Coping Strategies. Questions regarding Resettlement, Participation, and Energy Self-sufficiency

author: Valeska Flor


“Nothing was normal anymore in this village that was disbanding bit by bit; bombarded by noise during the day, but desolately quiet at night. Not only the buildings were missing, the people that had given life and breath to them were missing as well” (Bachér 2011, 37). With these words the author Ingrid Bachér describes the resettlement of the town Garzweiler, Germany, during the 1980s. In her novel Bachér reports about the daily life of the fictional Aschoff family and how lignite mining causes rifts in the landscape and in the lives of the people living there. The German energy requirement is covered by a mix of fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewable energy. Although renewable energies are to be supported during the course of the German energy transition, lignite is still presented as an important partner and transitory technology in this mix. Therefore, the contribution of coal/lignite in this mix has decreased considerably but still has its use. However, the consequences of a constant energy supply for thousands of people in lignite areas, in particular resettlement, are often disregarded. The ethnography of the Rhenish lignite area presented in this paper has allowed to show the ambivalence of energy production, consumption as well as coping strategies of resettlers.

Energy Issues and the Electrification of Society

“Energy” is omnipresent and determines our everyday life. But what does “energy” actually mean? In physics, energy is defined by the ability of a substance, body or system to do work, and this also applies to humans. As long as we live, we convert energy: while breathing, eating, moving, sleeping and thinking. Nature also supplies an infinite amount of energy: sunlight, wind movement, water power, geothermal energy, or renewable biomass can be used for energy and supply us with electricity. Energy is therefore not only a purely physical quantity; it is a metaphor for individual prosperity and the prosperity of a country and its society. The electrification of society as a whole began with the introduction of electric illumination, initially around the turn of the century in public spaces and later—around the 1920s—in private spaces. During this period, the extraction of energy resources and the production of electricity were increasingly integrated into the economic, political and socio-cultural argumentation patterns (which today are also referred to in connection with lignite mining). The basis for the idea that energy is the fundamental driving force of the economy and society was formed precisely in this context. Energy was no longer just an “energetic view of the world” but a “general cultural principle” (Binder 1999, 241). Nowadays, our understanding of energy is rather everyday and universal, but also diffuse: “hardly imaginable is a life without the many electrical aids, and at the same time it is a secret, the path of electricity in our everyday life lies in the dark” (Ibid., 9). Electricity is simply there, but during crises—like resettlement—, more thought is given to electricity and energy consumption.

Reasons for Lignite Mining and Resettlement in Germany

The resettlements procedures currently taking place in Germany are drastically changing the lives of their residents. In this context it is to say that most of the villagers do not leave voluntarily. They have to leave because of the Section 79, subsection 1, of the federal mining law which says that: “The assignment of property is permitted in individual cases if it serves the public good [. . .], and if due to the site dependency of the mining operation the enterprise cannot be carried out by any other reasonable means.” (BbergG § 79, 1). To put it bluntly: the law puts the good of the many before the good of the few. The resettlers do not have the option to stay. They have to move and (re) settle somewhere else and find a way to cope with these experiences.

Coping Strategies: Participation and Energy Self-Sufficiency

Coping and adjustment are important aspects of the Rhenish lignite mining area, e.g. during the planned citizen participation process where the resettlers gain agency through civic engagement. This is done through a participation procedure in the resettlement process. Keywords such as democratic legitimacy, social compatibility, planning and competence acquisition, self-determination and participation, as well as compensation for material and immaterial losses of resettlers were mentioned, explained, and criticized by my interview partners. In addition, numerous practices could be observed. These participatory practices can be understood as the “skillful performances of competent bodies” (Reckwitz 2003, 290), where the habitus and the social, cultural and symbolic capital of the resettlers are merging with the embodiment of knowledge (Bourdieu 1977). They are knowledge-based activities and practical abilities guided by the acquisition of skills, i.e. activities in which practical knowledge and understanding are central (Reckwitz 2003, 292).

During the resettlement process, behavioral routines are developed, which enable the resettlers to act as experts in their environment. The behavioral routine “energy expert” is one of the most important roles in the process. As the villages resettle due to society’s need for energy, there is a special motivation for discussing holistic energy concepts and reducing dependence on fossil energies in the future. For this reason, the resettlers acquire knowledge in connection with a wide variety of energy issues: they learn about innovative energy concepts, such as climate protection settlements, current energy-saving regulations, passive houses, and centralized and decentralized energy supply. Being an energy expert means being independent of the energy companies in the future. To be independent from a company that is responsible for the demolishing of their own Heimat—an image that is prominent in most of the interviews. But learning is not enough, being active—in the planning process and in (political) activism—is presented as a way to gain agency. Agency in a normative political process which reduces resettlers—at least in the beginning—to a passive role, i.e. they do not move on their own free will, is the basis for coping and adjustment. In this context agency encourages the resettlers to think about their own energy requirements consumption and enables them to plan their future accordingly.


Bachér Ingrid (2011): Die Grube. Berlin: Dittrich Verlag.

Binder Beate (1999): Elektrifizierung als Vision. Zur Symbolgeschichte einer Technik im Alltag. Tübingen: TVV.

Bourdieu Pierre (1977): Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reckwitz Andreas (2003): Grundelemente einer Theorie sozialer Praktiken. Eine sozialtheoretische Perspektive. Zeitschrift für Soziologie 32/4, 282-201.

Smart Energy in Intercultural Contexts: Nordic Innovations in the Gulf

By Dr. Agnese Cimdina[1]


The following reflection is a prologue to my post-doctoral research, which focuses on the internationalization of clean tech and smart energy solutions. I study how the global shift towards green energy—away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy economies—is taking place locally in the context of specific business development plans of Nordic companies in the Gulf. Oil economies Norway and the UAE are my main case study areas.

