Review History

Climate Solutions: Reflecting in the Heat of the Moment

About: François Jarrige et Alexis Vrignon (dir.), Face à la puissance, Une histoire des énergies alternatives à l’âge industriel, La Découverte

by Jean Bérard , 4 April 2023
translated by Susannah Dale
with the support of

How can we move away from energy-intensive growth? This question goes back a long way, and a group of historians has identified past attempts, all of which have failed, to create ecological societies. Could this provide a repertoire of ideas for the future?

Our future use of fossil fuels will determine our ability to maintain a livable Earth, or at least one less unlivable than our past and present emissions already condemn it to be. All the evidence suggests that the time is ripe for a climate storm [1]. So the question of the moment is: how we can escape from our “energy-intensive growth societies”?

What can history tell us? It can give an account of the origin of fossil fuel dominance in the expansion of industrial capitalism and deconstruct the idea of energy transitions: built on the pressing demand for economic growth, the contemporary system has accumulated energy sources incessantly without switching from one to another. However, environmental history, attentive to the social and political conflicts that structure changes in humanity’s use of natural resources, can also shed light on the history of these energy sources through past attempts to promote other resources and other uses. The book edited by François Jarrige and Alexis Vrignon, Face à la puissance, Une histoire des énergies alternatives à l’âge industriel, connects these two lines of analysis. It is a collective book that brings together numerous case studies, risking the heterogeneity that is typical of such undertakings. But the introductions to each part form an attempt in their own right, offering a periodization and an overall vision [2].

Pioneering fossils

The first period studied begins in the 1860s. This was the period of the “great divergence”, studied by Kenneth Pomeranz, between the industrial growth of England and that of the lower Yangtze valley in China [3], and coal is part of the explanation: it provided a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of energy compared to wood from forests that were becoming scarce. “The energy system of pre-industrial societies was based on biological transformers ‒ plants, animals and humans themselves ‒ with most of the available energy used for food and heat. If the energy system in 1900 had remained the same as in 1750, the amount of fertile land required would have been more than three times the total area of Europe.” (p. 25)

Coal did not yet form the core of the energy world, but it was a pioneering energy source. Other sources were mobilized to support the first wave of industrialization: the use of wood from forests, as we have said, but also the distribution of proto-industrial production units near the rural workforce, the intensification of labor, forced labor resulting from colonization, animal labor in the fields and then in urban transport and mines, and the perfecting of water and wind technologies. Didier Perrier shows that the number of tordoirs ‒ windmills equipped with pestles for extracting oil from oilseeds ‒ around Lille reached a peak in the 1840s and that, some 30 years later, several dozen were still in operation. Tools such as these were constantly being improved.

The same went for lighting. When Balzac’s character Eugénie Grandet wanted to enhance the bedroom of her beloved and ungrateful cousin Charles, she risked her miserly father’s wrath by buying new wax candles to replace the old tallow ones. Jean-Baptiste Fressoz shows that in the 19th century wax candles were both an object of technological innovation, producing light without producing smoke and without collapsing as they burned, and of globalized exchanges, whose production growth was made possible by the large-scale arrival of American tallow and tropical oilseeds. The oil lamp was also improved (the hollow cylindrical wick coupled with a glass lamp chimney), before gradually being replaced by the kerosene lamp at the end of the century. Gas lighting, a symbol of urban modernity and produced in dangerous gas factories, was an exception reserved for bourgeois neighborhoods. The authors’ analysis of these innovations does not, however, hide the setbacks caused by the expanded use of coal. Jean-Philippe Passaqui shows the scientific and technical efforts that were made to achieve an iron and steel industry in France and Austria that was powered by wood rather than coal. But the reduction of transportation costs and the liberalization of trade established the dominance of coal in the second half of the century.

Fossil fuel dominance

The coal-fired steam engine was much more than a technological achievement. It enabled a labor relationship to be imposed in which production was no longer tied to the resources of the forests or to the rhythms and locations of the winds and rivers, but rather was constant and mobile, leading to regular work and competitive labor [4]. From the 1860s to the end of the First World War, this model of production became dominant. In addition to the rise of coal, this period was marked by the beginnings of oil and the emergence of electricity. These upheavals were concentrated in the United Kingdom, which in 1860 produced half of the world’s coal, and in Western Europe and the United States, which were key growth areas.

This dominance raised concerns over the risk of resource depletion ‒ an idea popularized by the economist Stanley Jevons ‒ as well as dangers such as explosions in the mines and smoke blanketing industrial areas. The search for alternative energy sources was only one minor aspect of the impact of these warnings. Smoke and industrial accidents led to legislation, but economic necessity was the law, for “a clear sky meant either a general strike, or poverty” (p. 125). Electricity had a tremendous impact in obscuring these problems, since the places of production and consumption became increasingly separate. Moreover, the threat of resource depletion prompted the search for deposits further away from the European regions.

