CFP: Energy transitions: environmental and social stakes

October 10-11, 2019, Grenoble Alpes University

If the term transition can already be found in the works of 19th century and early 20th century writers such as Auguste Comte and Emile Durkeim, the concept of transition has become a canonical term at the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s (L’Âge de la transition, Bourg, Kaufman, Méda, 2016). The Transition Town Movement which grew out of the grassroots mobilization of Rob Hopkins is one striking example. The popularity of the term and of the concept of transition had Belgium philosopher Pascal Chabot say recently that it expresses “the zeitgeist of our time.”

The multiple environmental problems that we face in the 21st century have been persuading a growing number of individuals, of cities and States to question and redefine their relationship to the natural world. The advocates of the energy transition strive to put an end to fossil fuels and to ramp up renewable energies. In the US at least 80 cities, five counties and two States have pledged to commit to 100% renewable energy by 2045. Six cities (Aspen, Burlington, Georgetown, Greensburg, Rock port and Kodiak Island) have already reached this goal. The work of Mark Z. Jacobson and his Stanford University team confirms the feasibility of this transition. Their studies (2015, 2017, 2018), which develop road maps at the local, regional and national level, have shown how 139 countries (2017) and 53 cities (2018) can transition to 100% renewable energies by 2050.

The energy transition is usually presented in a positive way: renewable energies are clean, sustainable, job-creating and have a positive impact on our health and on the environment. This gives rise to an optimistic and enthusiastic narrative which opens up the field of possibles to individuals, organizations and institutions who are nonetheless conscious of the challenges that lie ahead. Life Cycle Analyses comfort these narratives. A recent study shows that in terms of pollution there is no match between fossil fuels and renewable energies: “Replacing fossil fuel power plants with renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal power, would reduce diverse types of pollution. The magnitude of difference in pollution between fossil and some renewable energy options is stunning” (Gibon, Hertwich, Arvesen, Singh, Verones, 2017). Because the results of this study do not stand alone, we can safely conclude that the social and environmental benefits of renewables are important.

Yet, this positive discourse tends to leave behind a whole segment of the energy transition. The example of Rare Earth Elements, these materials used notably in the green-tech industry, is telling: “Currently, rare earths elements are mined and processed in ways that generate tremendous harm to surrounding environs and their inhabitants… Cancers, birth defects, and the decomposition of living people’s musculoskeletal systems: these constitute an epidemiological crisis affecting some two million people in northern China… Southern California, Malaysia, and Central Asia.” (Julie M. Klinger, Rare Earth Frontiers, 2017) Furthermore, the work of French environmental historian Jean-Baptiste Frezzoz shows that there has never been such a thing as an energy transition in history (i.e. entirely giving up one source of energy for another), but that societies have rather accumulated various sources. In this respect, Frezzoz is skeptical about a total transition towards renewables and insists on the fact that leaving fossil fuels in the ground represents an unprecedented challenge. The advocates of the energy transition do not take into account the whole socio-environmental narrative and only focus on the successes of the transition. This gap in their analysis forms a breeding ground for adverse forces who have no interest in transitioning and facilitates criticism.

The gap between these two narratives opens up a space of dialogue which this conference proposes to address by investigating the multiple social and environmental stakes behind the energy transition.

Keynote: Stephanie Pincetl,  PhD, Founding Director and Professor-in Residence California Center for Sustainable Communities, UCLA

Call for papers

If the organizers themselves mostly specialize in history and environmental history, we would like to encourage scholars from different disciplines to send their proposals: history and environmental history, urban planning, geology, sociology, philosophy, geography, economy, etc. The scientific committee will particularly, yet not exclusively, welcome papers addressing some of the following issues:

  • Transition towns
  • Transition policies
  • Energy transition and environmental justice
  • Indigenous peoples and the mining industry
  • Social movements and their modes of action
  • Transition and natural resources
  • The concept of transition in history
  • The discourses of transition
  • Mining industries
  • Transition workers
  • High-tech and low-tech
  • Energy transition and the economy
  • Mining environmental disasters
  • Energy transition and environmental law

Communication proposals are to be sent as abstracts (300-400 words) to susanne.berthier@univ-grenoble-alpes.fr and christophe.roncato@univ-grenoble-alpes.fr, with a brief bio-biblio note (5-6 lines) before May 2 2019. Please indicate a professional e-mail address and your university of affiliation. Feedback from the scientific committee will be sent by May 20.

Deadline: May 2, 2019

Posted: January 25, 2019