Since the discovery of oil in the UAE in the 1960s, it has financed rapid socioeconomic development through hydrocarbon exports. Alongside the export market, the country has built an extremely energy-intensive economy. The country’s impressive oil and natural gas revenues have enabled them to build ultramodern infrastructure, to construct a high level of welfare for UAE nationals, to support an increase in population, as well as to exert international influence.[2] With sustainability challenges increasing rapidly, however, the UAE—along with the rest of the GCC[3] countries—has started to focus on diversification of the economy, investing in cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. In the UAE alone, “more than 300 billion dirhams[4] [have been] . . . invested in establishing a focus for the country’s path ahead, with the aim of preparing for a diverse economy that frees future generations from dependence on the ever-fluctuating oil market.”[5]

Meanwhile, the Nordic region aims to be at the forefront of a sustainable global energy supply and global climate change solutions: climate change is a priority for the region’s politicians and top-level management.[6] Researchers warn that emissions are increasing dramatically and should be cut by 45 per cent by 2030.[7] In its attempts to incentivize the transformation of their oil economy to a sustainable knowledge economy, the notion of a “green shift” has become Norway’s key slogan. Support systems are in place for Norwegian companies to develop and promote smarter and cleaner energy technologies internationally, including in the Gulf. However, although diversification of the UAE energy mix towards renewables seems to present a good opportunity for Nordic clean technologies, more than a hundred Norwegian companies are active in the conventional oil and gas sector here, but only few in the renewable energy and green business sector. 

Sustainable Desert?

During my research visits at Nordic companies in the Gulf in 2018 it did not take long to realize that before turning to business cooperation within smart and sustainable technologies, be it among Emiratis or Norwegians, it is necessary to understand local perceptions of sustainability, energy, oil, and well-being.

In the course of my research, I became aware that the desert embodies the sustainability narrative in the UAE: it was in a tent set in the desert in 1960 that the nation’s founding fathers decided to build a world class, developed country.[8] The optimism to transform the seven emirates—heretofore “governed by a tribal system and plagued by a lack of education into a unified, modern, educated nation”[9]—was based on recently discovered oil and gas.

My fieldwork started with the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, which was part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2018. There was a broad range of topics covering future energy solutions, which attracted more than 30,000 visitors from 170 countries. I was told that the UAE produces one of the highest per capita waste quantities in the world and has among the highest per capita consumption of energy. Thus, in addition to energy transition sessions, I chose to attend one session on issues dealing with waste and energy where most of the audience was youth. The keynote speaker opened the floor with a question: “How many of you know what the green economy is?” No one replied. The keynote carried on: “What can we do when a landfill is full?” A couple of students answered: “Make a new one.” While panel discussions targeting energy transition in the Gulf reflected high awareness of sustainable energy, the specific concept of green economy seemed to be strange for the general public, including the youth.

Soon afterwards I participated to a workshop in Dubai, which was organized for Norwegian companies to explore business opportunities at the upcoming Expo 2020 in Dubai. Sustainability was presented as one of the three main themes. To house those sustainability businesses from all over the world a huge Sustainability Pavilion will be erected in the desert, which would generate its own power, process its own water and waste, and run almost independently from the grid. Sustainability consultants were hired to look for alternative sources of energy to run the pavilion and to show the variety of green plants available in the UAE. Through the windows of the Expo Dubai headquarters, I could see no plants, no roads, no colours other than sand-yellow: just an endless desert landscape and excavators. Exhibits of coral reefs, mangroves, and oases that were supposed to be in place to showcase how the UAE’s natural environment might inspire ideas for sustainability and the green economy seemed like an impossibility. What would be the costs to the environment to make this possible, I wondered.

Leading by Example and Water Scarcity

“Is it possible to grow vegetables in the desert?” I asked an Emirati farmer while discussing the competitive advantages of Nordic technologies for sustainable desert farming. “We have the example of a leader,” he replied:


          Sheikh Zayed got experts from Japan, America, Europe. He asked them for advice on how to grow this area green. They told him it’s not possible due to extreme heat, salty soil, and lack of water. After 20 years, when the UAE had an agricultural exhibition, he told the organizers to invite those experts again. They took them to the farms and to the green belts around the desert. He showed them what he had made. It was an expensive choice, but he had made it.


Inspired by this example, the farmer plans to develop thousands of square meters large vegetable farm and fish pond in the desert to contribute to food security. Technology that one Nordic start-up can offer to turn desert sand into fertile farming soil could be helpful in his endeavour. It has developed technology that can green the desert and cut the associated irrigation need by 50 per cent. The start-up has established its presence in the UAE and has received regional innovation prizes for its technology and believes this recognition could open the doors for business with farmers and golf club owners in the Gulf.

While limiting emissions through innovations in renewable energy and clean technology is a main driver for mitigating climate change, adaptation work focuses on water scarcity.[10] Interestingly, technology developed by this Nordic start-up addresses both these key issues. Their technology also has direct impact on 8 of the 17 UN sustainability goals. However, after being active and present in the Gulf for more than a year their product is not in the market yet. As for several other ambitious Nordic start-ups, matching supply with the local demand has turned out to be a time- and investment consuming process.