Such changes did not have the same impact on societies that were still predominantly rural and relied on the power of living beings and biomass. Especially in the late 19th century, the intensive use of locally available energy sources, such as wind, sun or animals, was seen as particularly well adapted to the colonial context. In addition, the West’s colonial expansion operated on a global scale by using colonial labor as energy, driven by migrations on an unprecedented scale.

In Europe, attempts to convert renewable resources were marginal. The use of solar energy was explored during the Second French Empire but did not make a breakthrough in Europe. In Switzerland, as studied by Cédric Humair, hydraulic experiments were common between 1855 and 1891. But by the early 1890s, electricity had taken away much of “the attraction of cables, pressurized water and compressed air” (p. 169). Industrial niches persisted in areas of small and medium-sized industries. This was the case of the Pays d’Olmes, studied by Bruno Evans, where hydro-mechanics and then hydro-electricity allowed a comb industry to develop in small workshops, which continued after the First World War.

Alternatives come to the fore in unique circumstances, when they intersect with major social issues. Such is the case with alcohol, presented by Camille Molles. Alcohol was the fuel additive that preceded tetraethyl lead, developed by General Motors in the 1920s to improve the efficiency of gasoline engines. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, the use of alcohol attracted the interest of a very large wine sector, which was experiencing crises of overproduction and was keen to develop “industrial uses of alcohol as an additional way to unclog a saturated market” (p. 184). In France, however, after the great overproduction crisis of 1907 had subsided, “the focus on the use of alcohol as fuel lost momentum until the end of the First World War” (p. 191).

Alternatives during the Great Acceleration

The First World War led the world into the ’Great Acceleration’, which the authors situate between 1918 and 1973. The two world wars were economic and industrial wars, in which energy and the raw materials used to produce it were crucial aspects. During this period, “coal was essential, while oil experienced spectacular growth and electricity spread throughout industrialized societies” (p. 199). Solar, wind and biomass energies were marginalized and forgotten, which excluded them from a technological and productivist vision. These decades saw the rise of energy-intensive lifestyles, from the poorly insulated suburban single-family home with electric heating and equipped with household appliances, to the automobile that replaced bicycles and streetcars. The entire system of international relations and political relations in the industrialized states was shaped by the dominance of oil ‒ a fluid, transportable commodity that could be extracted without the need for a large workforce, whose struggles raised fears for the continued existence of the capitalist order [5].

Renewable energies remained “within the interstices of this dominant system” (p. 219), to ward off the specter of scarcity. Combating energy shortages required a diversification of resources. Hydropower was part of this movement: “opened in 1936, the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River is fully emblematic of this approach: it involved the State and private actors in a large-scale construction designed both to produce large amounts of electricity and to transform ecosystems” (p. 209). Fuel cells ‒ which convert chemical energy into thermal energy and whose operating principle was discovered in the 19th century ‒ were the subject of significant research in the 1950s until attempts to develop them were halted by lackluster results (Nicolas Simoncini). In Belgium, geothermal energy was promoted as a tool for converting territories after the decline of coal mines, without becoming “a true lever for economic and social redeployment at the regional level” (Pierre Tilly, p. 266).
Solar water heaters developed in the United States were excluded from grid connection policies. Solar energy research was linked to efforts to maintain contested colonial powers. However, it was focused on providing low power and technically unsophisticated converters. This was also the case for wind turbines, which were researched under Vichy and then abandoned after the war, except to provide low-power wind generators in Algeria (Anaël Marrec and Pierre Teissier). Independent Algeria focused on oil production.

Eyes wide shut

The last period, beginning in 1973, takes us to the heart of contemporary paradoxes. On the one hand, primary energy production increased two and a half times between 1971 and 2016. It is true that “while the growth of energy consumption has slowed down in Europe since the 1970s, indicating an increase in energy efficiency, it persists and, most importantly, is accelerating in other parts of the world, especially in Asia” (p. 290). On the other hand, concern for energy conservation increased during those decades, driven by environmental warnings, but also by the 1973 oil shock.
The search for alternatives to fossil fuels was then heavily invested. Research into fuel cells resumed. Trombe walls, named after their inventor, were a promising solution to replace electric heating with solar heating in individual homes (Paul Bouet). Biotechnological innovations were being used to find a “green oil” that could limit the growing use of nitrogenous fertilizers whose industrial synthesis consumed high levels of energy. However, these attempts did not lead to solar houses or to fertilizer-free agriculture. The development of biotechnologies served as a “launching pad” for GMOs, which were based on another promise to “reduce the use of chemical treatments” (Christophe Bonneuil, p. 327).

Based on the history of the French Energy Management Agency, Renaud Bécot shows that activists for alternative energies, some of whom reached the upper echelons of the civil service after the change of government in 1981, continued to be dominated by “advocates of a ’state-run fossil fuel economy’” (p. 339). This was especially true since “the oil counter-shock and the development of the French electronuclear program suddenly eased tensions over energy” [6]. In this last period, nuclear energy embodied a “technological macrosystem” that placed energy production and its problematic effects at a spatial and temporal distance (in terms of waste management and plant dismantling) from consumers.

