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Large scale societal transitions in the past


  • Marina Fischer-Kowalski
  • Daniel Hausknost


WP 201 takes a historical perspective in analysing past systemic social-ecological transition processes. The research paper (MS 27) emerging from task 201.2 explores two major energy transitions of the past: the transition to the use of fossil fuels (e.g. starting with coal in the UK in the 17th century, and continuing in the rest of the world with coal and oil since). How was this transition linked to major institutional transformations, frequently paved by revolutions? We statistically demonstrate how similar processes occurred in many countries, and accellerated over time. In contrast to more common approaches, we do not focus on the introduction of particular technologies, but on the gradual substitution of biomass as the key source of energy by fossil fuels, and also on the increase in the amount of economically available energy. Beyond the common indicator TPES (total primary energy supply) we use and expand our historical database that countains the indicator DEC (domestic energy consumption). DEC encompasses, beyond TPES, also the energy converted by human and animal nutritional intake. We analyse the role of revolutions for the respective energy transition statistically and are able to identify statistical breaks in population growth, energy consumption and economic growth linked to the occurrence of revolutions. We compare trajectories of European and Non-European countries, and we compare countries in which the transition to the use of fossil fuels was marked by revolutionary processes with countries where this was not the case. Particular attention is paid to the phase of the transition in which revolutions have occurred, and the impact this shock had on the further course of the energy transition and on economic growth. The second marked transition analyzed occurred in the mature industrial economies in the early 1970s, in association with the first and second oil price shocks. In practically all mature industrial countries, there was triggered a termination of the steep incline of metabolic rates in favour of a fairly stable per capita level of energy and materials consumption, while economic growth continued. We investigate the policy responses in key policy areas coping with these "shocks" and achieving a reduction of biophysical growth while maintaining growth in the economy and employment. We employ a number of different methods for this analysis: we investigate long time series data statistically to explore at what time and in what sequence certain trends changed. On the other hand, we explore policy analysis literature for a number of countries qualitatively. Finally, we synthesize what can be learned from such macro societal transitions: what role do external shocks, structural change and energy policies play? Which lessons are to be learnt from past transitions in order to be in a better position to manage the transition ahead of us?

Suggested Citation

  • Marina Fischer-Kowalski & Daniel Hausknost, 2014. "Large scale societal transitions in the past," WWWforEurope Working Papers series 55, WWWforEurope.
  • Handle: RePEc:feu:wfewop:y:2014:m:3:d:0:i:55

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Schandl, Heinz & Schulz, Niels, 2002. "Changes in the United Kingdom's natural relations in terms of society's metabolism and land-use from 1850 to the present day," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 41(2), pages 203-221, May.
    2. Gales, Ben & Kander, Astrid & Malanima, Paolo & Rubio, Mar, 2007. "North versus South: Energy transition and energy intensity in Europe over 200 years," European Review of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 11(02), pages 219-253, August.
    3. Fouquet, Roger, 2010. "The slow search for solutions: Lessons from historical energy transitions by sector and service," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 38(11), pages 6586-6596, November.
    4. Colitti, Marcello & Baronti, Paolo, 1981. "Energy policies of industrialized countries," Energy, Elsevier, vol. 6(3), pages 233-262.
    5. Tainter, Joseph A. & Allen, T.F.H. & Hoekstra, T.W., 2006. "Energy transformations and post-normal science," Energy, Elsevier, vol. 31(1), pages 44-58.
    6. Krausmann, Fridolin & Gingrich, Simone & Eisenmenger, Nina & Erb, Karl-Heinz & Haberl, Helmut & Fischer-Kowalski, Marina, 2009. "Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 68(10), pages 2696-2705, August.
    7. Steinberger, Julia K. & Krausmann, Fridolin & Eisenmenger, Nina, 2010. "Global patterns of materials use: A socioeconomic and geophysical analysis," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 69(5), pages 1148-1158, March.
    8. Krausmann, Fridolin & Schandl, Heinz & Sieferle, Rolf Peter, 2008. "Socio-ecological regime transitions in Austria and the United Kingdom," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 65(1), pages 187-201, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. repec:feu:wfedel:y:2016:m:2:d:0:i:11 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Kurt Bayer, 2015. "Institutional Set-up and Conflict Resolution. Implementation of the WWWforEurope Transition Strategy," WWWforEurope Working Papers series 99, WWWforEurope.
    3. Karl Aiginger, 2014. "Industrial Policy for a Sustainable Growth Path," WIFO Working Papers 469, WIFO.

    More about this item


    Academic research; Biophysical constraints; Demographic change; Ecological innovation; Economic growth path; Economic strategy; Energy transitions; Globalisation; Holistic and interdisciplinary approach; Industrial innovation; Industrial policy; Innovation policy; Institutional reforms; Labour markets; New technologies; Policy options; Post-industrialisation; Socio-ecological transition;

    JEL classification:

    • Q01 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - General - - - Sustainable Development
    • Q02 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - General - - - Commodity Market
    • Q28 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Renewable Resources and Conservation - - - Government Policy
    • Q32 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Nonrenewable Resources and Conservation - - - Exhaustible Resources and Economic Development
    • Q34 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Nonrenewable Resources and Conservation - - - Natural Resources and Domestic and International Conflicts
    • Q38 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Nonrenewable Resources and Conservation - - - Government Policy (includes OPEC Policy)
    • Q43 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Energy - - - Energy and the Macroeconomy
    • Q48 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Energy - - - Government Policy
    • Q5 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics

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