Research shows that water scarcity is a fundamental problem in the UAE – groundwater reserves are depleting at alarming rates not only by the impacts of climate change but also as result of overconsumption. These challenges are born of a mix of environmental, socio-cultural economic, and political conditions, such as high levels of per capita water and energy consumption and an increasing population.[11] By relying on desalination, locals tend to envision an idea of “water’s infinity,” regardless of its actual scarcity.[12] It has been estimated that the energy-intensive desalination processes cost the UAE about $18 million a day, but despite the challenges of fresh water production, the UAE has the highest per capita use of water.[13] Moreover, some estimates say that local water use might contribute 9 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year.[14]

Technology That Does Not Count

The events surrounding the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi were significant not only for my own understanding of local sustainability perceptions and prospects for Nordic clean tech start-ups in the Gulf, but also for a major player in the international energy business—Norwegian Statoil[15]. During the summit in 2017, Statoil signed a cooperation agreement with Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, over renewable energy development in Scotland. Hywind Scotland was to be the world’s first commercial-scale floating wind farm off the coast of Aberdeen. At the summit in 2018, they announced extension of their cooperation at Hywind.

Masdar and Statoil’s strategic partnership to pursue joint offshore wind projects was a success story for both companies and a significant step for these two oil economies in terms of diversifying energy resources. However, business in the renewable energy sector was not what Statoil primarily had hoped for when entering the UAE in 2010. At that time, Norwegian offshore technology was estimated to be 60 per cent less carbon intensive than the world average, and Statoil strongly believed their technological competence was a significant factor that gave them a competitive advantage. However, in 2018 when ADNOC[16] offered six oil and gas concessions for bidding, the first time ever offering major onshore and offshore blocks in a competitive round, Statoil was not among the companies to enter into agreements that would grant business development in the Abu Dhabi oil and gas sector for the next 40 years. Of note here is that Abu Dhabi has about 6 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves, containing multiple billions of barrels of oil and multiple trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

If Statoil’s technology can extract more oil in a more “environmentally friendly” way, if they can deploy carbon capture and storage to prevent carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, and use electric instead of gas turbines, why did their proven environmental technologies not open the door to a country that has one of the highest levels per capita of CO2 emissions in the world? Speculation in the Nordic business milieu was intense. Some agreed with Statoil’s explanation about UAE’s focus on commercial aspects rather than technological areas; some believed that Statoil’s technology was too advanced for the region; and others felt that ADNOC wanted to keep the business for themselves. The majority, however, speculated that important relationships were not properly considered: the UAE is known not only as an oil economy but also as a relational economy, where relationships come before business.

First Conclusions

After 25 visits to Nordic companies in the UAE and Bahrain during 2016 and 2018 as part of my research to understand how they succeed in entering the emerging smart tech and energy market in the Gulf, I have come to realize that managing relations and negotiating understandings of sustainability and models of development towards a greener economy is a core issue.

As Gunnel[17] observes, the imagined infinity of wealth in the region risks engendering the illusion that it is possible to revive the desert and construct water infrastructure as necessary through a seemingly ever-expanding oil economy. However, oil extraction is itself a water-intensive process, and as oil resources are decreasing more water is used in oil production processes, which in turn produces waste water that needs to be cleaned. Local narratives about a transformed, sustainable desert seem to be detached from the fossil fuel optimism that made these transformations possible.

Insights into the cases of Start-up and Statoil show that technological solutions alone cannot deal with resource scarcity, be it of water or oil, as long as there are divergent perceptions of sustainability and a refusal to believe in the limitations of ecosystems.

If we are to move further on smart energy business development, it is vital that we develop a better understanding of how sociocultural and political factors influence the use of energy resources, of how perceptions of sustainability are negotiated and reinterpreted, and of how such factors shape the ways in which oil economies articulate and act upon sustainability problems. Research aimed at adapting current energy technologies into more sustainable ones requires to bridge the gap between social sciences and technology, and to show the links between contemporary cultures, technologies, and economic actions.



[1] Social anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Business, Management and Economics at the University of Latvia. Applied research project “Smart Energy in Intercultural Contexts: Nordic and Middle East Business Interactions in the Name of Sustainability” carried out in cooperation with the University of Bergen (Norway) and Nordic Innovation Hub (UAE), funded by the ERDF. Special thanks for critical comments to Dr.Mari Luomi.

[2] Abdel Raouf M., Luomi M.2016. Introduction. The Green Economy in the Gulf. Routledge. London, New York.

[3] Gulf Cooperation Council

[4] Ca 72 billion EUR

[5] Al Maktum, M.B.R 2017:149. Reflections on Happiness & Positivity. Explorer Publishing. Dubai.



[8] Al Maktum, M.B.R 2017. Reflections on Happiness & Positivity. Explorer Publishing. Dubai.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gunel G. 2016. The Infinity of Water: Climate Change Adaptation in the Arabian Peninsula. Public Culture 28:2. Duke University Press.

[11] Gunel 2016 (ibid.); Ahmed M., Al-Jabri A., Choudri B.S. 2016. Green challenges and some technological solutions in the water sector of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. In Abdel Raouf M., Luomi M.2016. Introduction. The Green Economy in the Gulf. Routledge. London, New York.

[12] Gunel 2016 (ibid.).

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Abu Dhabi Water Resources Master Plan (2009), Gunel 2016.

[15] As from May 2018 Equinor.

[16] Abu Dhabi National Oil Company

[17] Gunel G. 2016. The Infinity of Water: Climate Change Adaptation in the Arabian Peninsula. Public Culture 28:2. Duke University Press.