A repertoire of ideas

The book shows the long history of alternatives that the current context has brought back to the fore: the reuse of recycled materials, alternative fuels for automobiles, solar ovens and panels, houses with bioclimatic architecture, wind turbines, geothermal energy, fuel cells, and so on. Several of the contributions end by analyzing the historical failure of these attempts and mentioning their return to scientific and social spaces for experimentation. Once the illusion of novelty surrounding these attempts is countered, it becomes possible to situate the history of energy in the same vein as that of land ownership [7], the expansion of machines [8] or industrial pollution [9]. The dominance of fossil fuels ‒ like the appropriation of land and forests, the ruin of the textile industry through the mechanization of work and the pollution caused by factory fumes ‒ fueled conflicts and the search for alternative practices throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The history of these attempts serves as a repertoire of possibilities, from the policies that should be reconsidered to the turning points that caused them to fall into oblivion.

But the lessons of this history cannot be drawn without an understanding of the turning points themselves. As François Jarrige and Alexis Vrignon explain, “the transition from the marginalization of renewable energies to their revival in no way erases energy-related issues, whose technical dimension must necessarily be considered within the framework of the social and political power relations of a given society, as well as in its cultural and imaginary dimensions” (p. 311). It is not so much the nature of renewable energy as its place within broader energy systems that gives it meaning.

As the authors note, from this point of view there is no evidence that the “widespread greening” of the energy vocabulary, even beyond radical contradictions such as clean coal, is not still caught up in the system of thought whose history is told here: by deferring hopes for a solution to the problem of CO2 emissions to technological innovations, such as “hydrogen or nuclear fusion” or by promoting renewable energy converters as if their production posed no ecological problem, we continue in our “dream of unlimited energy, always available and free of any form of pollution” (p. 310).

Putting an end to excess

Rather, history invites us to reflect on the singularity of the present moment. In the industrial age, the inventors and promoters of non-fossil fuels responded to a variety of concerns (for example, the difficulty of transporting energy, the fear of high prices, the specter of scarcity and the search for ways to supplement fossil fuels), but none of them was like the challenge posed today by global warming caused by the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is not to say that modern and contemporary scientists have not considered the possibility of human-induced climate change. However, carbon emissions played almost no role in this story: in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, concerns were focused on deforestation, not on carbon emissions. And from the late 19th century until the 1960s, industrial societies were largely convinced that their actions could not change the climate [10].

It is therefore difficult to look to the past to find a problem like ours. The notion of “energy service” mobilized by Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in relation to lighting may point us in the right direction. The inflection points of historical curves made up of astronomical energy consumption resemble a series of renunciations. But these curves themselves hide the fact that, even in the industrial age, many energy services were provided without using countless tons of coal and oil. Defining the uses for which we need energy does not preclude thinking about other ways to make them possible.

Alain Gras concludes his afterword with these poetic words: “To avoid depletion by excess, it would be enough to stop on the side of the road and allow power to become futile. Let us keep this hope alive.” This is what lies at the heart of contemporary individual and community experiments: unplugging, reducing our needs and recovering forms of energy autonomy that are themselves heirs to the long history of attempts to conceive of “ecological societies” [11]. The key question remains of how to create a social organization that does not ruin the lives of those whose work depends on the production or use of airplanes, cars, and so on.

François Jarrige et Alexis Vrignon (dir.), Face à la puissance, Une histoire des énergies alternatives à l’âge industriel, Paris, La Découverte, 2020. 400 p., 25 €.

by Jean Bérard, 4 April 2023

To quote this article :

Jean Bérard, « Climate Solutions: Reflecting in the Heat of the Moment », Books and Ideas , 4 April 2023. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Andreas Malm, The progress of this storm, Nature and society in a warming world, Verso Books, 2018.

[2Unless otherwise specified, quotations are taken from chapters written by the book’s editors.

[3Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence. China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton University Press, 2001.

[4Andreas Malm, L’Anthropocène contre l’histoire, La Fabrique, 2017.

[5Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy. Political Power in the Age of Oil, Verso, 2013.

[6See also, on this point, Antoine Petit’s contribution in the volume.

[7Frédéric Graber and Fabien Locher (eds), Posséder la nature, Environnement et propriété dans l’histoire, Éditions Amsterdam, 2018.

[8François Jarrige, Technocritiques, Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences, La Découverte, 2015.

[9Thomas Le Roux, Le Laboratoire des pollutions industrielles. Paris, 1770-1830, Albin Michel, 2011.

[10Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Fabien Locher, Les révoltes du ciel, une histoire du changement climatique, Seuil, 2020.

[11Serge Audier, La Société écologique et ses ennemis, La Découverte, 2017.

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