Energy & Power: social ontology perspectives and energy transitions

Series of Seminars. October 2015 - April 2016
Department of Culture, Politics and Society, Campus Luigi Einaudi, Turin

The socio-environmental issues that arise from the appropriation, conversion, transformation, distribution and use of energy were not the object of sociological studies for a long time, but energy is closely intertwined with the dynamics of communities. A historical analysis shows that energy sources are crucial to the organization of society, while the scale of the ongoing ecological crisis – which manifests itself mainly through climate change – has brought the issue of energy to the fore and made it a pivotal on the global political agenda.

However, the activation of a transition towards renewable energy able to mitigate climate change within a short time is surrounded by uncertainty. It is also hard to see whether this desirable energy transition will be able to redefine the power relations currently shaping the world energy networks. There is no certainty that energy will become a public good and will stop being the main commodity able to determine major financial fluctuations on a global scale, as there is no certainty about the possibility that independent and decentralized energy communities will be capable of generating free clean energy for themselves and others.

lampScenarios abound, but several aspects indicate that the transition will be hard but necessary, given the materiality of energy dynamics intertwined with socio-economic stability issues concerning wide areas of the planet; the logistics-driven mobility of goods and people; food production and price variability – as for cereals, cocoa, coffee, meat; the local and global war scenarios; and growth and degrowth related issues.
Energy is at the centre of our model of development, but to most people it is invisible, taken for granted and imperceptible; it is perceived as managed by powerful networks that capture, produce, refine, convert, distribute and supply. These centralized networks, run by powerful vertical corporations, are the main obstacle to an energy revolution, which would also require to overcome the path dependency due to the powerful socio-technical systems that are uniquely able to transform high entropy energy into low entropy energy. 


27 ottobre - Alfredo Agustoni, Università di Chieti
Sociology of Energy or energetcs sociology?

19 novembre - Jean Claude Leveque, Università di Madrid
Flat Ontology: objects, machines, and energy

18 dicembre – Alessandro Cerutti, Università di Torino
Understanding food’s thermodynamics. An introduction to system thinking

21 gennaio - Ugo Bardi, Università di Firenze
Peak Oil and Energy Transition

11 febbraio – Roberto Cantoni, Ecole des Ponts ParisTech
Not the new Kuwait: Poland's shale gas narratives from illusion to deception
In 2011, the US Energy Information Administration attributed to Poland Europe's largest reserves of shale gas. This data prompted sudden interest by a number of foreign gas companies. The Polish government initially strongly supported shale gas frenzy by adopting a neoliberal agenda centred on narratives of national energy autonomy from Russia, and on the image of Poland as a new energy titan, or a ‘new Kuwait’. However in the last two years fluctuating tax regimes and difficult geology prompted most foreign companies to leave Poland. Through a series of interviews carried out locally with representatives of oil companies, NGOs, activists and consultancy firms, I analyse the crumbling of the Polish energy autonomy dream.

24 febbraio - Osman Arrobbio, Università di Torino
Rebound effect and energy transition

23 marzo - Nicola Labanca JCR – European Commission
Complex Systems and Energy Transitions: Problems Caused by Energy and Information Reification
The seminar will propose discussing current energy transitions in the light of the insights that can be gained by an historical enquiry on instrumentality. The proposed approach allows interpreting complex systems as the result of some fundamental transformations related to how human artefacts have been conceived in Western societies. These transformations can be characterised in terms of a progressive process of disembodiment and abstraction whereby, among other things, the notions of energy, time and information have been changed into quantifiable resource units regulating all activities and functions performed by people and any other biological entity. The proposed account will offer, on the one hand, the possibility to discuss how these notions are currently framing the issue of energy sustainability within mainstream research fields and some relevant drawbacks linked to how they are used to organise societies. On the other hand, it will allow illustrating a) how energy and information have nowadays to be considered as central metaphors around which the rituals generated by complex systems are arranged and b) how complex systems tend to generate a process of dis-embedding whereby they escape social control while reinforcing a perception of resources scarcity.

27 aprile – Carmen Dayrell – University of Lancaster
The Changing Climates Project: a corpus-based investigation
Although climate change has reached a broad scientific consensus with respect to its impacts and the urgent need to take actions, global cooperation for its solution has not yet been achieved. Our research project examines the ways printed newspapers have framed climate change issues across four countries: Britain, Brazil, Germany and Italy. Our ultimate aim is to investigate the role that mass media in shaping public opinion. These countries are all major emitters of greenhouse gases but their citizens reveal different attitudes and different levels of concern towards climate-change related issues (PEW 2010; EC 2011). This paper presents the results of such cross-cultural analysis and discusses interesting differences between these countries. This paper will also discuss the methodological questions arising from combining critical discourse analysis with corpus linguistics methods to carry out a diachronic analysis across four national discourses, recounting the various stages and the reasons behind our decisions.

4 maggio – Elena Ruozzi – Università di Torino
Energy in the EU: birth of a community of legal phenomenon?
The seminar will discuss the current EU energy legislative framework taking into account two sectors of EU activity and policies : the fight against climate change on one side and the internal market on the other. As regards the first aspect, energy comes into play under several and intertwined points of view : the EU commitments in terms of GHG reduction; the promotion of the use of biomass as a clean source of energy; energy efficiency; the development of new technology for GHG reduction such as carbon capture and storage. However, the energy community the EU is trying to create is not only a “green” community but as well (especially?) an economic community, deeply concerned with competition among operators, free circulation of economic factors and consumer protection. These aspects has been dealt with through the electricity and gas directives, setting detailed rules for the functioning of the internal market, such as “unbundling” obligations , access to third parties to the grid as well as consumers’ freedom to chose the operator they wish without incurring in additional costs. These elements can be the starting point for a discussion about whether an energy community actually exists in the EU or whether energy is just a legal phenomenon falling under different, isolated EU competences.

18 maggio – Barbara Curli – Università di Torino
The "Energy for the future". Thermonuclear fusion and European integration in a historical perspective.

9 giugno – Franco Ruzzenenti – Institute of Sociology, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland
On Crude Oil and the Apeiron
In spite of electrification, digitalization, nuclear and renewable energy, IT and the WEB, is Crude Oil in the global economy and post-industrial society still the apeiron of our world?

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