Doctoriales transdisciplinaires des ressources

crédit: N. Ortar, road 66, Arizona,
crédit: N. Ortar, road 66, Arizona,
Crédit: N. Ortar, road 66, Arizona 2011

Appel à communications
Paris, le 29 mars 2019

Les tensions entre différents acteurs – États, entreprises, groupes sociaux – pour la maîtrise et l’usage des processus d’extraction, de transformation et de consommation des ressources ont constitué des enjeux majeurs au XX e siècle.
Les chercheurs en sciences humaines et sociales se sont saisis de cette thématique et l’ont interrogée à travers de nombreux prismes. S’est ainsi constitué un corpus théorique allant de la notion de pic de production des matières premières (King Hubbert, 1956) à celle de rareté des ressources environnementales (Homer-Dixon, 1999), en passant par des questionnements sur la régulation sociale des ressources (Bridge, 2000). Aujourd’hui, à l’heure de la transition énergétique et de l’importance croissante des préoccupations environnementales, au niveau local comme à l’échelle globale, il apparaît important de poursuivre les réflexions sur la notion de ressource et les processus de gouvernance associés (Collier et Venables, 2010).
Dans le secteur de l’énergie, la découverte et l’exploitation de ressources fossiles non conventionnelles (comme le gaz de schiste) ont permis d’augmenter les réserves connues. Toutefois, ces nouvelles formes d’exploitation sont contestées par un certain nombre d’acteurs en raison de leurs impacts environnementaux (Soeder & Kent, 2018). De même, la production des terres rares qui sont nécessaires aux outils de la transition énergétique n’a pas été pensée de manière durable et a causé le rejet de nombreux éléments toxiques dans les sols (Golev et al. , 2014). La compétition pour les surfaces arables (Wood et al. , 2000) et la multiplication des épisodes de stress hydriques (Postel, 1992) induisent un constat similaire : les activités humaines transforment l’environnement. Ainsi, l’entrée dans l’Anthropocène (Bonneuil et Fressoz, 2016) demande de repenser l’usage des ressources et la multiplicité des relations des sociétés aux matières présentes dans leur environnement.

L’échec à mettre en œuvre les accords de Paris montre la difficile adéquation entre l’impératif environnemental et celui de la croissance économique (Clémençon, 2016 ; Poupeau, 2013 ; Vermander, 2007). L’appropriation des concepts de développement durable, de transition énergétique, d’économie circulaire par les acteurs politiques et économiques amène cependant à s’interroger sur leur signification concrète et leur mise en œuvre. Le déploiement d’énergies bas carbones, impliquant une importante consommation en minerais et en énergie pour extraire ces mêmes minerais (ANCRE, 2015) ne menace-t-il pas l’objectif de limitation à deux degrés préconisé par le rapport du Groupe d’Experts Intergouvernemental sur l’Evolution du Climat (IPCC, 2018) ?
Il est nécessaire que les chercheurs en sciences humaines et sociales continuent à se saisir de tels questionnements, qui interrogent les relations des sociétés à leur environnement, mais aussi le sens même de la notion de ressource. En effet, en tant que construction sociale (Raffestin, 1980 ; Magrin et al. , 2015), les ressources font appel à des représentations, des usages et des espaces variés. Dans ce cadre, cette journée d’étude appelle à une réflexion transdisciplinaire et à mettre en lumière une diversité d’approches méthodologiques sur la question.

Modalités de participation :
Les doctorant(e)s intéressé(e)s à participer à cette journée, qui aura lieu à Paris, en tant que panélistes sont priés de faire parvenir leur(s) proposition(s) de communication avant le 30 janvier 2019 à l’adresse en prenant soin d’indiquer :
• Le nom de l’auteur(e) (ou des auteur(e)s) ;
• L’affiliation institutionnelle et l’adresse électronique de l’auteur(e) (ou des
auteur(e)s) ;
• Le titre et le résumé de la communication (en 250 mots).
Une attention particulière sera portée aux propositions mettant en avant des approches transdisciplinaires et un partage méthodologique.


Comité d’organisation : Recherches-Ressources

  • Sarah Adjel , Sorbonne Identités Relations Internationales et Civilisations de l’Europe (SIRICE), Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
  • Raphaël Danino-Perraud , Laboratoire d’Economie d’Orléans (LEO), Université d’Orléans
  • David Juilien , Institut Français de Géopolitique (IFG), Université Paris 8
  • Angélique Palle , UMR 8586 Prodig, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
  • Sami Ramdani , Institut Français de Géopolitique (IFG), Université Paris 8
  • Wahel Rashid , Institut Français de Géopolitique (IFG), Université Paris 8
  • Noémie Rebière , Institut Français de Géopolitique (IFG), Université Paris 8
  • Audrey Sérandour , UMR 8586 Prodig, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Bibliographie :

Alliance Nationale de Coordination de la Recherche pour l’Energie (ANCRE) (2015), « Ressources minérales et énergie, Rapport du groupe “Sol et sous-sol” de l’Alliance Ancre », 75 pages.
Bonneuil Christophe et Fressoz Jean-Baptiste, L’Événement anthropocène. La Terre, l’histoire et nous: La Terre, l’histoire et nous , Paris, Points, 2016, 281 pages.
Bridge G. (2000), « The social regulation of resource access and environmental impact: production, nature and contradiction in the US copper industry », Geoforum , n°31, pp. 237-256.
Clémençon R. (2016), « The two sides of the Paris Climate Agreement: Dismal failure or historic breakthrough », Journal of Environment & Development , 25 (1), pp. 3 – 24.
Collier P., Venables A.J. (2010), « Natural resources and state fragility », EU Working Papers 36, Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies (RCAS), European Report on development, 28 pages
Golev A., Scott M., Erskine P.D., Ali S.H., Ballantyne G.R. (2014), « Rare earths supply chains: Current status, constraints and opportunities », Resources Policy, 41 (1) , pp. 52-59.

