences of such a project are almost incomprehensible, raising questions about mega-scale landscape reconfigurations today. At the other end of this scale are micro-grids, engaging people to provide distributed hubs close to home. But, Karen asked, do either of these scales provide a feasible model for energy transition? Mega-structures obscure the politics and dangers of colonizing a difficult and marginal space. Distributed solutions provide pleasant imaginaries of a democratic spread of power, but are they equal to the enormity of the climate crisis faced in the Anthropocene?

We reflected in the final session on the conceptual and empirical value and problems of analyzing diverse past energy landscapes for understanding current and future sustainable transitions. These discussions will be developed further in publications arising from the workshop.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s