Homer-Dixon F.T. (1999), Environment, scarcity and violence , Princeton University Press, 272 pages.
IPCC (2018), « Summary for Policymakers. In: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty » [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 32 pages.
King.H (1956), « Nuclear energy and the fossil fuels », Drilling and production practice , Presented before the Spring Meeting of the Southern District, American Petroleum Institute, Plaza Hotel, San Antonio, Texas.
Magrin G., Chauvin E., Perrier Bruslé L., Lavie E., Redon M. (2015), «Introduction. Les ressources, enjeux géographiques d’un objet pluriel », dans Redon M., Magrin G., Chauvin E., Perrier Bruslé L., Lavie E., Ressources mondialisées. Essais de géographie politique . Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, pp. 5-23.
Postel S. (1992), Last oasis facing water scarcity , Earsthscan, 239 pages.
Poupeau F. (2013), « La Bolivie entre Pachamama et modèle extractiviste », Ecologie & politique , 2013/1, n° 46, pp. 109-119.
Raffestin C. (1980), Pour une géographie du pouvoir . Paris, Librairies techniques, 249 pages.
Soeder J.D., Kent B.D. (2018), « When oil and water mix : Understanding the environmental impacts of shale development », The Geological Society of America , 28 (9), pp. 4-10.
Vermander B. (2007), Chine brune ou Chine verte ? Les dilemmes de l’État-Parti , Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 212 pages.
Wood S., Sebastian K., Scherr J.S. (2000), Pilot analysis of global ecosystems , Washington D.C., World Resources Institute, pp. 17-31.

Peer review of an anonymous Energy Humanities paper – by Laura Watts

Peer review of an anonymous Energy Humanities paper

Laura Watts

IT University of Copenhagen


The following is based on my comments made at the Energy Impacts Roundtable, Bergen, 2017.


This was, as ever, a delightful paper to read; more research into social, cultural, and material relations with energy is always welcome. However, I do have some comments for the editors and authors to reflect on before publication.

First, there are moments when I feel the author is not sufficiently familiar with the language of their fieldsite and research location. There is some confusion in the difference between energy (measured in Joules), electricity (generally measured in Kilowatthours), and power (measured in Watts). These are not the same, but they are related and their relationship matters. Understanding how electricity is generated from energy (stored in ‘natural’ resources), how it is transmitted through a variety of Potential Differences (or Voltages) across different parts of the electrical network, and how it is measured and calculated (in Kilowatthours) through metering and tariffing is crucial to understanding the problems that engineers and policy must address. It generally behoves any researcher to learn something of the language of their fieldsite, and energy systems are no different.

It should also be remembered that energy is not a universal language. There are substantial differences across energy industries (photovoltaics, coal, nuclear, wind, tide etc.), across regions (compare USA with Denmark, for example), and even across local communities– remembering that electricity networks provide more capacity to some places than others. The histories and futures of both electricity grid infrastructure and tariffing are very diverse, and therefore pessimism or optimism in one region does not translate into a global trend.

Second, the author should be cautious not to repeat prior work, but instead refer to literature they might regard as outside their discipline or usual citation. Social, cultural and material studies of energy have been ongoing for many decades in other fields, particularly in Science and Technology Studies (STS), and there are long-standing overlaps between geography, anthropology and other humanities. Energy Humanities is an interdisciplinary field, in my experience, tacking back and forth over energetic seas.

Just to give a few examples of relevant literature the author might want to draw upon to strengthen their argument. Studies of infrastructure as a social, technical and environmental relation seems a core resource, with perhaps the most important work being Susan Leigh Star’s Ethnography of Infrastructures [1]. Her attention is political, on mundane and invisible work, on maintenance and the unsung labours that hold an infrastructure together so that it can endure over time.

Following on, the author might want to draw on Ashley Carse’s work on the Panama Canal, which explores the environment and local forest communities integral to the infrastructure [2]. Or Nicole Starosielski’s work to trace and problematise the practices in undersea cable networks that transmit internet data– work that resonates with electricity grid transmission [3].  The author might also explore prior research in the Public Understanding of Science around nuclear energy (e.g. work by Brian Wynne), which reflects on how publics are made and participate, or not, as experts in energy futures [4].

Third, the author should be cautious not to repeat the technological determinism that comes with the energy industry, nor the associated binary division between social/user and technical/infrastructure. Can they attend to how they ‘cut’ the problem of energy, or in classic ethnographic terms, how they make their fieldsite of energy [5].

When reading the paper, I was concerned that the author sometimes borrows, uncritically, the categories of ‘consumer’ and ‘producer’ (as well as the industry favourite, ‘prosumer’) without reflecting on the implications. To give two examples in the paper, which I feel warrant closer and more critical work:

One, in discussions with the energy operator, ‘people’ were always reduced to ‘consumers’ or ‘prosumers’, which reduces their social and cultural relationship with energy to a number e.g. to the Kilowatthours consumed or produced [6]. This tends to make invisible the richness of social and cultural relations with energy, both within the industry and in the home. Indeed, this reductionism risks losing much that anthropology and the social sciences has to say about people’s relations with energy, including new concepts and approaches they might offer to the energy industry.

Two, and this is somewhat related, in the discussion on Smart Meters (and smart energy apps) the paper could take a moment to reflect on the reduction of people to a number on the meter that must be audited and managed. This, again, risks losing sight of the diverse relations people have with energy [7]. To offer a suggestion, I would welcome a more intersectional, and multi-species, account of energy relations [8].

Finally, and most importantly, there is the question of what world the author hopes to generate through writing this paper. With so much at stake in energy futures, whether that be anthropogenic climate change or colonialism through extraction, it feels as if the author needs to take a breath and ask: what world does this paper make possible, and what world does it resist?

I particularly want to point to the problem with critique, and repeat an old argument made by Donna Haraway (and in a different vein by Bruno Latour): when we describe, unchanged, what we wish to critique we are also re-inscribing it and making it travel [9]. In short, all our descriptions of energy relations, and energy systems, are political and they tell the world one way, and not another. There is no pure description, only a political account that is located, and the author must choose its politics. Will the writing reproduce hierarchical orders, colonial stories, and give power to the already privileged? Or will the paper work to write against the grain, to resist privilege, to re-situate power, to give voice to those often silenced? (And this can be within companies and inside industrial communities, of course.)

Moreover, the resources that the author draws on also require attention because they, too, come with their own histories and politics that will cling to their argument; to quote Marilyn Strathern, “it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas [with]” [10]. In short, does the author intend to support the dystopian future of the energy multinational, which they describe in detail?

My comments are not intended to be daunting or frustrating to the author, rather to recognise their power as an academic to make a difference in the world. Here are two practical methods the author might draw on as alternatives.

One, Haraway suggests recognising how knowledge-making is both an empirical and creative practice. This should be familiar to any researcher: you have fragments of evidence that you must work to weave together. Haraway gives the researcher the potential to use this inherent creativity to a greater or lesser extent. From the careful, and always critically informed, retelling of their energy fieldsite, all the way to writing energy science fictions–all are Speculative Futures [11].

An alternative method, two, is to explore and experiment with writing style and public engagement. This may be too challenging to the author, or inappropriate to their audience, so this is a reminder not a requirement. As inspiration, I offer Anna Tsing and Elizabeth Pollman’s Global Futures card game [12], Sara Wylie’s work with citizen scientists around toxins and natural gas extraction [13], and Max Liboiron’s work to enact critical feminist politics in a citizen science laboratory that monitors ocean plastic [14]. Both games and civic laboratories are making futures otherwise, through creating and participating in their fieldsites otherwise [15]. And I regard publishing papers as no less an engagement in what futures can be.

I very much look forward to reading a revised version of this paper, and to its eventual publication. To close with some final words to propel the author: “it matters what matters we use to think other matters with… It matters what stories make worlds” [16]. I have no doubt that this author’s paper, and its engagement, will be one that others will think with, and will make new energy futures with.



[1] Star, Susan Leigh (1999) The Ethnography of Infrastructures. American Behavioral Scientists 43(3): 377–91.

[2] Carse, Ashley (2012) Nature as infrastructure: Making and managing the Panama Canal watershed. Social Studies of Science 42(4): 539–563.

[3] Starosielski, Nicole (2015) The Undersea Network. Durham ; London: Duke University Press.

[4] Wynne, Brian (2010 [1982]) Rationality and Ritual: Participation and Exclusion in Nuclear Decision-making, 2nd edition. London : Earthscan, Routledge.

[5] When talking about ‘cutting’ out energy and the work needed to locate a fieldsite I am referring to: Gupta, A and Ferguson, J (1997) Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press; Strathern, Marilyn (1996) Cutting the network. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2(3): 517–535.

[6] For the classic discussion on the production of numbers from social groups see: Porter, Theodore M. (1996) Trust in Numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[7] For a discussion of auditing in another domain see: Strathern, Marilyn (2000) Audit cultures: anthropological studies in accountability, ethics, and the academy. London: Routledge.

[8] Intersectionality is an approach developed in feminist studies to understand how identity is not singular nor a priori, but dynamically intersects between groups see: Crenshaw, Kimberle (1991) Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review 43(6): 1241–1299. For a discussion of multi-species infrastructure see: Morita, Atsuro (2016) Multispecies Infrastructure: Infrastructural Inversion and Involutionary Entanglements in the Chao Phraya Delta, Thailand. Ethnos: 1–20.

[9] Haraway, Donna J. (1994) A Game of Cat’s Cradle: Science Studies, Feminist Theory, Cultural Studies. Configurations 2(1): 59–71. Latour, Bruno (2004) Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter): 225–248.

[10] Strathern, Marilyn (1992) Reproducing the future: essays on anthropology, kinship and the new reproductive technologies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp.10.

[11] Haraway, Donna J. (2016) Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

[12] Tsing, Anna and Pollman, Elizabeth (2005) Global Futures: The Game, in Rosenberg, D and Harding, S (eds), Histories of the Future, Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 107–122.

[13] Wylie, S., Jalbert, K., Dosemagen, S., Ratto, M. (2014) Institutions for Civic Technoscience: How Critical Making is Transforming Environmental Research. The Information Society 30(2): 116–126.

[14] Liboiron, Max (2016) Civic Technologies for Monitoring Marine Plastics. Journal of Ocean Technology 11(2).

[15] Also see both: Watts, Laura (2017) The Draukie’s Tale: Origin Myth for Wave Energy, in Szeman, I. and Boyer, D. (eds), Energy Humanities: An Anthology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Watts, Laura (2014) Liminal Futures: A Poem for Islands at the Edge. In Leach, J. and Wilson, L. (eds.) Subversion, conversion, development: Cross-Cultural Knowledge Exchange and the Politics of Design, Cambridge: MIT Press.

[16] Haraway, Donna (2013) SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. Available from

Moving with Energy from Periphery to Center of Society – by Ståle Knudsen

I was asked to talk about my research agenda related to energy issues, especially “what I will or would like to study in the near future” and “what should be studied”. Well, this is easy to answer when it comes to the near future as I am currently leading the project Energethics  which explores how Norwegian energy companies handle Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) when they operate abroad. Much previous research has stressed the way in which CSR has been used as a tool, especially by extractive industries, to bypass the state. Our research asks whether CSR is done differently when the corporations are partly or fully state-owned and embedded in a ‘Nordic model’. While we focus on different kinds of energy production in seven countries, we also research management in Norwegian headquarters as well as at other important sites, such as Statoil’s London office. Ultimately the project addresses issues of globalization and neoliberalization. Our multicited approach to the ‘flow’, negotiation and localization of CSR provides a way to study larger processes comparatively.

Neoliberalization in energy policies

In the longer term I want to explore further the role of neoliberalization in energy policies. I have started to work comparatively on this with a focus on Turkey. Based on my earlier work on fishers, fishery management, introduced species, complemented with current research on energy and irrigation, I have started to sketch a discussion of neo-liberalism’s manifold impacts on the environment in Turkey. Combining ethnographic work with other methods, this study will compare the extent to which neoliberal ideas and practices have been implemented in four different sectors – energy, fisheries, agriculture, and the management of biodiversity. I explore and compare the role of the material, the state, international institutions and popular protests amongst other issues, in creating different dynamics in each field. A preliminary analysis of this material indicates that state policy and neoliberal instruments are deployed differently in the energy sector than in other sectors surveyed. Why? Well, to simplify, because the state has different interests in the different sectors. While fisheries and agriculture no longer play a central role to the Turkish political economy, energy has moved to its core. Energy is considered central to the working of society, and a major concern and focus of state policies. Thus, concurrently, moving the attention of the anthropological gaze to energy also means moving ethnography from the margins to the center of society, from periphery to energy/power. This resonates, of course, with recent work on energy (Mitchell 2011) and makes, in certain respects, anthropology more relevant.

New research agendas

Then, what should we study? I suggest that anthropology should direct more, though not exclusive, attention on:

  • Energy corporations. Little anthropological work has been done inside of energy corporations. I disagree with the claim that since ethnographers have a tendency “to emphasize and identify with their subjects” they risk cooptation when doing fieldwork in corporate offices (Benson and Kirsch 2010:464). I think our methods and critical stance is robust enough to handle that challenge, which – by the way – should not be considered unique to studies of corporations. We should be able to distinguish empathy for informants from sympathy for corporations.
  • State regulatory bodies have central roles in the way production, distribution and consumption of energy are managed in most societies. They are key arenas for implementing policy changes, making it important to explore further the interface between policy, corporations and citizens.
  • Infrastructure has recently attracted (re-)new(ed) interest among anthropologists, and studies emphasize the way in which energy, technology and politics are intertwined. I think, however, time is ripe for comparative studies that explore how different types of energy, with different materialities, engender – or interacts with – certain technologies and polities to produce a range of qualitatively different networks or systems with different potentialities.

Methodological challenges

Research of all of the abovementioned issues comes with methodological challenges. Often, the classical anthropological method of ‘hanging out’ with people over time will not work. This can be because access to corporations or regulatory bodies is difficult due to the organizations’ high degree of concern about managing public knowledge of them, and the anthropologists’ lack of bargaining power in such situations – we do not have much of interest to offer. Usually, the anthropologist will not have been able to delve deep into the life of the corporation before being kicked out: the corporation often has little interest in the anthropologist’s work, and the anthropologist little to offer in return. The ethnographer will often be considered a nuisance.[1] Additionally, the character of the relations we study impels us to work in many sites simultaneously. This involves travels, more semi-structured interviews than participation, non-continuous involvement with our interlocutors, actively create platforms for interaction, mapping infrastructures of extensive geographical extent or opaque character, and being present at or attending activities that involve alternative forms of sociality (social media, websites, documents, skype-meetings). If we bringe our critical sensibilities to these issues while developing new tools and cultivating teamwork, I believe that anthropology can handle these challenges very cautiously, wisely and creatively.


Benson, Peter and Stuart Kirsch (2010) ‘Capitalism and the Politics of resignation’, Current Anthropology 51(4): 459-476.

Mitchell, Timothy (2011) Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso.

[1] Steven Sampson, Department Seminar, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.

Epistemological and empirical challenges of investigating energy – by Felix Ringel

Anti-wind turbine stickers in Bremerhaven, March 2017

The invitation to this roundtable asked presenters to introduce their own work, show how it relates to energy, and discuss one further aspect of the anthropology of energy, in my case the specific epistemological and empirical challenges of studying energy as an anthropologist. This should raise concerns and questions around fieldwork and methods, and the kind of anthropological knowledge that can be generated when investigating energy.

In response, I here reflect on two questions that, I believe, are at stake in this debate: 1) What can anthropology contribute to interdisciplinary energy studies? 2) How, in turn, can anthropology benefit from taking energy on board? I claim that anthropology contributes not just ‘the social’ to a broader understanding of the role energy plays in the 21st century, but also offers much needed theoretical, analytical and methodological scrutiny and rigor. Similarly, anthropology does not only benefit empirically from studying energy by including an important aspect of reality into its research agenda. It also benefits conceptually by transforming topical and interdisciplinary inspirations into instruments of its analytical toolkit. However, beyond these conceptual concerns, there is undoubtedly an immediate empirical need to study energy because of the changes and challenges in the energy sector, which are having a dramatic impact on contemporary life.

Studying Energy: From Renewable Energies to Urban Sustainability

In my recent work, I have conducted 12 months of fieldwork over the course of three years in Bremerhaven, the centre of Germany’s offshore wind industry. I studied the wholesale transformation of an industrial city suffering from poverty and decline to a postindustrial city that follows the logic of sustainability for its urban regeneration. Sustainability, meanwhile, does not only refer to the locally prominent field of renewable energies, but marks the aim of the transformation: whereas growth guided the development of the industrial city, sustainability aspires to crisis-resistant and stable urban futures. Accordingly, each phase in the city’s history is based on a different energy regime, and each produces specific kinds of practices, affects, subjectivities, and futures. For instance, during fieldwork I was faced with all the hopes and fears that its residents invested in renewable energies, materialized in the many rotor blades, gondolas and tripods produced in Bremerhaven for the emerging offshore windfarms in the German Bay (see picture 1). As elsewhere, in Bremerhaven energy is in more than one way an empirical force to be reckoned with (see pictures 2 and 3). What are the benefits in doing so, and what are the challenges ahead in methodological, analytical and theoretical terms?

There are, in my view, two ways of doing energy anthropology. First, there is the anthropology of energy. As laid out above, this approach responds to the growing awareness and significance of energy concerns with in-depth empirical work, following its own ethical and political imperatives and focusing on everything directly relating to energy: power, infrastructure, consumption, technology, etc. Second, particularly Dominic Boyer and Timothy Mitchell have investigated how this engagement could influence anthropology. How would an anthropology look like that is inspired by ‘energy’ conceptually as well as methodologically? Whereas the first option is well on its way, the second has not yet shown its full impact: apart from some stimulating terms (‘undercurrents’, ‘energopolitics’, ‘carbon democracy’ etc), the potential of ‘energy’ in our professional toolkit is still somewhat lacking. What might these impacts look like?

Energy, Interdisciplinarity and Scientific Self-Scrutiny

First, energy anthropology is by empirical necessity interdisciplinary. It combines and invites a variety of theoretical (and accordingly methodological) approaches: more holistic frameworks deploying insights from posthuman / multispecies / ANT / STS / ontological turns; new vitalisms taking energy seriously on a different level, examining affects / bodies / senses; new materialism in all its disguises as well as political economy and discourse theory considering issues of power, ethics and agency. Furthermore, energy anthropology also invites more reflexivity about our own discipline’s epistemic and conceptual elective affinities with disciplines such as physics and engineering, drawing attention to common 19th and 20th century roots in the conceptualization of science, knowledge, and energy. Energy studies therefore prompt anthropologists to scrutinize their own methods and concepts as well as to experiment with new ones, and at the same time to reach out to other disciplines and intellectual traditions.

Climate City Day; energy pedagogics presentation, June 2014
Climate City Day; energy pedagogics presentation, June 2014

Second, on a more conceptual level, there is currently a more fundamental shift happening – a paradigm shift, if you wish, in the ways many human beings conduct their lives, relate to one another and understand themselves and the world they are living in. The attention paid to energy, particularly to renewable energies, is part and parcel of this shift. In my fieldsite Bremerhaven, for instance, the conceptual or cultural shift of attention away from economic logics of growth towards ecological logics of sustainability is envisioned and realized in terms of offshore wind energy and the fight against climate change. Energy anthropology might provide a privileged vantage point on these broader changes. Dominic Boyer’s hopes for the current 3rd wave of the anthropology of energy seem to point in a similar direction: combining – and bringing to full force – the theoretical strands mentioned above to a clearly defined, eminent empirical phenomenon will open up new conceptual possibilities. For instance, the model of energy (following lines of thought from energy anthropology’s 1st wave) can allow new takes on ‘culture’, ‘sociality’, and – literally – ‘power’. More ecological paradigms might allow for more complexity and other forms of holism in the current studies of human life. These are just two examples of the kinds of conceptual innovation that can stem from engagements with energy.

Conclusion: Entropy / Synergy / Scrutiny

Recent scholarship has shown that energy anthropology is necessarily ecological, global, political, ethical, material, cultural, and it allows new foci in the studies of modernity, infrastructure, agency, and power, to only name a few. What the discipline of anthropology can further contribute to the overall studies of energy will have to be seen, but it will certainly include further conceptual work given the diversity of approaches already applied in the sub-discipline. The only danger I see at this moment is that – as any other conceptual hype – ‘energy’ might become an end in and of itself, embedded in networks of funding and fashion, over which scholars might lose other things out of sight. Although external factors prompt its study, anthropology should continue to scrutinise what energy contributes to its understanding of the world. This scrutiny, I hope, will give anthropology a meaningful voice in and beyond the academy in the debates surrounding energy.


Felix Ringel

“Energy without Conscience” : free course book (open access)

Energy without Conscience is now effectively a free course book.

Duke U Press has made a special deal to provide this book and a few others as open access.  In the spirit of Copy Left and Creative Commons, you may download and share the PDF from this link:


Author(s) Hughes, David McDermott
Publisher Duke University Press, Durham NC
Published 20170301
Subjects HumanitiesHistoryRegional and national history__History of the Americas
‘In Energy without Conscience’ David McDermott Hughes investigates why climate change has yet to be seen as a moral issue. He examines the forces that render the use of fossil fuels ordinary and therefore exempt from ethical evaluation. Hughes centers his analysis on Trinidad and Tobago, which is the world’s oldest petro-state, having drilled the first continuously producing oil well in 1866. Marrying historical research with interviews with Trinidadian petroleum scientists, policymakers, technicians, and managers, he draws parallels between Trinidad’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave labor energy economy and its contemporary oil industry. Hughes shows how both forms of energy rely upon a complicity that absolves producers and consumers from acknowledging the immoral nature of each. He passionately argues that like slavery, producing oil is a moral choice and that oil is at its most dangerous when it is accepted as an ordinary part of everyday life.


Keywords History
Language English
ISBN 9780822363064
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